Just published: already out of date.

As has been commented on many times, the publishing process for academic papers takes a long time. The consequence of this is that even when a paper has only just become available – only just been published – it is already frequently out of date. This is particularly problematic for review papers, which struggle to keep pace with research articles.

Let me show you what I mean.

This symposium on the origins of farming took place 6 – 13 March 2009. The special edition of the journal was published in October 2011. The summary of the symposium says, “All of the papers have been rewritten following the symposium to incorporate the ideas and input from our discussions.” So the papers were essentially written before the symposium – say late 2008. That’s three years for those papers to go from initial research to public publication.

This review on geoengineering was received 3 February 2009, accepted for publication 17 December 2010 and then was published online 22 March 2011. Even supposing that it was written just before it was received by the journal, that’s still over two years between writing and publication.

Why is this a problem?

Because it’s normal to assume that if it’s just been published, it’s new. Reviews also have a feeling of legitimacy and if they are outdated, or include already rebuffed criticisms of an idea, they can be unfair and/or inaccurate.

Both of these reviews point out that the subject area is a fast moving, current research area. Given that, is it right to publish a review that is 2+ years out of date? This is in many ways an inevitable paradox. As researchers we want the legitimacy of peer review for the articles we read, but neither do we want to wait two or three years for the peer review process.

But surely during this time there is an opportunity to update the article to reflect new research? With some journals having turn arounds of less than three months, I wonder how long journals with such long peer review processes will last. A recent discussion I was part of about which journal to submit to took into account the lengthy delays involved with one journal and it was discounted for that reason. Just published should mean new.