In short, 3 months. From reviewing academic forums (see here, here, and here), the general consensus among researchers appears to be 3 months (but see here and here). It is not clear where this figure came from. It may be related to the typical wait times researchers have become accustomed to. An analysis of ~3 million papers indexed in PubMed from 1981 to 2015 indicated that the median time-until-acceptance has remained consistent at around 100 days (i.e., approx. 3 months) (see here). However, any academic who has experienced inexplicably long delays will likely not be comforted by this finding. As one academic noted on ResearchGate “I had a rejection in 8 hours, an acceptance in 2 days, a rejection in 9 months, and an acceptance in 18 months” (see here), indicating the range of experiences an academic can encounter in their career.
Therefore, if after 3 months you have not heard back from the journal, it is acceptable to contact the editor and request a status update. While you may be frustrated, it is advised that you ask for this request politely (see template below).
Dear [journal editor’s name]:
This is with regard to our manuscript titled “[manuscript title]” [(Ref: manuscript reference number),] submitted to [journal name] on [date of submission] for consideration as a [article type, e.g., Original Article].
We have not received an update regarding the status of our manuscript. Could you please let us know when we can except to receive an editorial decision?
Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to hearing from you.
[author name and correspondence details]
If speed is a primary concern for you, there are some tools available to help you determine the best journal to submit to. One is SciRev, a platform on which researchers tell others about their experiences with a particular journal. Researchers provide specific quantitative data as well, which SciRev pools to provide statistics such as:
- Time until first review received
- Total handling time
- Time until desk rejection (rejection without review)
- Number of review reports received
- Quality of reviews (ranked out of 5)
- Number of rounds of review
Remember, these are only averages, and unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for certain how long a journal will take to process your paper. However, it is highly unlikely that an editor would be irritated by a request for a status update, and even more unlikely that, if they were unreasonably irritated, it would influence their processing of the paper.