A few months ago, I expressed my surprise (and appreciation) for the rapid turnaround time for a paper I submitted to the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. I was "flabbergasted" that the review process only took five and a half weeks. Well, now I must be more than flabbergasted, because the (positive) review of a paper by the journal Urban Studies only took 22 days! I am one of a long list of authors on the paper, which presents some preliminary findings of a transdisciplinary research project on urban neighborhoods. Yes, 22 days after submitting the paper, it was accepted (with some minor revisions, I think).
Now I am excluding from consideration here a paper I once submitted to the journal Science, which took them only a couple of weeks to reject. But then Science has a very different review process from other journals. Manuscripts go to an editor, who skims them and decides yes or no. Most papers get a "no," and these are rejected immediately. Those that get a "yes" are then sent out for peer review. Obviously that paper didn't pass the first test (it was later published in an archaeology journal).
How can these journals review manuscripts to quickly? Most of my experience with archaeology and anthropology journals has been with reviews taking from three months to two years (I will refrain from naming the guiltiest journal here).
(1) The online submission systems obviously helps; both JAA and US have very efficient electronic journal submission and review systems, thanks to their commercial status (Elsevier and Sage, respectively).
(2) The editors or editorial staff are obviously on the ball, getting the manuscripts out quickly to reviewers. In the case of JAA, the editor managed to find reviewers who are highly qualified and relevant. I haven't seen the US reviews yet.
(3) The reviewers are obviously taking care of their duties in a timely manner.
I am not in a position to say whether there are any lessons here. Maybe journal reviewing is changing on all fronts, and my experiences merely reflect the general trend. Or maybe I happen to have found two journals here that are quick and efficient compared to others. Or perhaps these are idiosyncratic cases, a lucky combination of factors for these particular manuscripts. I suspect that there are cultural factors at play here — that is, some scholarly groups (disciplines, subdisciplines, or other thematic groups) may have a culture of speed and efficiency among editors and reviewers, while others lack such notions. But whatever it is, I think it is great and these experiences portend well for journal publishing in archaeology.