While the speed of publication in academic journals has decreased over time, delays in the review process can still cause frustration and damage the authors’ career. During the COVID-19 lockdown, scientists struggled to manage tasks and academic journals announced possible publication delays due to reduced editorial capacity. In this context, COVID-19 research has been somewhat paradoxical, due to societal and editorial pressures for fast publication. We hypothesised that given the urgency of disseminating pandemic-related information, articles on the topic would be published as a priority in 2020. We analysed the submission-to-publication time lag for 5790 articles published between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2020 in eight ecology and eight medical journals. We also analysed patterns in the gender of first and last authors. All 16 journals were international, with relatively high impact factor (between 2.34 and 36.13) and partially or fully open access. Even though articles in general took longer to get published, the speed of publication increased in 2020, as the faster review of 419 COVID-19 articles compensated for the longer submission-to-publication time lag of non-COVID-19 publications. Manuscripts in journals with a higher impact factor and only partial open access took longer to get published during the last three years. In 2020, the ratio of articles with male and female first and last authors remained similar to that in 2019, maintaining the gender bias in scientific productivity. Female scientists, especially when they are providing maternity and other primary care, need more support for their careers, such as relief from teaching duties and adjustments on assessment criteria to access research funding. We advocate that topics besides COVID-19, particularly those that could help to solve other urgent crises, should also benefit from faster publication.