Reviewer declines assignment

IMG_1591Happy to receive, happy to give? Or doesn’t it work that way any more? Why is it so hard to find people willing to referee? I’m serving as editor for a few things right now and am getting very tired of all the people that decline to review. What are you doing? Perfecting your backhand at tennis? Polishing your powerpoint for class? At happy hour? Overwhelmed with all your own work? Getting asked to review far too often? Planning to do a job that takes five hours instead of one or two? We don’t know.

The problem is that people think of the best known people first. For my study, I would like Charles Darwin himself as referee. If not him, then the person that wrote the textbook in my field. Or someone about 20 years older than me with at least a hundred publications. These people probably need to say no to guard their sanity.

So think of someone your own age or younger when you are recommending referees. There are a lot of really talented young scientists who are actually pleased when they get asked to review.

How much should you do? I would say that everyone should review about six times the number of papers they publish. If I publish 10 papers this year, then I should review 60 papers. I know you could argue that with multiple authors this could be dropped, but, still, I like the idea that everyone reviews six times their own publishing. If the paper is really hard, much math or whatever, it could count double, or even triple.

Remember also that when you review you should be kind and constructive. The authors worked hard on this work. They may  have English as a second language. They may not have had your great education. Don’t drop your standards. Just pretend this is your own child and you want to help them understand with specific comments on how to improve their paper and their study.

I sure do hope the next referee I suggest says yes! It wasn’t as if these recent ones were so old and famous, after all. We need this system that we all depend on to work.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Managing an academic career, Publishing your work, Refereeing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Reviewer declines assignment

  1. Hopi Hoekstra says:

    A good rule of thumb: Number of papers you should review per year = (the number of papers you submit per year) x 2. This is the number of people who review your papers. Keeps the system roughly at equilibrium.

    • The trouble with that rule is that it assumes your paper always gets accepted. Alas, in our world that is not the case. You do say submit, so a careful reading would come to the same conclusion. I just figure we need a little balance in the positive side of things for the new people in the system. There are a surprising number of people who publish a paper or two and then move on to something else, so they do not contribute to the referee pool. Hopi, knowing you, I’m sure you do much more than your share of this and many other kinds of service.

    • µ says:

      x2 the number of submitted manuscripts is also my guideline. Reviewing 6x the number of one’s own manuscripts seems too much. I spend an average of 2-5 hours per review, so 60 reviews per year would be nearly 1 month of work just for manuscript reviews (plus grant review, external promotion reviews, internal reviews, editing student manuscripts and student grant proposals, etc). No way.

  2. I get a lot of off-topic review requests, which is why I decline a lot. (Not from you, though; you have yet to send me something to review. That’s OK, I have enough to do 🙂

  3. A nice succinct post on an important problem! I am/have been an Associate editor on several journals (I handle 20-30 papers per year), and have the same problems. I think 16 invites is my record before I got 2 that accepted, but very often 6-8 invites are required.. It is quite frustrating when you see that someone who has published in a journal on numerous occasions frequently declines review requests in that same journal. Personally, I think another factor is that the number of review requests has increased a lot in the past 5 years or so due to the surge of new OA journals, and papers are being reviewed by more and more journals prior to acceptance, so people are simply getting more review requests than they used to. Some have recognised the increase in ‘reviewer burden’ and are devising systems to reduce it ( e.g. or systems that accept the reviews from an earlier journal e.g. Molecular Ecology -> Ecology & Evolution).

    I aim for 3x the number of papers I publish, but include editorial duties in that calculation as I very often end up doing equally as much, or more, work compared to being a ‘regular reviewer’. I am a bit selective in which papers I accept as a regular reviewer and I prioritise journals I publish in (to kind of repay for reviewing my own papers) and topics that are central to my expertise (not much time for background reading these days, although it can be rewarding). 6x just seems like too much when there are also grant apps, PhD committees etc., but maybe if extending to include reviews done by other members of my research group i.e. post docs etc. who are co-authors on the same set of annual papers (and whom I sometimes recommend as reviewers if I am unable), then maybe my research group gets close to doing 6x the number of publications in the group.

    Final comment: it helps associate editors a lot if people can suggest several alternative reviewers if you decline!

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