Random thoughts of an editor on peer review


I have been a journal editor for over three years now, as in Editor in Chief. At present I am editor of two journals, and on the board of three others. I have reviewed for over 25 separate journals and done special issues as a guest editor for half a dozen. One of the most frustrating things about being a journal editor is dealing with the process of getting good reviews. First you have to get someone to agree, and then typically it’s a chase to get the review in. Some thoughts below and bear in mind that editors have probably committed every sin here and then some….

  1. It’s called peer review for a reason. You, putative reviewer, are the peer. If you don’t do it for them why should they do it for you?
  2. It’s good for you. This is one way to keep up with the literature. Don’t whine.
  3. Saying “i’m busy” is not a good excuse. The chances are really really high that the editor is much much busier than you.
  4. Saying “it’s not my area” is a slightly better excuse. But, it is not a good one when you have published a very closely related paper recently. And saying ‘I’m only one of the authors’ in response? That doesn’t cut it.
  5. Be open.  Unless it’s a review for the Journal of Incredible Specialization, specialists and generalists have a role to play. At least they do in social sciences, IMHO. If you are a finance professor specializing in say markov switching portfolio allocations, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have an informed view on a paper on say the role of alternative investments in portfolios, or portfolio planning for sovereign wealth funds. Specialization is for ants. Editors, especially of general journals, will try to get specialized and more general reviewers
  6. Be honest. Don’t agree to do it then not do it. We all find ourselves having at times to back out of agreements. Its much better to say “sorry, I now find I cant” than to sit mum.
  7. Be timely. Try to do it on time. You can’t complain about how long it takes a paper to be deal with if you are sitting on reviews like a dragon on its hoard.
  8. Be meaningful. A review is more than a suggestion to revise or to reject or to accept. It should be meaningful. It should guide the author on what is good and what is not so good as you see it. If it’s short then it probably isn’t going to do that.
  9. Read the invite. Most journals now have in their email inviting you to review a link to accept and one to reject. Don’t respond with a long apology about how you would love to you cat has kittens and you have a paper yourself to do and anyhow  Prof von Juntz at Miskatonic would be better. Click. The. Link
  10. Be humble. Don’t use the review process to puff your own work. Its perfectly ok to suggest that your work be included as part of the paper if your work is relevant and missing. But ask .. if its missing is it really as good as you think? If it is and the paper misses it, what else is it missing…
  11. Don’t be cruel. If the paper is truly awful, suggest a reject but don’t engage in ad hominum remarks. Rejection should be positive.
  12. Be definite. Ok, its our role as editors to make the call but try not to sit on the fence. Tell us what you think in the cover letter.
  13. Be conscious of your role. Don’t get upset if the editor doesn’t take your advice. Its our call to determine, with you aid, what to do with the paper. You are part not the totality of the decision making process.
  14. Be scientific. Don’t fall back on filling the review with editorial and typographic issues. IF the paper is rife with errors, tell the editor and give examples. Concentrate on the added value of your scientific knowledge and not so much on missing commas etc. If as part of your revision you think that the paper should be professionally proof edited (as I sometimes do with my own) then say so.
  15. Be sensible. A caveat to this is that the paper is an act of communication. If it is so poorly constructed as to fail then tell me that also. Remember however that this is not Proust or even Lee Child. Its not about style but substance until the style gets in the way
  16. Ask the editor. If you are unsure about something then ask. Don’t stew – your wasting your time and worse that of the author.
  17. Be aware of that for which you are reviewing. Reviewing for a conference is not the same as for a journal. The aim of most conference organizers is to have decent work needing feedback presented. Therefore the bar in terms of completeness etc is lower. The material still needs to be scientifically good enough but this is a step on the way not the final stage.
  18. Thank the author if you learned anything, even if you are suggesting rejection.
  19. Be realistic about the process. You and the editor and the journal will make errors. Poor (in retrospect) papers will be accepted, good ones rejected. Therefore don’t beat yourself up if such is made, learn from it.
  20.  A review is a mini paper – structure it as a logical flow of argument. You can’t critique a paper for being a rambling mess if your review is one also.
  21. Don’t tell the author what you think the editor should do – reject etc. Tell the editor in a cover letter.
  22. Be helpful. Make suggestions to the authors as to how to overcome the shortcomings you identify

2 thoughts on “Random thoughts of an editor on peer review

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Random thoughts of an editor on peer review

  2. Delarivier

    23. Don’t ask the authors to do a huge number of additional experiments that are impossible because the (a) first author went home to China two years ago (b) you can’t find the plasmid in the freezer and all the cells died and (c) all the money on the grant ran out and you haven’t got the funds, even though the experiments suggested by the reviewer sound like a good idea. Every piece of work can be improved and added to, but sometimes there’s a reason why particular data aren’t there and that a study stops at a particular point. Usually in science it’s because the postgrad or postdoc moved on.
    24. If you are the reviewer and you’d like to remain anonymous, please don’t tell the authors to cite Bloggs et al (2012) in their paper. Chances are the authors will figure out that you, dear reviewer, are the eponymous Bloggs or his/her supervisor. The authors will then throw in a few more references from Bloggs and colleagues into the revised paper, just to make sure that you get the message and to ensure that you won’t query the paper second time around..
    ‘Tis all a game…


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