Academic Peer Reviewing: Saying ‘Yes’ or Saying ‘No’

Have you just received an invitation to review a submitted journal manuscript, or a grant application? Not sure whether or not to accept the invitation? You’ve got way too much work on your desk already. What should you decide?

I spend a considerable proportion of my professional academic life reviewing … reviewing book proposals for academic publishers, completing reviews of submitted manuscripts for journal editors and, especially, commissioning and evaluating reviews of manuscripts submitted to the journal for which I am Editor-in-Chief.

Much has been written about the practice of peer-reviewing — the language reviewers should use, the biases to be avoided, the ethics of editors redacting or sub-editing reviews, and so on.  And there has been a growing literature on the question of exploitative academic labour by publishers and the need for rewards for academic reviewing

These questions and debates are all important; it is certainly worth reflecting on what is and what is not ethical academic practice with respect to peer review, what one should or should not put in a review, how one should express oneself.

But this short essay is about something else.  It is about how academics should respond to invitations to review — whether a book proposal or a journal manuscript or a grant application – and how they should honour their decision.

Most academic reviewing is still unpaid or unrewarded, although this is slowly changing.  Reviewers of book proposals may receive a token monetary payment or a choice of books from the publisher; reviewers of grant applications increasingly are receiving payments for their work; and there is growing recognition of the effort of journal manuscript reviewers … whether through platforms such as Publons, open acknowledgement — if not attributed publication — of the work of reviewers, and in a few cases small financial incentives.

Whatever may be the case about recognition or reward, I believe there are certain good practice guidelines that reviewers should follow in their interaction with requesting editors, whether these be book commissioning editors, journal editors or grant administrators.

I write from my experience of sitting at all points of the triangle, so to speak … as author, as reviewer and as editor.  I therefore recognise the frustrations of authors who are subject to delayed review, of reviewers who are subject to repeated automated reminders, and of editors who have to deal with recalcitrant or defaulting reviewers. 

So, my suggestions below are intended to reduce the frustrations experienced by all three parties.  (Of course, dealing with the content of reviews is another matter, with which I am not here concerned).

First, whatever you decide, make it timely.  Do not sit on an invitation to review for weeks on end; it is courtesy to give an answer with a few days (within 5 days of receiving the invite I would say).  And it is certainly courteous to give an answer!  As a journal editor, it astonishes me how many academics do not bother to respond at all.  If you don’t want to accept the invitation, all it takes is usually just one click.  Job done.

How to make a timely decision?  Nevertheless, we all often prevaricate.  ‘It sounds interesting, maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t.  Can I fit it in?  I’m not sure’.  To ease your decision-making about whether or not to accept a reviewing invitation, develop some personal rules or heuristics that you can apply quickly.  For example, have a quota on how many reviews you undertake (this could be monthly, annually, or it could be linked to how many reviews of your own submitted work you have received); never have more than 1 (or 2) reviews open at any one time; never review during teaching terms; have a clear sense of which topics you will/will not review, and stick to it.  Such heuristics will greatly speed your decision-making process.

Work to your timetable, not theirs.  If you have a strong reason to review (as in the above), but you can’t make the (2, 3, 4 week) deadline requested by the editor, then tell them that.  Communicate to the editor that you are able to undertake the review, but only on your timetable, not theirs.  Ask for 6 weeks; or a week after the end of teaching term.  As a journal editor, I appreciate such directness from reviewers and will usually be very happy to accommodate.  On the other hand, if the editor can’t wait, then fine — no harm is done and everyone leaves happy.

Unexpected delays.  Even by following the above three guidelines you may still find yourself struggling to meet your agreed deadline having previously accepted a reviewing invitation.  Fine.  Things happen.  We know.  Not least during a pandemic.  But let your editor know!  How else will they know the responsibilities you are juggling?  Let them know you will need another 2 weeks, or another 4.  Negotiate if need be.  The question then becomes a balance of interests: how much you really would like to review the material versus the flexibility the editor is willing/able to show.

Don’t be afraid to pull-out.  If your circumstances have become so tough and you just need a break, then be willing to withdraw your acceptance.  Nothing bad will happen if you do and your editor will greatly appreciate your honesty.  And better to do it sooner rather than later.  From an editor’s perspective, much better is a timely withdrawal by a reviewer than being strung along for months at a time by false promises of delivery.  It only puts you into a stressful situation and it frustrates your editor.  They are trying to do a job also.

If you remain unconvinced by these suggestions for good practice as a (potential) academic reviewer, then imagine yourself as the author … of a book proposal that had still not been reviewed after 8 months (as happened to me recently) or of a journal manuscript that had got ‘stuck’ with a journal for 10 months without a first decision being made (as happened recently with a manuscript at my journal). 

Yes, your work as a reviewer may be unpaid and largely unrecognised.  But no one is coercing you into reviewing.  If you don’t want to review, say so.  If you need more time to review, ask for it.  If you have to pull out, then do so sooner rather than later.  And whatever you decide, communicate with your editor.

But as for what you write in your review … well, that is something else entirely.

Mike Hulme, 27 November 2020