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OK, the truth hurts. Can you say why they found it so dreadfully boring? Was it repetitive of the field, uninsightful, too much math and not enough discussion? Just way too abstruse to publish?

Determinant - what happens is I write to someone saying "will you agree to review this manuscript." Most often they respond by clicking the button that says "no" (50%+). Sometimes they respond (very helpfully) with a personal email saying something like "no, but my graduate student, So-and-so, will." These are the best ones (10 to 20%). Sometimes they just ignore the request (10 to 20%). At most 20 to 30% actually say yes.

For the paper I was looking at tonight I've had two straight "nos", one "yes" from someone I've helped out in the past, and I'm still looking for a second reviewer. I can ask my friends, colleagues, etc, but is getting people to review for RETCH the best use of all my outstanding good will?

If people wrote and said "I've read a few pages of this manuscript and it's pretty clear that the author has no idea what he/she is talking about" then that would be fine - I can tactfully rephrase that and write a helpful letter to the person saying "here are some suggestions for improving the manuscript." But people typically don't give a substantive reason (other than "I'm busy") for declining to review a manuscript.

So why don't you write that?

How much do you enjoy being editor or RETCH? Will the managers find another editor who will do more for them if you reject this paper and impair their reputation and goodwill a bit?

JB - "So why don't you write that?" Do you mean the original post or the reply to Determinant?

Determinant: "How much do you enjoy being editor or RETCH?"

I loathe and detest asking people to referee papers, other than that it's not bad, but not nearly as much fun as blogging. I suspect lots of editors feel the same way, which is why it can take months for a paper to be reviewed.

The problem with the academic publishing system, as I've written before, is that there are lots of rewards for publishing, some rewards for editing, and minimal rewards for reviewing. So everyone wants to write papers, no one wants to review them, and the system of peer review is under severe pressure.

As an editor, you have a responsibility to make a preliminary judgment about whether the paper is potentially publishable. You can make that decision after you try to find a reviewer but you are under no obligation to tell the author that you actually attempted and failed to find one. I wouldn't bother with "helpful suggestions" in a rejection letter, that sometimes comes across as condescension.

Sandwichman - "you have a responsibility to make a preliminary judgment about whether the paper is potentially publishable"

Yup, I'm doing an increasing number of desk rejects - but what about the ones that are potentially publishable, but it takes months to find a referee for?

"I wouldn't bother with "helpful suggestions" in a rejection letter".

It depends on the stage that the author is at in his/her career. A senior person who sends in a completely unpublishable paper will typically get a short letter; for a junior person, some sensible advice (if you take it in this direction, you might be able to get it into that journal) could potentially mean the difference between tenure and no tenure, job and no job. Even if it comes as condescending, I think it's the right thing to do.

"what about the ones that are potentially publishable, but it takes months to find a referee for?"

I think "potentially" fades if it takes months to find a referee. I had a paper once that had one very enthusiastic review and one extremely hostile one. After rewrite the editor sent it back (naturally!) only to the hostile one, who after about a three month delay simply resubmitted his first review. The editor should have never sent me the hostile reviewer's "second" review.

An editor's first responsibility is to the journal (and its readers) and second to the author. If a referee misconducts, the editor has to intervene and make an executive decision: accept or reject. It isn't a game of fiddlesticks between editors and referees. An editor who plays it like that has no business being an editor.

(And I don't think an editor does the author or the journal any favours by dragging in a reluctant referee or scrapping the bottom of the referee barrel.)

Considering that your blog is public, you basically already said what you were tempted to say, didn't you? But I am thinking, if every editor faces this issue sometimes, the most logical thing to do is for you to do more reviews. I suppose that more reviews = more goodwill to spend on othere people reviewing RETCH.

Alternative letter:

April 1st.

Dear Dr Untenured,

Only one in 100,000 of the population can produce an original idea, and only one in 10,000 recognise an idea as being original when it stars them in the face. Unsurprisingly none of the ten reviewers I’ve contacted are one of those one in 10,000. Thus I’ll have to reject your paper.

Just count yourself lucky you aren’t living in the days when people got their heads chopped off for saying something original, like claiming the Earth goes round the Sun (-:

Sanddwichman - " If a referee misconducts..."

An average person doesn't misconduct - I'm constantly amazed at the quality of the reports that I receive from the minority of people who do agree to referee. E.g. the referee who did a thorough search of similar papers written by the author in other languages to see whether or not the idea had been published before. The referee with a couple of young kids who devoted the weekend to doing a really careful report.

They average person either says nothing or ignores the request.

Now you're wondering - why does it take months to have 10 people refuse to referee a paper? Now the truth is out: RETCH is always at the bottom of my to-do list. It's the housekeeping of academic work, something that always needs doing, invisible work that gets little praise and reward. If I just sent out 10 referee requests the minute a paper landed in my inbox, turn-around times would be greatly reduced. But once I've sent out 3 referee requests (knowing one is certain to be ignored or declined) I think to myself "I've done enough, now I can go back to blogging."

I know what you mean about scrapping the bottom of the referee barrel - but does peer review really mean an autocratic system whereby I desk reject 50 to 75% of the papers that come into my inbox, and send the rest to my friends who don't mind doing me a favour (in exchange for the future favours that I'll do for them)?

J.V. Dubois: "the most logical thing to do is for you to do more reviews"

Sorry, I don't understand. If academic duties of writing and reviewing are shared equally, then each person should review twice as many papers as he/she submits, figuring that each paper gets 2 reviews. I'm way over that 2 reviews per submission number personally, and that's before counting the papers I read and desk reject. Why should I do more?

Ralph the thing is, the idea might be original. People see the email saying "review request from RETCH" and ignore it, or click 'no' without even looking at the manuscript.

Just to clarify - the paper details and journal name have been changed to protect the innocent.

Geez. Brutal. Why do people subject themselves to this? It's like online dating while being 45, single and fat. Maybe Dr. Untenured should slip a couple of hundred bucks in twenties in with the paper to compensate the referees for their time. That might improve the response rate.

A colleague (aka the guy who sits in the cube beside me), recently gave voice to something I realized not too long ago about myself. He said: "you know, all of us are pretty bad at most of the things we do, and for the things at which we don't suck the best most of us can hope for is mediocrity". Maybe Dr. Untenured should just go to biz skool. She'll earn six figures working at an investment bank without begging.

Patrick: "Maybe Dr. Untenured should slip a couple of hundred bucks in twenties in with the paper to compensate the referees for their time. "

Actually a lot of journals do have submission fees. I don't know many that pay their referees, but the journal that RETCH is modelled on does give reviewers a free subscription to the journal. That's quite common. Some journals pay their editors, e.g. the Canadian Journal of Economics has quite a nicely motivating financial compensation scheme for their co-editors, but RETCH doesn't pay me.

A pile of $20s would be handy, but one issue with other forms of payment is that the $$ aren't worth the hassle. A lot of publishers are based on the US, and then they want all sorts of tax info before they'll write a non-US person a cheque. And they won't donate the review fee to a US-based charity either. It's not worth doing the paperwork for a payment of $20 or $50.

I wonder if Dr Untenured really is that employable though...

I realize the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I do hope that "Dr" Untenured doesn't actually call him/herself "Dr" Untenured, because that may be part of the problem. A colleage of mine attended a session featuring "Dr" Prominent Bank Economist the other day and, whatever the merits of what they had to say, he couldn't get past the "Dr" part.

Suppose 10 tenured professors collectively agree to refuse to read Dr. Untenured's research, regardless of its merits and academic importance.

You might see something reminiscent of East Anglia University.

I do not for a minute believe that such journals genuinely represent the level of "interest" in the market for academic articles. They represent nothing more than the collective biases of the tenured professorial community. Sad but true.

I have always liked reviewing papers... I once got to be a few months smarter than my colleagues because I was lucky in that I was asked to review a result that some people were looking forward to.

"I wonder if Dr Untenured really is that employable though..."

Oh my. Ouch.

I sincerely hope that "RETCH" is a fictitious journal, since most people would refuse to serve as referees for a journal with such a wRETCHed name.

Greg, that name just makes you want to throw up, doesn't it?

Yes, it's fictitious - though I do co-edit a real world journal. Sometimes. When I reach the bottom of my to-do list.

Chris J "I have always liked reviewing papers" - don't tempt me! I can see your email address, you know.

Frances, you do know that a simple Google search will tell you the journal you edit? I already have a good idea which one you are talking about.

It's amazing the details you get with the internet. It's the same when I look through the Government Electronic Directory Service to see who I'm dealing with, who my coworkers might be and how big the office is when I apply for federal Public Service jobs.

You can even find out who got hired instead of you by comparing a snapshot of the office in question from different times.

But Frances, I doubt you get many experimental physics papers - and I think xkcd has nicely explained what happens when phsyicists engages in intellectual tourism.

Chris J - rats!

With today's modern technology, it would seem possible to keep track of how many referee assignments each faculty member in a field takes on.

If there were some "reward," then maybe more people would do it? Perhaps it could come into promotion and tenure? or whether a faculty member's own submission for review gets top priority, or not? (for the untenured, maybe doing book reviews could achieve points).


Took-the-private-sector-job (w/o a business degree; never use title Dr.)

I wonder if it would be useful for a few journals to experiment with the refereeing system, given that we appear to be stuck in a "bad equilibrium" where reports are expected to be long and detailed, which discourages reviewers, leading to few Yes answers, and few reviewers deciding on a paper's merit (increasingly, outside the top journals, based on just one reviewer!).

Instead we could ask reviewers to merely provide a one-paragraph review with their overall recommendation, and base the decision on at least 3 reviews. I don't know if it would lead to better quality, but it's worth trying, e.g. Preston McAfee's no-revision-policy experiment with Economic Inquiry.

I do peer review myself, although not in economics. Mostly I do it out of a sense of duty, but also I consider it a form of self-education, forcing me to read papers in greater depth than I would otherwise do.

And you're right - reviewing papers is onerous and mostly unrewarding. I've never heard of anyone being formally recognized, much less given a meritorious service award, for years of meticulous reviewing.

I've only had brief experiences with refereeing, but when I submitted a paper in December to Enviro and Resource Econ and as soon as my paper was with reviewers, I received a referee request from the editor who was in-charge of my paper. Seems to me I had an incentive to do the review just in case the ultimate decision about accepting my paper or not fell for some reason to the editor.

Joel W: "as soon as my paper was with reviewers, I received a referee request from the editor"

Course if they reject your paper, and the paper you're refereeing gets a revise and resubmit, so the editor has to come back to you with the revisions - awkward.

But it's true, I could solve my finding reviewers problem by just assigning Dr. Untenured's paper to Professor Pastit, and so on and so forth, for all of the papers in my inbox.

rabbit - I enjoy refereeing for the reasons you say.

Wendy, there's a serious issue, how to give credit to all of these just-being-a-good-citizen type activities. A strong parallel with all of these civic engagement etc issues that you think about in your current life?

Having heard a few times about how econ papers get refereed and published, I can only wonder at the difference with my own field (physics).

* Refereeing is a great opportunity to filer the significant amount of so-what-?, I-don't-understand-my-own-theory, and otherwise dude-that's-been-obsolete-for-ten-years papers that appear now and then. You know, as a courtesy to the authors and to lessen the chance that you will keep hearing about them for years. I try to understand each paper and its context, but based on some reports I've received, some people don't sweat over it that much. Maybe we have lower standards, go figure.

* On the upside, time-to-publication is usually a couple of months. If you receive a paper to referee, you typically have 4-6 weeks to send a report, after which your services are no longer needed.

* 10 *tenured professors* ? C'mon, I refereed my first paper before I got my PhD (for the Physical Review, hardly a minor journal). Do you think you need tenure to know your stuff good enough to have an decent opinion on a paper ? And yes, as a post-doc I refused papers written by much bigger fish than me. That's what anonymous refereeing is for. Be more open-minded in your search for potential referees.

filer -> filter

I reviewd my first paper before my Ph.d ( which I didn't finish anyway). It was in a field not really my own and the whole exercise seemed to find reviewers who would nix that drivel by a higher-up in this field without anyone getting retribution at grant approval time...

To: "10 *tenured professors* ? C'mon, I refereed my first paper before I got my PhD "

The average PhD student is a conscientious and thorough reviewer. The only difficulty is finding those doctoral students. I find reviewers by asking the people I know, people who've submitted to RETCH in the past, people who are listed in the references at the end of the paper, and doing cold searches through google scholar. None of those methods is going to turn up a PhD student (except for my own students).

It's becoming increasingly common for Prof Bigname to hand over reviewing assignments to his/her PhD students - which I think is *great* is the student gets the credit, not so great if Prof Bigname submits the review under his/her name and doesn't acknowledge the student's work.

A few differences between physics and economics. First, physics papers are much shorter. Second, the barriers to entry to physics research are much greater, meaning there's less crummy research - no one is going to give you a particle accelerator unless you've got some street cred, but a smart undergrad can produce some quite creditable work with publicly available data and Stata software. Third - and don't take this personally, my grandfather was a physicist so I've got a soft spot for the subject - quite frankly, the demand for physicists is much smaller. There are hundreds or thousands of economists at low-ranked to mid-ranked universities teaching business or econ students and trying to get tenure. Those low-ranked universities can't afford a physics department, and even if they can, the lack of students means that those departments are pretty small.

<< First, physics papers are much shorter >>

Good point. The amount of work per paper is probably lower, too (at least in theoretical/"small lab" fields), which allows a (good) grad student to get one or two papers published before they defend, thus popping up on editors' radars. Half of my thesis was actually an (acknowledged...) copy-n-paste of two papers.

<< quite frankly, the demand for physicists is much smaller. >>

Agreed. Maybe we just can't compare....

<< It's becoming increasingly common for Prof Bigname to hand over reviewing assignments to his/her PhD students - which I think is *great* is the student gets the credit, not so great if Prof Bigname submits the review under his/her name and doesn't acknowledge the student's work. >>

The PhysRev submit-a-review web form emphatically proposes to specify who "assisted" in reviewing the paper. Nudge ?

To - that is an interesting nudge, you're right...

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