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More delays in peer review: Finding reviewers willing to contribute

Dr. Helle V. Goldman | Apr 7, 2015 | 8,968 views
how a journal editor identifies potential peer reviewers for a submitted paper and the reasons for delay at this stage of editorial decision making

In the first article in this series, I discussed how we go about identifying potential peer reviewers at Polar Research. Next comes the more difficult process of getting two or three to agree to the task.

When suitable potential peer reviewers have been identified, the invitations are issued by e-mail. We typically start with two and avoid inviting more reviewers than we need: a busy researcher can get annoyed if she responds positively to a request to review a submission only to be informed by the editor that her services aren’t needed after all.

After the invitations go out we wait for responses. When an invited reviewer says “yes”, it’s great news. When an invited reviewer declines, we invite someone else. When an invited reviewer doesn’t reply within a week, our online review system sends an automatically generated reminder. If there is still no response after a reasonable interval of time, we invite a new person. This is the tiresome part of the job. Quite a few “nos” come in or there may be no response at all.  We have to identify and invite more suitable potential peer reviewers and then wait for responses, or the lack thereof.

Since I took on the chief editorship of Polar Research in 1998, my impression is that the proportion of declined/ignored invitations has grown dramatically. I have no historical data to back this up, but Janne Schreuder, who works with me in the editorial office, ran some numbers that give us an indication of the current situation. She found that to get two reviewers who say “yes”, a Polar Research editor has to invite, on average, about seven reviewers.

In other words, about two-thirds of invited reviewers are turning us down or not responding. That’s on average. There are a few papers that get a pair of willing reviewers with only two invitations, and there are other submissions that end up requiring far more than seven invitations. It’s not uncommon to have to issue 10 invitations to get two people who accept. I’ve personally handled several manuscripts for which I’ve had to send over 20 invitations. I shrink from attempting to calculate the number of hours I spent on this.

When you factor in that we consider it bad practice to invite more reviewers at one time than we need, and that we have to give each invited reviewer time to read and digest our e-mails, then it becomes clear why this part of the peer-review process is so time-consuming. 

Watch this space for the next article in the series, which will provide insights into the challenges journal editors face while appointing peer reviewers. 

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