Why peer reviewers refuse review requests

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Why peer reviewers refuse review requests

Peer review is an integral part of scholarly publication. Hence, peer reviewers are held in high regard as they improve the quality of science that reaches publication and weed out questionable research. With the volume of publishing increasing each year, peer reviewers find themselves with multiple requests to review manuscripts. Peer reviewing is a voluntary service that researchers agree to undertake in their spare time and is usually unpaid. As a result, journal editors are finding it increasingly difficult to appoint reviewers as many do not want to accept review requests.

To gain a deeper understanding of the reasons behind referees’ refusal to review, and ascertain whether the denial stems from “reviewer fatigue” (due to numerous review requests) and whether the reviewer behavior depends on gender, an editor at the American Political Science ReviewMarijke Breuning, along with the journal’s staff, conducted a survey. The findings of this study were published in the paper Reviewer Fatigue? Why Scholars Decline to Review their Peers’ Work.

The journal had sent 4,563 review requests to 3,414 experts in 2013. On an average, about 6-7 requests were sent per manuscript. Of all the requests, 30.6% were sent to women, indicating that they received requests that are proportional to their presence in the discipline. Breuning and his team found that 82.8% of reviewers responded to the invitation whether with a positive reply or a refusal. Further, close to 60% of the requests received a positive response whereas the decline rate was close to 23%.  Moreover, the rate of acceptance of review requests was the same among female and male experts.

The interesting aspect of this study was determining the reason behind reviewers’ refusal of the review requests. While most women declined citing “Other personal issues (e.g., personal or family member’s illness)” and “Professional leave or sabbatical,” men declined due to “Administrative duties (chair, dean, committee assignments).” Even so, the study’s authors were particularly intent on finding out whether “reviewer fatigue” played a role in declining review requests. The authors of the paper define “reviewer fatigue” as “statements indicating scholars decline because they have other reviews to complete and/or cannot take on an additional review.” Reviewer fatigue was found to account for 14.1% of the declines. Additionally, 38.9% of experts, including male and female, reasoned that they were “Too busy,” which the authors of the study feel could be accounted to reviewer fatigue.

The study indicates that reviewer fatigue was not the sole reason behind authors declining review requests; reviewers often refuse review requests due to their busy schedules. The authors sum this up as follows: “Taken together, the various reasons that scholars report when they decline to review suggest that they have busy professional and personal lives. Reviewer fatigue plays a role but is not the only reason to decline a request to review.”

Although peer reviewing is central to scientific publishing, journal editors often find it difficult to find reviewers who are suited to analyze manuscripts and are willing to take up assignments. However, it is more difficult for editors to find reviewers who follow the journal timelines. Sometimes, reviews are delayed or reviewers leave midway, leaving editors looking for other reviewers. The editors of some journals ask the authors to suggest reviewers. Angela Cochran, Director of Journals for the American Society of Civil Engineers, notes that this practice adds to the problem of reviewer fatigue. She explains that editors probably have a pool of 10,000 reviewers while authors are likely to have a limited pool and would tend to pick those reviewers who are most accessible and are likely to accept the job. Therefore, she writes, “Selecting 50 “go to” reviewers out of 10,000 means that you are burning out those 50 awesome reviewers.

In their paper, the authors of the study have made the following suggestions to improve the way peer reviewers are selected and approached:

  • Journal editors should search “beyond the usual suspects.” The authors of the study note that many first-time reviewers are more likely to accept and complete the task. Therefore, new PhDs and research-active scholars from a broader range of institutions should be approached to review manuscripts.
  • Editors can broaden their reviewer pool through web-based search strategies, such as searching dissertation databases, recent conference programs, and recent publications on Google Scholar.
  • Rather than using automated messages, editors should resort to personal messages as reviewers are likely to respond positively to them.

Journal editors feel ever pressured to appoint reviewers. However, they should consider the fact that with the increase in the number of submissions, there is a corresponding increase in the number of researchers. Thus, editors can expand their pool of reviewers to resolve the problem of reviewer fatigue. Since peer review plays a significant role in scientific publishing, efforts should be made towards making it sustainable. This would have an impact on the quality of published research and the time it takes for a manuscript to journey from submission to publication. 

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Published on: Nov 25, 2015

Sneha’s interest in the communication of research led her to her current role of developing and designing content for researchers and authors.
See more from Sneha Kulkarni


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