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Reviewing papers (as a referee)

  1. Sep 15, 2009 #1


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    At a meeting at work today a colleague mentioned that he is currently spending a LOT of time reviewing papers, it has reached a point where he felt that it is simply taking too much time from his other responsibilities. But on the other hand it is also part of the job so he did not really feel he could say no.

    I am (fortunately) not that much "in demand"; at the moment I am on average reviewing a 1-2 manuscripts a month and it is mostly short papers. I have also reached a point where I decline to be the referee if I think it will take me a long time to read up on the topic (meaning it is a topic I don't feel I know enough about) or if the paper is "too theoretical" (I am mainly an experimentalist) and requires a good working knowledge about some technique I am not familiar with.

    I've also become a bit better at recommending "do not publish" or "major revisions required" when the paper is simply too hard to understand because of the quality of the language (usually manuscripts from Asia); I have better things to do than deciphering text.
    In the past I guess I felt sorry for the authors and tried to point out at least the most obvious errors (which on a few occasions still ended up being a very long list); but that takes a very long time and I don't think that should be the job of the referee.
    The way I see it I should review the science not the text (not that my English is perfect; but if I am unsure about whether or not a sentence is correct I will ask someone who knows).

    It would be interesting to know how much time other people spend on reviewing papers?

    Also, what are your criteria for declining to be the referee?
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  3. Sep 15, 2009 #2


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    The only time I've declined as a referee was when I received a request to review a paper where the abstract sent with the request made it obvious it was the same set of authors I've repeatedly rejected papers from, after beating my head against the wall trying to interpret their bad English to figure out if there was any decent science in it, only to determine there wasn't. I told the editor I had a conflict of interest because I had such a negative impression of that group from several past reviews that I didn't feel I could be fair in my reviews of them any longer.

    But, I also haven't been swamped with requests to review papers yet. Though, I have known people who really have been, or who just didn't have time when a particular review came in. The best approach, if that happens, is to decline while recommending someone else as a reviewer who you know is knowledgeable on the topic. It's a good way to give newer faculty a leg-up and a chance to be a reviewer by recommending them if you know they have expertise that would make them a good reviewer of a paper you don't have time to review.
  4. Sep 15, 2009 #3


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    As someone who has not been asked to referee, I can't answer your questions regarding the intrusion into your time, etc. As a researcher, I truly appreciate the expertise of the referees (duly selected by the editors) who know the field in question intimately and who can make a rapid and concise first cut and suggest some improvements. If you are good at this in your field, please continue to referee. I can assure you that well-intentioned concise suggestions by referees are well-received by researchers/authors who want to advance their fields.
  5. Sep 15, 2009 #4


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    Can I make a confession...just between us :smile:? My boss often asks me to review papers...even though I have just a BS. He uses me as a first pass filter...I'll catch all the grammar errors, logic errors, mislabeled columns in the tables, etc. And I am really, really *picky* about how data, ideas, and test methods are presented. (My pet peeve: a graph where the legend is in "code". You must sift through the text to find out what the code is...UGH! Just label a graph in a way that it can stand alone, PLEASE!)

    He will read it himself, of course, but he's a busy guy and can't go through it in fine detail.
  6. Sep 16, 2009 #5


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    On average, I referee 1 paper every 2 or 3 months. That's the frequency I listed in my profile with Phys. Rev. So I can't say that I'm swamped with refereeing duties. But there have been occasions where a manuscript came in for refereeing, while an earlier manuscript came back after a rebuttal by the authors, all almost at the same time. So that could take a significant chunk of time.

    The only excuses that I had for declining to referee were that I was too busy, and that the area was not in my expertise. I don't think I've ever had a conflict of interest yet, or that poor of an impression against a particular group. In fact, I've refereed several papers that clearly had a different opinion about certain issues that I had, and I've recommended publications for most of them. Come to think of it, I don't remember the last time I've outright rejected a manuscript for publication. I've made recommendations for a paper submitted to PRL to instead be published in PRB, but I don't think I've rejected any so far this year.

    Hum... I must be going soft!

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