Referee etiquette

The Leiter Blog posts some suggested guidelines from Thom Brooks on referee behaviour, along with a request for comments.

I was hoping that you could help publicize some comments for feedback from your readers concerning referee guidelines. I am part of an APA committee looking into journal practices and sit on a subcommittee on guidelines for referees. We have three different areas where I would be keen to solicit comments from your readers: 

A.    Appropriate response times to an invitation and for an evaluation

My view is that potential referees should have at least two weeks to respond to invitations for reviews. This is because they should have an extra few days to assess whether they have the time to commit to providing a review. Once a referee accepts, I believe the maximum evaluation time should be 6-8 weeks and ideally one month. Colleagues should have time to review given their many existing commitments, but no more than two months. Otherwise, it is best to find someone else.

B.    Guidelines for comments with regard to civility and the promotion of quality research.

Referees should be expected to treat authors with courtesy and even where authors have been uncharitable towards their targets. Reports should convince editors to follow their recommendations and uncivil reports may have the opposite effect.

C.    Conflicts of interest

While it is necessary that reviewers inform editors where they may know the author’s identity, I am not sure this need always be a problem or that another reviewer is needed in every instance.

The second and third seem straight-forward: although especially with the second there are still plenty of uncivil reports. As an editor I don’t ordinarily edit reports, but I might remove an unnecessarily nasty sentence or two. On the other hand, I do find it difficult when the report for authors is softened, perhaps suggesting substantial revisions, while the confidential comments to editors are much harder. The editor can then be in the difficult position of knowing the paper should be rejected but without the justifications to do so. So I’d encourage civility but directness. (For this reason I discourage comments just to editors, unless they are to inform instances in the third category, or other more technical issues.)

The first is perhaps uncontroversial too: who could argue with giving people enough time to decide if they can commit to do something, and then giving them a sufficient period of time to do it? The time given is balanced by editor needs to keep things moving, and authors want to hear about their papers in reasonable amounts of time. But, in my experience as editor, this is what can introduce delays into the review system. Referees often take a long time to agree to do a report, and many do not reply at all, and then many miss deadlines, even if these were extended to accomodate their needs. Once a referee has failed to reply, or to deliver what was agreed, another referee is asked, and the process begins again. I’d happily give all referees two weeks to decide, and up to eight weeks to referee the paper, if we always heard within two weeks and then always received the report within eight. Ten weeks maximum time in review if all the first group of referees agree; twelve if you need to ask a second group to replace those who decline. But I’m cautious about expanding the time if there is no guarantee of delivery. So this is the question about the ‘no more than two months’ maximum. Yes, if you know at the outset that it will appear in two months, no if that’s when you are forced to give up on this particular referee and start again with another referee. In other words, this proposal only improves things if all referees reply within that time, and do what they agree to within that time.

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