Thoughts on Peer Review from an Associate Editor

Mysteries of Publishing

I have served as an Associate Editor for two different journals and have quite a bit of experience recruiting, assigning, and harassing (I mean, following up with) peer reviewers.

I will only be writing about one of my Associate Editor experiences, because with the second one I had a lot of support and did not have to do as much “harassing.”

I received a new manuscript once a week, 50 weeks a year, which I read and made a decision on whether to send it on to review. Keep in mind the paper had already made it past the Editor-in-Chief’s desk and an editorial team that decided on fit for the journal and formatting.

I had a huge database from which to find and assign peer reviewers. Unfortunately, this database was not updated, so often I’d find notes from reviewers saying they needed some time off that were dated several years earlier. I also never knew if someone who was listed as a doctoral student actually finished their degree, or if someone with a master’s degree had gone on to a doctorate.

Recommendation #1: As a peer reviewer, make sure you update your name, credentials, and skills/areas of interest and expertise, as often as necessary to give accurate information to the editorial team and so that you only get asked to review appropriate manuscripts.

Often I needed someone with expertise in statistics and the results of my search could range from NO ONE to a handful of people. And I think maybe once – ever – did a peer reviewer with statistical expertise say yes to my invitation.

Recommendation #2: Please, please, please list yourself as having statistics expertise if you do. Be specific – do you know how to critique regression, ANOVA, t-tests, or other statistical analyses? Let the journal know so they can call on you when those papers come through. If we don’t have peer reviewers with this knowledge/background, those papers could easily be published with major flaws.

Often I had reviewers decline the review and write back that the paper is not in their area of expertise. I can assure everyone reading this that I only asked if I truly believed there was some connection. It’s not always obvious, unfortunately, and I would try to put it in the cover letter if possible.

Recommendation #3: Read the cover letter from the editor. There could be a valid reason why you are being asked to review. You may still disagree and it is absolutely your right to decline the invitation. Also, if you happen to know another person who is qualified to do the review, PLEASE let the editorial team know their name and CURRENT contact information.

Recommendation #4: Please make sure you update any and all databases you are listed in when your email address or name changes in addition to the info in Rec #1. Editors spend a lot of time hunting people down and having emails bounce back.

Very rarely, but sometimes, I had reviewers simply say “accept” without any evidence of an actual review. I also had reviewers critique several aspects of the paper and then choose “accept,” or vice versa, compliment the entire paper and say “major revision.”

Recommendation #5: Make sure your feedback and your decision are aligned and well-supported.

I’ve asked reviewers who I believed were a perfect fit to review a paper and had them respond that they were too busy to review. It’s completely understandable that people are busy and will have to decline sometimes. As an Associate Editor I was very purposeful about not over-asking. We have the ability to see when you last reviewed a paper, when you last declined, and so on.

Recommendation#6: If you need an extended break from reviewing, let the journal know so they can flag that information in the database (and give an end date for your break). Also, if you no longer want to review for a journal at all, let them know so they can remove you from the database.

I am forever grateful to those who take their time and energy and share their expertise by serving as a peer reviewer for one or more journals. The rule of thumb I once heard is that for every paper you publish, plan to review two others because at least two people took the time to review yours. Just like every other volunteer opportunity out there, a small percent of people do most of the work. We can work together to change that in nursing journals.

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