Monthly Archives: November 2013

Referees – Your Journals Need You!


I have thought about writing on this subject for a while but it was this Tweet from Britt Koskella on the 19th November 2013 that finally stirred me into action.

Britt 1

As an editor (I am for my sins, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity  I love people like Britt.  It is such a joy to be able to select their names from the journal data base and assign them a manuscript, knowing that nine times out of ten they will accept my invitation to review a manuscript and that on that tenth occasion they will very kindly suggest an alternative (sometimes two or three) reviewer who will also almost certainly accept my invitation.  Britt Koskella, I love you and those like you 🙂  My reply to Britt was as follows:

Britt 2

You will have noticed that I confessed to doing too many myself; in fact in addition to those manuscripts that I read as an Editor I do on average, forty to fifty reviews for other journals.  Like Britt I have a hard time saying no.  I am getting better though – I actually turned down two this month 😉

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the peer review process in general with a number of journals adopting an open mass review process and other journals opting for the as long as the science is sound it is publishable approach.  We are, however, mainly, despite its many flaws, still operating on the traditional two referees per paper peer review system.

So how many papers should you referee asks Britt?  The general rule of thumb to entitle you to call yourself a good citizen is to agree to referee two papers for every paper that you submit as that is the minimum number of referees that you would expect to look at your own papers.  To be on the safe side and to feel that you are making a real contribution to your community, I would suggest that a 3:1 ratio is very acceptable.  In my experience as an Editor of two journals and as an Associate Editor on three other journals, there are a number of people who referee many more papers than that and a disturbingly large number of prolific authors whom, as far as I can see, never ever agree to referee papers.

As an Editor, what do I want from a referee?  In a nut-shell, someone who reads the paper thoroughly, checks first that the experimental design and statistical analysis are sound; if the experiment is not designed properly then it doesn’t matter how well the paper is written, it is not worth proceeding with; that the appropriate literature is cited (and by this I don’t just mean the referee’s own papers) and that the paper fits the remit of the journal and advances the subject area significantly.  I also do not want the referee to say how good the paper is in the comments to authors section and to tell me in the confidential comments that it is crap.  If you don’t like it then have the guts to tell the author why, don’t leave it up to the poor Editor to try to explain why he/she is rejecting their paper despite the apparently favourable comments they can see in the referee’s reports.  I also expect total impartiality; you might not agree with what you read but unless the methodology is flawed that is not a reason to reject the paper.  Be open-minded and fair above all.  If you are rejecting a paper, be constructive, authors at the start of their career are not as resistant or as resilient as old timers  Above all be fair, write your report bearing in mind the sort of review that you as an author would like to receive.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you and that goes double for those of you who don’t referee as many papers as you should!  I am very tempted sometimes to do an instant reject on authors who have turned down my invitation to review a paper, especially if I have just accepted one of theirs.

Post script

I used to run a course for PhD students about getting published and it always used to amaze them that decisions on whether papers were published or not was dependent on the opinions of two to three people.  My response was that if you think that is bad, decisions about grant funding are often made with just as few opinions and those decisions have even greater implications for career prospects.


Filed under Bugbears

Professor, Dr, Mr Leather; Simon – How formal should you be?

Call me old-fashioned but when I receive an email like the one below, my first reaction is to shrug resignedly and then to press the delete button.

Website enquiry from

 hi ,

i wana know about scholar ships criteria in field of entomology kindly help me i am from pakistan n did masters in entomology

though to be fair, that is somewhat better than this one:

Website enquiry from

giv me scholarship  to study with u

 This enquiry was sent from a contact form on

The begging emails I receive are not however, all like the two above;  and some apart from a slight error in gender assignation, I consider deserving of a reply, albeit mostly in the negative.

Website enquiry from

 Dear Sir,

   I am a Research Officer of Department of Agriculture, XXX. My Research field is Entomology. I am very much interested in following a Msc. in IPM.Please be kind enough to give me a scholarship for studying in your University.


 Dear Madam,

I am MKE from Ethiopia, I am Graduated from XXXUniversity on July 15th , 2010 in BSc Degree of Plant science with a CGPA of 3.40, since then I am serving for about 9 months as expert of Biodiversity in BBB Agricultural and Rural Development Office and now I am working at CCC Agricultural Research Institution DDD Agricultural Research Center as a Crop Entomology Junior researcher-II and now I am looking for scholarship to continue my study for Master (MSc) program in field Entomology. So could you please consider me for the scholarship?

And every now and then you get an enquiry that is pretty much perfect, even to using their university email address instead of, as you often find, hotmail and gmail addresses that were set up when the inquirer was a teenager.  Do you really want a prospective employer or PhD supervisor to know that you are or or

Website enquiry from SD (

 Dear Professor Simon Leather,

 I am currently a second year student of Biological Sciences (BSc) at CCC University, and my interests lie in ecology and entomology. I have worked in LASI (Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects) for a placement previously and would like to explore my interest in entomology further.

 I was wondering if there are any current summer studentship schemes for undergraduates set up in the field of entomology at Harper Adams University? If not, would you possibly be interested in applying for a undergraduate research bursary with me for the coming summer?(

 Kind regards,


These, and the many other emails I receive daily, got me thinking about the ways in which students interact with their lecturers.  Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science has written about this subject but I thought that I would add my two pennyworth.

Back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate we, despite our long hair and flared jeans (tucked into my wellies in this picture of me doing field-work), lived in a much more formal age.

Simon 1976

We called our lecturers (at least to their faces) Dr or Professor and they in turn called us Mr or Miss even if we looked less than formal ourselves.

Simon a long time ago   Simon 1975

 When I became a PhD student in the late 1970s things were different and we addressed most non-professorial members of staff by their first names.  My PhD supervisor was very keen for us to call him Tony but to his great disappointment, the least informal we could ever force ourselves to get was Prof.  In fact it took me about seven or eight years after getting my PhD before I felt comfortable enough to finally call him Tony to his face!

Now that I am an academic I am very happy for my students, both undergraduate and postgraduate to call me Simon, although I do prefer them to wait until I have invited them to do so.  It always strikes me as a little too informal if they address me as Simon on our first meeting.  I also now know how my PhD supervisor felt when trying to get us to call him Tony.  I occasionally get students who despite frequent prompting still persist in calling me Professor Leather.   There are of course sometimes cultural barriers and in those cases I am very happy if the student addresses me as Professor Simon as that keeps us both happy.

For written communications, even if by email I feel that on first approach, anyone, student or otherwise, including me, should adopt a formal tone and address the recipient  as Dear Dr or Professor Bloggs and sign off as yours sincerely.  In an academic situation, if you are uncertain whether the person you are addressing has a PhD or not, err on the safe side and address them as Doctor; if they are a Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms they are unlikely to be offended and very few full professors of my acquaintance are old-fashioned or insecure enough to get upset by being addressed by the title of their higher degree!

Interestingly I have noticed recently that a much more informal approach to titles is now commonplace on conferences name badges.  When I first began attending conferences the only badges without titles belonged to students.  It was a real rite of passage when you attended your first conference with the magic Dr in front of your name.  Nowadays, even the most senior professors are badged as first and second names only.   Note that I am by no means suggesting that I consider myself in this category 😉

Badge RES back

How times have changed!  I sometimes feel that all this informality must make the newly en-doctored feel a little hard done by.  After all that hard work and the trauma of submitting a thesis and being grilled in the viva voce examination and then they are given so few opportunities to display their hard-won title.  And now that most people use on-line banking they don’t even get the satisfaction of having their title on their cheques 😉

Post script

Coincidentally, just as I had finished drafting this post I was reading the Times Higher Education magazine  (31 Oct – 6 Nov number 2,125) and came across an article (page 21) on the conference badge issue; That’s Dr, if you please, by Dr Becky Lee Meadows.  Well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy


Filed under Bugbears