Paper reviewers are a valuable resource – Editors, please treat them with respect

Maybe I’m getting grumpy in my old age, but I think not.  In fact, I think I am now seen as the go to nice Referee 3 for when the Editor wants a sympathetic split decision breaker; something on the lines of he is a bit of an old-fashioned grammar pedant, but he is always willing to see the positive side of a study so long as the methodology is sound :-). I know what of I speak. As an Editor myself, I have a mental list of which Referee 3 to approach to help me soften the blow, put in the knife or contradict what I consider an overly harsh Referee 2.

Referees, or reviewers as we now tend to call them, are the life-blood of a successful journal; as I have written before, good reviewers are worth their weight in gold and should be treasured and encouraged.  A major problem is that with what seems to be an exponential increase in the number of journals and papers submitted, reviewers of any sort, good, bad or average, are in short supply.  The problem is exacerbated by a misguided notion held by many potential reviewers of how many reviews they should do a year (Didham et al., 2017).

As someone who does far more than my fair share of paper reviewing, I average about three to four papers a month, I think this puts me way ahead of the pack. To back this up, Publons tells me that over the last twelve months, I have reviewed 42 papers, 1.4 reviews for every paper that I have published.  I think that by any criteria this makes me a good citizen, if not a saint :-).

I was thus somewhat miffed*  the day before yesterday, when, with one week to go before the agreed due date for a review of a paper I had, against my better judgement, agreed to do, the following email arrived.


“Dear Dr Leather:

Recently, I asked you to review Manuscript XX-XXX-000 entitled “How to annoy a reviewer”

It has since become apparent that I will not need you to review at this time. If you have already put some work into it and are near completion, you could send it along to us, just email to: inconsderateditor@journalwhichjustlostmygoodwill

If you have not started the review, then you can relax and cross it off your “to do” list.

Many thanks for your good intentions and I hope you will be able to review other manuscripts in the near future.”



I’m not a great fan of the late Mr Morrison, especially his politics, but this reverse quote sums my feelings exactly.

Gritting my teeth, I very politely replied, to the Editor, thanking him for letting me know that my services were no longer needed. In reality, I was fuming and almost instantly posted an anonymised Tweet to let off a bit of steam.  Now, I don’t know about you, but as an Editor I would never do this.  If you have, as all Editors do, invited more than two potential reviewers at the same time, it is extremely poor editorial practice, ten days later, to tell a reviewer they were superfluous to requirements.  As it happened, I was, when the email arrived, just about to write the review.

Now, as an Editor, I would have no compunction in sending a similar email to a reviewer who was showing up as overdue on the system.  To someone who was well within the specified return date, I would never ever consider dumping them at this stage, even if by some miracle, I had already received three reviews, not just the magical two.  I don’t think any author would begrudge an extra day or two to hear back from the journal.  In my judgement, this is an extremely effective way to antagonise reviewers, and I, for one, will no longer be willing to review for this particular journal.


What do you think?


Some editors may try to blame the automated system for the email, but that is a very poor excuse.  The system tells you when the required number of reviews (usually two) has been achieved.  As an Editor, if you still have a reviewer listed as awaiting review, you just change the number of reviews required to three, thus preempting the automatic email. Easy peasy, and very importantly, you have not lost the good will of your reviewer.


Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing

9 responses to “Paper reviewers are a valuable resource – Editors, please treat them with respect

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience. I have similar one and I consider it very poor practice that oveload already full system.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. anon

    Once I wrote the review of a manuscript on the day before agreed due date, but could not upload my review on the system. The link to submit review was no longer available because, I later learned, review request was cancelled. When I asked the editor about it, he informed me that he made the decision based on two other reviews. I will never review for that journal and that editor again.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Science in the ol’ days: A millennial’s perspective – Brushing Up Science

  4. Martin Pareja

    Hi Simon! Thanks for bringing up this discussion! I have never had that particular experience (luckily)… But there are a series of practices that annoy different people to different extents,and I think they fit into the general topic of “miffed reviewers” .

    Something that annoyed me once or twice is having provided a review, submitted and not heard anything at all afterwards (just a “thank you”, but no copy of the decision letter). A few months later I found the article published in that same journal, without consideration of any of the comments I sent.

    Just to be clear, I don’t mind comments not being implemented if there is justification by the authors and the editor believes they addressed the points to her/his satisfaction. I just don’t like putting in work and then feeling ignored!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sorry Simon, but I disagree with you on this specific point.

    Imagine as a editor, you invite three reviewers. The first two submit their reviews early and both point out the same fundamental flaw that cannot be fixed with reasonable revisions. As an editor, you are already certain that the submission will be declined, so why not save the third reviewer the effort? The assumption here is that even a glowing review report will not undo the damning reports from the first two reviewers.

    Now, one could argue that a manuscript with such obvious flaws should not have been sent out for review in the first place, but that is more a question about whether editors should be gate-keepers or whether they should facilitate and interpret specialised peer-review.

    Where you DO have a point is with good submissions. I agree with you that an editor shouldn’t accept a paper based on two positive reviews when the third review report is still outstanding. The whole point of inviting multiple reviewer is that they evaluate the manuscript from different perspectives (if only to improve it further).

    Liked by 1 person

    • But as an Editor you have the facility to contact the now, not needed Reviewer directly and inform her/him of the situation and ask if they are happy for you to unassign them, rather than as happened with me, just use the on-line system to do it, a matter of common courtesy I would think.

      Liked by 1 person

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