Andrew Moore 
Andrew Moore
Editor-in-Chief Bioessays and Inside the Cell 

In his recent post on the editor’s view of peer review best practice, Brian Johnson highlighted the importance of prompt responses to review invitations – particularly if the reviewer is not able to undertake the review.  In today’s post, Andrew Moore, Editor-in-Chief of BioEssays and Inside the Cell explores the decision to decline a review request in more detail. Today we’re all about saying “no”.

 

Source: iStock/Thinkstock
Source: iStock/Thinkstock

The “when” is easy: Do this, as soon as you have established that you cannot perform the review on time, or are not scientifically (or otherwise – see later) suitable to assess the manuscript: editors are exceedingly grateful for quick declines. Most editorial offices don’t invite a large excess of reviewers in the first instance, preferring to re-visit the record at short intervals and invite one or two more reviewers as necessary: this avoids “burning” reviewers unnecessarily. So don’t keep the editor hanging on unnecessarily. The request to review usually only contains the manuscript title and abstract, so there is not much reading to be done before deciding not to review. And yet, my experience in editorial suggests that this is not such an easy decision to get right after all.

And so to the “why”:

1. No time to spare

If you genuinely don’t have enough time to review, you must decline. This innocent question opens out into one of the most contentious matters in contemporary peer review and whether/how such a service can be formally recognized: peer review is a major burden, and nobody, it seems, really has the time. Hence the questions to your self should be “Am I prepared to make time to review this piece? And am I disciplined enough to stick to the deadline?” But clearly that isn’t so easy to judge, because we regularly have reviewers who string out the process despite reminders, and even despite their own reassurances to editorial that they “will submit by the end of the week”, for example. If your intentions are noble, it is better to bow out early if you really can’t manage it – much better than introducing a large delay in the overall peer review process, which creates a bad reputation for you; indeed, it can even arouse suspicion in the editor and/or author(s) that you actively wish to delay publication of the work. In more than one case, one of my authors has even correctly guessed the identity of the delaying reviewer and noted the situation of competition with that research group. In cases of unusually long peer review delay, conscientious editorial staff will inform authors (if they haven’t themselves asked before that point) about the status of peer review.

2. Knowing what you don’t know

The other, equally unproductive, outcome of peer review is a report that damns the work in question for unjustifiable reasons. In some cases, this can arise out of a desire to rubbish fellow scientists – which is, of course, not very noble if the peer review is anonymous; but more often it comes from being unaware of one’s own lack of knowledge in a particular area. Being aware of what we don’t know – i.e. so-called metacognition – is not so straightforward, and seems to be a significant factor in sub-optimal peer review, as observed by Sui Huang in a BioEssays Editorial. So, think carefully: do you know what you don’t know in the field in question? Is that “don’t-know-area” large? Then perhaps you shouldn’t review this manuscript, even if you think you know quite a lot.

3. Conflict of interest

Another clear reason for not agreeing to review is if you have a conflict of interest- either positive or negative. Perhaps you are not directly associated with the publication record of the author(s), but you have a close professional connexion all the same: or, you have been asked to read a pre-submission draft of the manuscript. Most editors check potential reviewers against the acknowledgements, but occasional oversights are only human, and sometimes a pre-submission reader is not acknowledged.

Finally to the “how”. This also seems very simple: just reply on time saying that you can’t do the review, and if you know someone who would be suitable, scientifically, please let editorial know :-) Should you also give an opinion on the paper that you are declining to review? Some do. That typically depends on the reason for which you are declining to review. If you truly know the field very well, and do not have the time to review, you might well be justified in giving an opinion, and it might help editorial, particularly if it proves extremely difficult to get any reviewer to bite. However, a thorough, real, peer review is enormously more valuable than a quick comment over email. So, think carefully: if you really have something important to say and you think that it’s worth giving criticism with a constructive aim, you should probably agree instead, and try your best to make time for the review.