Friday, November 08, 2013

Comments on "Are We Refereeing Ourselves to Death"?

Angewandte Chemie has an open access editorial regarding how the refereeing system is being increasingly overburdened as the number of submitted manuscripts increases without limit. While the author has a number of helpful suggestions such as increasing the number of referees from China and other countries that are increasing their submissions, and also asking authors to show some self-control by not just automatically submitting to Nature/Science and then working on down the line until a paper is accepted. There are other good suggestions as well, but sadly, the author misses out on a huge opportunity that could drastically increase the number of referees available.

**Use industrial scientists.**

I don't have exact figures, but industrial scientists outnumber professors by what, 20x? 40x? Maybe even more? Whatever the number, all that manpower is available and yet it is seldom tapped. I am a outlier in that I referee for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) but I have never encountered any other industrial scientists who referee papers at all for any publisher. Why is that? Cynical thoughts would be that academia doesn't want to dirty itself by working with "prostitutes of science", people who weren't "good enough" to make it as professors, or people who wouldn't be interested in research that doesn't have immediate economic applications. Or is the thought that because industrial scientists don't publish much compared to their academic counterparts, they aren't interested in what's in the literature or making sure that it is kept to high standards? Most assuredly, they are very interested. Some industrial scientists will say no, but that also happens with professors that are asked.

If I were working for journal and needed to find referees, I would start trying to tap this potential workforce now. Start with the few people you do know that are in industry and ask them who else they can recommend. And ask those recommendations for additional recommendations. And then do something with them. Start sending them manuscripts, even if you already have your 3 reviewers lined up. Take these new reviewers out for a test spin and see how they stake up to the regular reviewers. Once you have confidence in them, then start using them and give your regular reviewers a bit of a break. And by lining these new reviewers up early and using them, you are more likely to have their loyalty down the road when other publishers approach them.

When the RSC first approached me to referee about 10 years ago, I was honored by the request and have been happily helping them out. I contacted the American Chemical Society (ACS) shortly thereafter to volunteer my help. They said they would be in touch but have never yet sent a manuscript to me. So if the RSC and the ACS were to both approach me for refereeing and I only have time for one, who do you think I'm going to help?


Anonymous said...

I had an interesting experience with referee reports for a recent paper I submitted. As a 'technique specialist' scientist, I'd applied my chosen technique to an industrial problem and suggested 2 referees for the paper. One an academic in the field of my technique speciality, and the other an industrial scientist expert to the process I applied my technique to. The academic was pleased with the work and recommended it for publication while the industrial scientist tore my work to pieces, saying that the findings I'd come to were well known within the industry and I'd come up with nothing novel, despite the fact that there is no literature published to support this assertion. Revealed an interesting clash of cultures I thought...

John said...

I can easily imagine that happening. As I hinted at, it may take some time to bring new referees up to speed, hence the proposal to start breaking them in now so that editors can get a feel for who is good and who is bad (and there will always be the nasty ones who hate everything),

So did the paper publish?

Anonymous said...

In the process of resubmitting to another journal. We'll see...

NF said...

You mean you didn't follow the normal practice of only suggesting referees that you already know will give you rave reviews? :)

John said...


My thoughts exactly. Someone who is incapable of suggesting such reviewers probably shouldn't be publishing at all. I would have said so earlier, but well, it is the holiday season... [sarcasm off]

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