Those of you who attend conferences will be familiar with the standard – walk up to someone you know, who is talking to someone you don’t, get introduced to new person – conference interaction. Following the introduction at one of these the other introducee looked knowingly at me and said something like, “oh yes, you just turned down a request to review from me.” He then proceeded to complain to the assembled group about how hard it was to find people to review manuscripts. At this point another young AE who was part of the conversation jumped in and expressed similar frustrations. Both of them proceeded to make it clear that in their opinion the problem stemmed primarily from one cause – lazy reviewers. In other words, if everyone would just agree to do a reasonable number of reviews (defined in the conversation as doing enough reviews to match or exceed the number of reviews that are performed on your own papers) then there wouldn’t be any problems.
Now, both these people seemed like they were very nice individuals, and I’m sure that difficulty in finding reviewers is a common frustration among AEs, but as an active member of the reviewing community who not only pulls their own weight, numbers wise, but also spends the time to produce detailed high quality reviews, it really bothers me when either in person, or in print, editors and associate editors whine about lazy reviewers. It’s not that I don’t believe that there aren’t self-centered scientists out there who aren’t in a big rush to do something that can be quite time consuming, that they get effectively no credit for, for free (but that’s a subject for another time). It’s that it is hard to imagine serious people who are paying attention to the state of scientific publishing believing that this is the primary source of the problem.
The real issue is that the number of papers being published on an annual basis has been exploding. Here is a plot of the number of papers with the keyword ‘ecology’ indexed in ISI (note that the growth in this figure is conservative due to the way in which ISI chooses to include journals for indexing).
Now I don’t have any data on the number of regularly utilized reviewers, but I’m pretty sure that if we could get it that the numbers wouldn’t be increasing anywhere nearly as quickly. So the problem is simple – too many papers, too few reviewers.
Who is to blame for this situation? I don’t really know. We could blame publish or perish systems (I don’t, but you could), we could blame corporate publishing houses for the rapid proliferation of academic journals in pursuit of profit, or for that matter we could blame the whiny AEs for not rejecting enough of the poorer submissions without sending them out for review. Whatever the cause/solution this is clearly something that we need to address, and we need to address it now before we break the system.
Funnily enough, in preparing to write this post I went back through my email from the last six months and I couldn’t find a single review request from a journal on which the offending individual served as an AE. Maybe he had me confused with another lazy reviewer…