To recommend reviewers, or to not recommend reviewers

To recommend reviewers, or to not recommend reviewers that is the question… It is routine now for submission of a research manuscript to a journal to be quite a long drawn out and often frustrating affair. In the old days life was relatively simple and authors would prepare triplicate hard copies of their manuscript (typed double spaced) and pop it in the post with a covering letter. All journals now operate online submission portals and authors will run the gamut of required fields on esoteric subjects such as funding, conflicts of interest, open access options or keywords. And then, after everything is entered, there is the request for suggested reviewers.

As an author my heart usually sinks at this point, especially if the journal does not give the option to skip the question and leave it to the editors to find reviewers without guidance. As an editor of a journal where reviewer suggestions are not mandatory, my heart sings when there are at least a couple of names suggested by the authors. From that perspective I would urge prospective authors to make some recommendations for review, but there is a definite need for caution.

The integrity of the peer-review process is strongly underpinned by a review process which is independent of bias. Only through the use of expert peer-reviewers who are basing their judgements solely on the quality of the science can journals maintain high standards and reinforce their reputations.  The helpful process of authors suggesting reviewers is a potential threat to the independence of peer review and editors must find a happy and appropriate balance between saving time in the search for reviewers and ensuring that standards are maintained.

As an author you need to think very carefully about whom you suggest as potential peer reviewers. Also think about how many you might suggest. At JHND it is common to see 2-3 author suggestions for reviewers (we will accept up to 4) and we will sometimes see names of people who the authors don’t want to review the work. Once the suggestions are made, how do editors work with the suggestions?

Although I am grateful for reviewer suggestions I will be very careful about how they are used. Within our editorial system we can queue up reviewers to be approached. This involves ranking the reviewers in order (usually 1-4) and then inviting the top two on the list, with automatic invitations going out to the reserves if the top two decline. I am generally wary about allocating suggested reviewers in those top two positions. Although journals may instruct authors to avoid suggesting who they collaborate with or maybe have published with, most authors cannot resist putting their close contacts down as potential reviewers (I do it myself as an author). With this in mind, most editors will take the approach that I take and try to generate a list of reviewers that is a half-half mixture of author recommended and editor-identified reviewers. This gives some control over possible reviewer bias that might be associated with the author suggestions. I know that some editors avoid the author suggested list altogether, but I am guessing they have more time than I have to search for reviewers in subject areas which lie outside my core knowledge.

I have already alluded to the fact that some authors suggest reviewers who they do not want to review their work. I do this myself on occasion, particularly when applying for grant funding. Is this a reasonable thing to allow authors to do? With my author hat on I might argue that Professor X has a bias against me, or a conflict of interest as our work is closely related and our competition will impact upon the integrity of peer review. With my editor hat on, however, I would challenge this view unless there is obvious evidence to support the assertion. If an author has suggested 4 reviewers and listed 4 non-preferred reviewers, is it not the case that the author is trying to do my job for me and is in fact taking control of the peer review process? My current practice is to put non-preferred reviewers into the lost of reviewers (generating a mix of author recommended, author non-preferred and editor-selected reviewers), unless the covering letter from the authors has given cogent explanation of why non-preferred reviewers should be avoided. In fact I view non-preferred reviewers as the people most likely to be in a position to give a thorough critique of the submitted work. There is nobody like a close competitor to apply the required level of skepticism and thoroughly review the evidence presented.

As a final comment and piece of advice I would say that the selection of appropriate reviewers for a paper is best aided by authors providing a clear and well-worded title and abstract and appropriate keywords to allow the editor to search databases effectively. If those keyword fields in the submission system are completed accurately then there is a strong chance that strong reviewers will be chosen without having to dive into the complex psychology of author-editor relationships.


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