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08/22/2019

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Anon prof

"One of the journals rejected the paper and the editor basically said that we do not have time to find competent referees for every paper and for that reason we have to reject some promising papers."

This is just a kindly-phrased desk rejection. You are taking it too literally.

"Another journal rejected my paper after it has been "under review" for 6 weeks or so. They first contacted me and told that they have not yet found a referee for it because people keep rejecting referee invitations but that they will continue to find the referees. Just a day later I received another email saying that they have rejected my paper without any comments from the referees."

I can imagine three scenarios here. 1) one person who was solicited as a referee wrote back some comments along the lines of: "This paper is not worth my time" so the editor rejected it. 2) Before sending out more solicitations, the editor took another look at the paper and thought "actually, I should just desk reject this" because of poor fit or poor quality 3) Unwilling to send out more solicitations for referees, the editor just rejected the paper.

I think (2) is actually the most likely, (3) the least. I wonder what the topic was? Was it something that only a few people could competently review? If an editor can't find a competent referee for a paper, I would think that there might be an audience-problem, like the paper falls outside the bounds of what is typically published in that journal.

I don't think this is a general problem.

Some editorial experience

Marcus writes, "rejecting papers due to inability to find suitable referees seems super unfair to authors."
I don't think journal editors are obliged to keep searching for referees until they find them. If, after a reasonable effort has been made, an editor can't find qualified referees, I think it's fair for them to say, "We haven't been able to find qualified reviewers for this paper, so we can't publish it." It's either that, or the editor continues to spend time looking for reviewers for that submission while new ones pile up in their queue. It gums up the system. Honestly, in these cases the author should probably submit to a more specialized journal where the editors will have a better idea of who to ask, as JR suggests.
On a semi-related note: if you get a request to review and you don't want to do it, you should decline it as soon as possible. One of the biggest delays in this process comes from potential reviewers who don't respond to requests, or who wait a week or two to decline them. If even a few potential reviewers do this, it can easily add up to an extra six weeks or two months in the submission process. In a case like JR's where the paper ultimately never gets reviewed, that probably feels like insult added to injury. I have a feeling that above-mentioned reason for rejection were given after two weeks instead of 6, it would have been far less upsetting.

Nicolas

"if you get a request to review and you don't want to do it, you should decline it as soon as possible. One of the biggest delays in this process comes from potential reviewers who don't respond to requests, or who wait a week or two to decline them"

Amen to that. Yes, not only should you do your review promptly (in a matter of a few weeks, NOT just before the deadline they gave you), you should respond to refereeing requests ASAP (in a matter of a couple days if possible).

JP

Many political science journals ask authors to suggest reviewers. This practice comes with its own set of issues, but it may be worth considering, especially when the editor is not very knowledgeable of the subject area.

Relatedly, I’m curious as to how editors approach the problem of recruiting referees. Are editors on the lookout for scholars they could enlist, or are they drawing from the same pool of reviewers. And how do they go about expanding the pool? Do new additions tend to just be new post docs in their department? Or do they have an eye to the international academic scene.

Dan Weiskopf

Above, the commentator "Some editorial experience" says:

"I don't think journal editors are obliged to keep searching for referees until they find them. If, after a reasonable effort has been made, an editor can't find qualified referees, I think it's fair for them to say, 'We haven't been able to find qualified reviewers for this paper, so we can't publish it.'"

I disagree with this. Within specialized areas there are often relatively few journals that would be strong fits for a particular paper, and every rejection makes the pool even smaller. If a piece merits a desk reject, so be it, but rejection of otherwise prima facie meritorious papers without review can seriously deprive authors of good publication opportunities.

For context, I've been an Associate Editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science for five years now. (Here I speak for myself and not on behalf of BJPS.) In that time, I have certainly had trouble securing qualified referees for some papers. I can readily recall cases where I've had to try 7+ people before I found the needed two--one piece, appallingly, took 13 tries. I have never had a paper for which I couldn't find referees at all. Of course, referees are not always as speedy as they should be in either agreeing to serve or returning reports, and once in a while there are cases of truly epic delinquency. But as an editor, one of my responsibilities is to know my field in sufficient depth and breadth to find those talented people who are willing to do their part in support of their colleagues. I would regard giving up on a paper for lack of referees as a serious professional failure.

My attitude here is colored by the fact that I once had a paper languish with a major specialist journal for nine months (from Nov. 2005 to Aug. 2006) because the editor was allegedly unable to find referees for it. In the end they suggested that I, then a pre-tenure assistant professor, might prefer to take my submission elsewhere. I did so, and it was eventually published. I don't pretend to know what actually went on behind the scenes in my case, nor in the case of JR in the original post, but yes, within living memory major journals have turned away papers on the ostensible grounds that no referees can be found for them. I can't speak to whether it's a trend (though I suspect not), but given the marked power disparity between journal editors and authors, it's beyond a doubt unfair whenever it occurs.

JP

Dan -- thanks for your insights. It is heartening to know that some editors take the task seriously and put in the time and effort to, as you put it, "know the field in sufficient depth and breadth to find those talented people who are willing to do their part." I think BJPS is exceptionally good in this sense (my experience with them as both an author and referee confirm this).

David McCarthy

It may be that some journals interpret large numbers of declined invitations as de facto reviews. I try to keep the number of manuscripts I have on my desk to review at no more than four, and that means declining about 20% of invitations. That makes some invitations marginal. Journals almost always send you the paper to preview, so in the marginal cases I'll chose either the papers that look really interesting, or the ones that are going to be quick rejections. If a paper looks mediocre -- you can usually tell very quickly -- and I am close to certain that I would recommend rejection if I reviewed it, then I am likely to decline. I am sure that other reviewers are similar, so at least for generalist papers, an editor may decide that 6 or 8 declined requests constitute a verdict. It's not ideal, but it's not unreasonable either.

The difficulty is that if you accept a review and the paper is mediocre, most journals still ask you to write the page long review that they will send to the author. You have to think about how to be constructive and not unkind, and so on, and that takes quite a lot of time. By contrast, Phil Review, for example, often sends out papers to referees asking whether they think the paper should be sent out for a full review. You have the option of recommending a desk rejection with a brief explanation that will typically not be sent to the author. I think it would help if other journals did the same. Many papers are desk rejections, but you can only recognize that if you know the field very well, and editorial boards of generalist journals will often not have sufficiently broad coverage to make that judgment where appropriate.

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