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12/16/2022

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grad student

Many journals seem to be having this problem. I sent papers to two specialist journals this year that informed me they hadn't found reviewers when I did a 5-month check in. The journals eventually did find reviewers and I got first-round decisions for both after waiting 9 months for each. A colleague waited a full year for a first-round decision at another specialist journal for this reason. I'd be prepared to wait.

anon

It sounds a bit to me like the OP may have submitted to Ergo, which clearly indicates when they invite reviewers, if/when the reviewer agrees, etc.

If it is Ergo, I wouldn't withdraw, even though five months is certainly getting long. In my experience they're good about putting the work in to find someone. With other journals that don't make the process as transparent, maybe they're stacking up the rejections too and you just never hear about it.

Hmmm

Going through 4 or 5 reviewers in 5 months is weird. It is common for editors to try several referees. Many more than 4 or 5 is not abnormal. It should not, however, take them 5 months. This is a red flag.

This is speaking as someone who has guest edited a Synthese special issue and was previously employed as a journal manager.

anonymous associate professor and associate editor

As an AE at a top general journal, I can attest that it is very hard to find referees. I don't think many people in the profession, i.e. who aren't involved in putting out journals, quite understand this. But it shouldn't take 5 months to issue 4 or 5 invitations that all get turned down. That suggests an associate editor who is (a) perhaps not doing enough to follow up on invitations and (b) may be handling a paper that is not within their own area of expertise. I find that, when handling papers that are clearly within my own area of expertise (i.e. where I have good first-hand knowledge of who is working in that area, and some contacts), I can usually place a paper within 1-3 invitations.

I'd maybe give it up to six months, contact the journal editor one more time, and then consider submitting the paper elsewhere if they still have not found referees.

a postdoc

At a lot of journals I submit to you can get a sense of whether this is happening by checking the current status of the paper (e.g. "reviewers assigned" vs. "under review").

I've encountered this problem at a number of journals (e.g. Ergo and Phil. Studies) in the last year or two where I at least hadn't noticed it previously. In one recent case, a Phil. Studies editor claimed that the profession is overwhelmed with submissions and indicated that the paper, which had then been at the journal for nearly a year, had been sent to several people who agreed to review and then backed out and also to ten other people who declined the invitation to review.

While I'd wager that there's been an uptick in the problem, I've also had plenty of recent submissions receive timely reviewer reports and verdicts, sometimes with papers that encountered the problem at other journals and sometimes at journals where I've encountered the problem with another paper. This makes me doubt that the problem boils down to the profession being overwhelmed with submissions. What's more likely, I conjecture, is that for a given topic some but not other journals are drawing from a narrow reviewer pool that the journal or profession has exhausted. This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that in some cases where I have encountered the problem, I have let the editor know that I'm currently willing to help the journal with its reviewer shortage in my areas of expertise X, Y, and Z (where some of these are areas that I've published in at the journal in question); yet no invitations follow.  If that hypothesis is part of what's going on, it'd be a point in favor of withdrawing and submitting to another journal.

Some things that might help with the problem at the level of the profession:
-More journals could ask authors in the submission process to suggest reviewers who are non-obvious (are not personally known by the author, would be a good reviewer for the paper for such and such reasons, etc.).
-Authors could include such suggestions when they submit regardless of whether the journal asks for them. (I'd be curious to hear from editors about how they'd treat unprompted suggestions of this sort.)
-Journals could become transparent about their reviewer situations in different areas (e.g. by posting the average review time and/or number of reviewer invitations per submission in different areas). That'd allow authors (especially those on the job market or tenure clock) to make better informed decisions about where to submit.  It'd make it easier to notice and correct reviewer shortages that result from drawing on an overly narrow pool. And it'd militate against a journal analog of an absurd situation in which lots of people wait in long lines at a food court with ample capacity because the people seeking food are in the dark about the wait times and line lengths.

[Marcus, feel free to delete the profession-level suggestions if they're too far afield.]

F

I think it also depends on the topic of the paper. When it's very original and technical, there might not be many qualified people with enough time.
This recently happened to me, as a potential reviewer. This was a 60-page technical paper where my work was maybe discussed for a paragraph. I should have spent weeks learning the new stuff, and I couldn't afford that kind of time.

So you can suggest reviewers to next journal.

Journals owned by for-profit publishers should pay reviewers.

Anonymous editor

I am editor at a (very specialist) journal and here's an inside look--we got a paper in June and we desk-reviewed it. It's a promising paper, but on an obscure topic in the field. I imagine there are maybe 5 specialists on this topic. A week later, we sent the paper out for review. Because we are such a specialist journal we often just use one reviewer + the judgment of one of the editors, and everyone signs off on the process.
Mid-July: reviewer (most obvious choice) declines and sends helpful suggestions.
Mid-July: suggestions decline
Late July: we send to another reviewer
Early August: follow-up sent because reviewer doesn't respond
Mid-August: sent to new referee...
Etc etc. you get the picture
finally, early October, a referee accepts.
We're now late December. It's been over 2 months since we asked and no response. We sent a follow up but have not heard back.
What if there's no response?
This is unsustainable. I really have no idea who to ask next, and finding reviewers on obscure topics after the obvious candidates decline is a huge problem. I would not mind at all if the author withdraws (we sent them an update a while ago). But would the author have more luck with another journal? Maybe they know people we don't. Or maybe the previous referees would accept a request if it came from another journal, after all maybe they have more time?
I don't know--but this situation is really terrible especially for junior people. We try our best to get things reviewed within 2 months of receipt (desk review, sending out etc) but when we get a trajectory like that (and some papers seem to be particularly unlucky) it doesn't work.

concerned ED

post doc
It is quite inappropriate for authors to recommend reviewers. Clearly, this invites all sorts of abuses. There are many cases in the sciences - where this is common practice - where authors are recommending friends, or even creating false accounts so they can review their own paper. I speak as someone who works as an editor, and has worked as part of an editorial team on a science journal.

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