One of the things that often shocks new journal editors is the difficulty that they face in obtaining referees for papers. It is often necessary to approach a string of referees in order to obtain the requisite number of references. Most annoyingly of all, sometimes a person who has just submitted a paper to a journal then refuses to referee for it or has the nerve to complain about delays to the reviewing process occasioned precisely by the search for referees. And that is before we get to the people who are approached who never even deign to reply. More seriously, at least from my experience of editing a journal, the problem is getting worse.
Journal refereeing is one of the key elements of peer review. It depends on reciprocity. Without that essential element of give in order to take the quality of reciprocity will gradually fade away.
Make no mistake, there are many people who faithfully review almost everything that they are asked to look at. These people are the backbone of the system and we should all thank them: there should probably be a memorial set up for some of them. But others are quite happy to let these trustworthy folk take the strain. Indeed, through the indifference of the free riders, the load on these folk is often made higher.
So why is the problem getting worse all around the world?
There are all kinds of reasons, no doubt. One is the proliferation of journals. Hardly a week seems to go by without an announcement of another journal making its way across my screen. Many of these journals are marginal at best but they all increase the overall refereeing load.
Then there are all the demands for other kinds of refereeing–from research bodies of one kind or another to universities seeking references, and so on.
Again, there is the increase in academic workloads in some universities. The world recession is hardly likely to ease that particular pressure.
But the fact of the matter is that without reciprocity, journals, the very outlet that academics are apparently so keen to get their work published in, will fade and die.
Journal editors are becoming more exasperated. It wouldn’t seem to be too big a task to at least reply to a request but some colleagues aren’t even up to that. Others just cite the “refereeing is free labor for large publishing corporations” argument, as if that makes it alright (I’d be interested to know if open access journals are getting any better a response to their requests).
Now no one is saying that it is possible to accede to every refereeing request but there must be some way of making it clear that at the very least getting a paper published in a journal itself establishes a minimal line of responsibility. As a rough rule of thumb, we should probably referee three times as many papers as we submit. My colleague Stuart Elden wrote an excellent editorial a while back in which he argued precisely this point and made clear that the journal he edited expected, as a condition of acceptance of a paper, that the authors(s) would agree to act as a referee for other submissions to the journal.
Oh, and just for the record, I do still try to referee papers.