The Fourth Reviewer: More suggestions about suggesting reviewers

Tim Vines is an evolutionary ecologist who found his calling in the process of peer review. He was Managing Editor of Molecular Ecology from 2008 to 2015, launched The Molecular Ecologist in 2010, and is the founder and Managing Editor of Axios Review. Here, Tim is The Fourth Reviewer, taking on your questions about peer review and publishing. Got a question for the Fourth Reviewer? Send us an e-mail!

Should I ask people before I recommend them as reviewers on my manuscript?

Interesting question! Getting in contact with people before listing them as ‘preferred reviewers’ has never occurred to me before, but my instinct is that this is a bad idea.

First, people you list as preferred should be ‘arms-length’ from you and your group, i.e. people who are experts in your area that you’ve never gone drinking with. Emailing these people out of the blue and telling them you’re trying to get them extra reviewing work might not go down well. Second, they may feel that your email was a clumsy attempt to curry favor, which might either make them less likely to agree to review, or might just lower their opinion of you in general. Third, even if a ‘you’re my preferred reviewer!’ email doesn’t upset them, they might feel slighted if the journal doesn’t end up inviting them to review – after all, they’re well qualified with an impeccable reputation, so why didn’t the journal consult them?

Whatever you do, don’t list close collaborators or people at your institution as ‘preferred reviewers’ – even if your intentions are innocent, it looks like you’re trying to con the Editor into inviting your friends and associates to review.

Last, journals never indicate to reviewers whether they’re preferred, non-preferred or just an editor’s pick, so (given the above) there’s really nothing to be gained by alerting people that they’re your preferred reviewers ahead of time.

If you suggest a couple of reviewers you think are most suitable, should you suggest them again when you get rejected and have to resubmit?

If you think you (as an author) are puzzled on what to do with preferred reviewers, try it from the journal’s side. It’s either “who the hell are these people!?” or “why would these Nobel prize winners want to review this?” Even when the reviewers are perfectly sensible suggestions and well removed from the authors (i.e not regular co-authors or at the same uni), there’s always the suspicion that the authors have a cozy arrangement with their preferred reviewers for providing mutual positive reviews. These fears are confirmed by the occasional emergence of peer review rings or fake reviewer services.

Journals correspondingly have a wide range of policies, both formal and informal, on what to do with preferred reviewers. Some like to use them, and actively require author suggestions, while others don’t allow them at all. I suspect they’re mostly used by editors as good starting point, and sometimes picked if the editor thinks they’re especially suitable. The editor will also take glowing reviews from preferred reviewers with a hefty dose of salt. Strangely, reviewers suggested by the author are often quite negative about the paper, as if they’re a little embarrassed to be picked and are over-compensating. Or perhaps they’re just very well acquainted with the work and therefore spot things missed by others.

So, my advice would be to switch up your preferred reviewers when you submit to a new journal, particularly if you feel that the paper didn’t get a fair shake at the last one.

If you have a question about peer review or scientific publishing for The Fourth Reviewer, send us an e-mail. Questions will be presented pseudonymously, and may be edited for space and grammar.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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