Do editors really use those lists of “recommended reviewers”? And who should you suggest?

You know the feeling: you’ve spent many hours painstakingly massaging your manuscript into compliance with a journal’s idiosyncratic formatting requirements. You’ve spent another two hours battling its online submission system*.  You’re almost there – ready to hit “submit” and go for a well-deserved beer or cinnamon bun – but there’s One More Screen.  The system wants your list of five recommended reviewers.  Does this really matter?  What does an editor do with it?

Well, I can’t speak for every editor (and I hope some others will add their own thoughts in the Replies).  But I can tell you what I do with them, and perhaps that can guide you when you get asked for that list.

To start with: do editors use these lists or ignore them? Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of variation.  I suspect some editors ignore them entirely; but many editors use them. I suspect most. (By the way: everyone has heard the theory that editors use them strictly to avoid any reviewer the authors recommend.  I’m aware of no actual editor who does that.) 

Let me tell you how I use recommended-reviewer lists. This is part of my larger strategy for finding and choosing reviewers, and if you’re interested, I described that more fully in an earlier post.

First, I skim the authors’ list of recommendations, and see if it tells me anything about who they see as their paper’s audience.  Do they list five theoretical ecologists, or five applied conservation biologists?  Does that square with the manuscript’s Abstract?  Does that square with the readership of the journal I’m editing for? These answers help me decide what sort of person I’m looking for to review (and even whether the authors have chosen the right target journal).

Then I start my own reviewer list by picking a few from the authors’ suggestions.  I don’t generally use the whole list; if I’m shooting for a list of six reviewers to ask**, I’ll most often use two or three from the author’s suggestions.  I’ll probably try to pick names that are a bit different – maybe your most senior suggestion and also your most junior, for instance.  Finally, when I’m done I’ll also structure my list, and the order in which I invite people, so that if I get two reviews in the end it’s likely to be one of “theirs” and one of “mine”.  

So who should be on your list?

You should, of course, suggest reviewers with appropriate expertise.  It’s completely fine to suggest folks who have expertise in a particular part of your work, rather than the whole thing – the study system, or the statistical approach, or the analytical chemistry, say.  (It’s even helpful if you tell the editor something like “this reviewer is expert at the modeling approach we take”).  And they needn’t be expert at exactly what you do: someone working on a similar system or related questions may be able to help you broaden the appeal of your paper, or make you aware of issues or literature adjacent to your own field.  But don’t get carried away: don’t suggest a nanotube electrochemist to review your mating-behaviour study.

What about suggesting Famous People?  If I see a very well-known senior name on the suggested list, I may use it – but I won’t feel compelled to.  In fact, I’m more likely to see whether that person has a postdoc or PhD student I can invite.  Early-career reviewers are, in my experience, more likely to say yes, and more likely to deliver a really high-quality review

That last point means you shouldn’t worry that your Famous Person might be too busy, or too above-all-that, to review.  That’s my problem, not yours, and in any case the name you’re mentioning isn’t just a single suggestion – it brings my attention to a whole research group.  By the way, you also shouldn’t worry that your Famous Person will write a tough review, because they’re at the top of their field.  In my experience, the correlation between seniority (or famousness) and toughness is very low.

You don’t, by the way, have to know the folks you recommend.  (It might even be better if you don’t, although that gets more and more difficult as you build a network over the course of your career.)  Don’t be afraid to recommend scientists from the global community – if they’ve published relevant work or have relevant expertise, it doesn’t matter where they are.

Are there names you shouldn’t put on your recommended-reviewer list?  Absolutely.  Don’t suggest people who have conflicts of interest – for example, those at your own institution, who you’ve worked with recently, or who are thanked in your Acknowledgements.  An editor who notices this will be annoyed. An editor who doesn’t notice this until a possible reviewer alerts them to a conflict will be really annoyed. An editor who doesn’t notice this until after publication will be extremely annoyed – possibly even paper-retraction annoyed.  You don’t want any of those levels of annoyance.

It’s worth putting a little time into constructing your list (yes, even when that celebratory beer or cinnamon bun awaits).  Peer review is an important part of our publishing system, and despite frequent complaints, it makes almost everything we publish better.  If you can help the editor find reviewers who are interested in, and expert on, what you’re writing about, your manuscript can come closer to being the best it can be.  And your editor will be grateful, too.

© Stephen Heard  July 28, 2020 

UPDATE: What about the list of disfavoured reviewers?  Ah, that’s addressed here.

If you’re interested in a more general treatment of how I pick reviewers when handling a paper, see this older post.

Image: Maybe don’t make these choices.


*^Don’t get me started.  Is there are reason why they all have to have different password requirements, and why they don’t tell you what they are but make you take repeated shots in the dark at whether that special character is satisfactory, or whether you need two upper-case letters?  A reason other than that IT people hate us, I mean.

**^Six is a typical list for the two journals I’m most familiar with; and possible reviewers are asked sequentially until two agree.  It’s not uncommon to exhaust the list and have to add more names. I’ve been fortunate never (I think) to go beyond 10 or so, to get 2 reviews; but horror stories of asking 30 people, and giving up, crop up more often than you’d think.

19 thoughts on “Do editors really use those lists of “recommended reviewers”? And who should you suggest?

  1. Christopher Moore (@lifedispersing)

    Thanks for this informative and thoughtful post! I’ve recently been including information about the reviewers, as you suggest. I’ve included whether they are early-, mid-, or late-career scientists; their areas of expertise/justification of why they would make a good reviewer; and nationality because I think it’s important to have perspectives from different, relatively-independent intellectual lineages.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Marco – as an editor I really appreciate it if you also say WHY you think each one would give a useful review – e.g. “developed the main R package we use”, “expert in infernce from mark-recapture data”, “extensive experience with study species” – that sort of thing. Someone on Twitter also suggested some basic demographics – early/mid/late career, and nationality/location – this could be helpful in assembling more diverse reviewer panels, and is something I wouldn’t have thought to indicate.

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Marco Mello

        Thank you, Stephen! I’ll make more informative suggestions next time. Should I repeat my suggestions in the cover letter? In the online systems of many journals, where we make the suggestions, there isn’t usually room enough for all this info.

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          1. Marco Mello

            By the way, do you think cover letters are still as important as they once were? I’ve been hearing comments on social media and also in real-world conversations (before the Coronapocalypse) that some editors don’t even read cover letters anymore.

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              1. Marco Mello

                Yes, please do it! Academic rituals have been changing quickly in the past years. Thus, it’s always good to hear how people actually view “standard practices”, such as cover letters. Bauman’s liquid world applies also to academia.

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  2. Alex SL

    First, I skim the authors’ list of recommendations, and see if it tells me anything about who they see as their paper’s audience. […] It’s completely fine to suggest folks who have expertise in a particular part of your work, rather than the whole thing.

    There is a bit of tension between these two statements. I have often suggested reviewers who are not at all part of the intended audience of my work but who are experts in a study group or a method used in the paper.

    Don’t suggest people who have conflicts of interest – for example, those at your own institution, who you’ve worked with recently, or who are thanked in your Acknowledgements. An editor who notices this will be annoyed.

    And then at the other end of the spectrum there is the kind of editor who pays so little attention that they send the paper out for review by one of the authors, as happened to one of my colleagues…

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  3. Manu Saunders

    Thanks, very helpful! I do hate this screen in the submission process, especially the journals that want at least six or more names. I understand it’s there to give the editor a helping hand, but at the same time I grumble that it feels like it’s more outsourcing of editorial work and just another unnecessary hoop to make the authors jump through. Agree that there is huge variation in whether editors use the susggestions or not – I rarely do. I have always wondered why individual editors can’t turn that feature off if it’s not important to them (although obviously wouldn’t work for journals where AEs handle the papers).

    Recently I submitted a minor correction for one of my papers – it was literally adding an image attribution to one of the figure captions, but I had to submit the ‘paper’ through the normal submission process and (you guessed it!) name reviewers! And yes, I wrote friends’ names down, because it was so ridiculous (wish I’d thought of Beyonce). 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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  4. Juan Corley

    I totally agree with you Steve here. My approach is very similar. As and editor myself I often find suggestions made by the authors to be very useful, especially with those manuscripts that deal with topics I’m less acquainted with. A match between some from the list, with others can work really well. So I do delay my “mate” (sorry no beer here) for later, and spend some time checking the right boxes in the journal’s website…and suggest my students to think about reviewers before submitting their work. I mean, it takes a bit of work to write a good paper…so some more time spent in this, seems to me of little importance…at least compared to “formating” a paper or coming up with graphical abstract…upon submission!

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  5. Pingback: Como sugerir revisores e editores para um manuscrito – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  6. cinnabarreflections

    I may not be quite as structured as you, Steve, but I find suggestions helpful, particularly when the manuscript is a bit marginal to my own area of interest. Having more information about each would be even better, but I have rarely seen that. I never use all suggestions, but will use anywhere from zero to two, depending on circumstances. The journals I have been subject editor for (Environmental Entomology, The Canadian Entomologist, and Journal of the Entomological Society of BC) all have lists of editors that you can consult. The EE was good as you could search on keywords, but often it comes down to searching for suitable experts by various means.
    On a related issue (another post, perhaps), how do you handle a request to NOT use a particular reviewer?

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      1. Chris Mebane

        I was thinking about that too with this post, from my perspective as an AE for a journal that uses the ScholarOne manuscript handling system. It is structured so that opposed reviewers are automatically queued up right alongside the suggested reviewers for the editor to invite at the click of a mouse*. Yes, there is text saying whether the reviewer is Recommended or Opposed, but it’s subtle and easy to overlook. The fact that the software queues up opposed reviewers for invitation boggles the mind. I presume it’s just lazy coding

        More generally, why list opposed reviewers? If it’s a large enough field, why draw them out and clue in the editor that there’s someone in particular who doesn’t like the work or the person? If it’s a narrow field and there’s a likely reviewer with prejudice or enmity towards the work or the authors, then opposing reviewers may be needed, and I would include a measured, brief explanation in the cover letter. I wouldn’t say too much, as confidentiality in the peer review process is not guaranteed.

        One situation I object to is when an author writes a piece that is highly critical of the work of others, and then asks that the subjects of their criticism be excluded as reviewers. Seems like a dodge. The last time I encountered that (a list of 9 opposed!) I wrote back to the author saying that their request was unreasonable and asked whether they would agree to my inviting an opposed reviewer for balance or if they would prefer to send their article elsewhere.

        Unfortunately, an author just doesn’t know what an editor will do with listing an opposed reviewer. I don’t know how often I see opposed reviewers listed, but it’s uncommon at my journal, fewer than 1 in 10. I would think hard before listing opposed reviewers.

        * I don’t know about other systems, but ScholarOne is set up so that mouse-click editors can handle a manuscript from initial review to acceptance without ever touching a keyboard.

        Liked by 2 people

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Thanks, Chris! And look for a post on opposed (disfavoured) reviewers this week. And since I hadn’t thought of the scenario in your third comment, I’m going to add it in (and credit you) – I agree, that’s NOT an appropriate use of a disfavoured reviewer list.

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  7. Pingback: The list of disfavoured reviewers: who should be on yours? And will an editor heed it? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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