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.