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October 2, 2015 / jpschimel

How to Recommend Reviewers when you Submit a Paper?

I’m one of the Chief Editors of a major international journal and I need to find reviewers for ~150 papers a year. A substantial fraction of those papers are in sub-fields I’m not deeply expert in. So we ask authors to suggest reviewers. I never rely entirely on that list, but I always start by looking at it for ideas and inspiration.  While some reviewer lists are really helpful,  others are useless. Why? What makes a good list of recommended reviewers?

Keep in mind several principles:

  1. I’m looking for people who I think I can trust to give objective, thoughtful, and critical reviews.
  2. I’m a senior researcher in my field and I know the big names.
  3. The most senior people in your field are very busy.

So how do these principles translate into a good list of recommended reviewers?

First, if you suggest the three biggest names in the field, I already know them! And I already know they are likely to say no. So by suggesting those gods, you’ve done me no help at all.

Alternatively, if you recommend people I suspect might be too close to you, I worry that they won’t give a critical review. For many U.S. and European scientists, I know the relationship structures, but if I’m unsure, I look for reviewers from different Countries, States, or at least different Universities. For example, I might ask someone from York to review a paper from Exeter (in the U.K.), or someone from Umea to review a paper from Lund (in Sweden). But for an American paper, I’ll still usually try to avoid two US. Reviewers; Soil Biology & Biochemistry is an international journal and we take that seriously. If I have reason to suspect the quality of your recommendations, I’m unlikely to use any of them.

So, if you are a scientist in a small country with a small research community, don’t recommend three reviewers from your country! If, for example, a Czech scientist recommends three people with .cz email addresses, I’m likely to disregard all of them, especially if they are names I don’t know well. Honestly, I’d even be suspicious of two .cz addresses.

On this matter, China remains the biggest question mark for me. China may be as large and with as dispersed a research community as the U.S., but the Chinese research community is still emerging on the international stage (at least in my field) and I don’t have as good a sense of where all the different units are or what the relationships are, which I do have for the U.S. and Europe. Chinese naming practices—few, but common, family names—also make it harder for outsiders to assess who’s who. There are many Li’s, Zhu’s, etc. It’s like Wales, where half the population is named Jones, except the Chinese population is 6600 times larger. In contrast I know only one other Schimel in Ecology and he’s my brother. So if you’re Chinese, I’d recommend that you not suggest three Chinese reviewers (and maybe not even two).

O.K., so I’ve told you what not to do. What should you do? How do you put together a reviewer list that I, as editor, will find useful in helping me find good reviewers quickly?

Give a list of people who aren’t the obvious “usual suspects” in the broad field. In terms of seniority, focus on mid-career (e.g. Associate Prof. level in the U.S. rank scale is often ideal); junior faculty or even postdocs can also be great if they’ve done interesting and insightful work in your area. Often younger researchers do the best reviews, and the ideal is someone who’s had enough experience to develop vision and perspective, but who still has the time in their life to commit to doing a thoughtful review. The perfect name is one to which my response will be “Ah ha, of course! I hadn’t thought of her, but she’d be great.”

Give me three of those, and I will be grateful and impressed. Never a bad way for the editor to feel when he’s beginning the process of determining your paper’s fate.

P.S. Oh, and don’t recommend as a reviewer someone who is already one of the Chief Editors for the journal. It really doesn’t help me if I’m handling a paper as editor and someone listed me as a suggested reviewer.

P.P.S. Do NOT recommend reviewers who you have been co-authoring papers with!!!! They have a Conflict of Interest and will have to decline. I would have thought this so obvious as to go without saying, but I was wrong. I just invited a reviewer based on a suggestion from the authors and had the reviewer  decline because they were co-authoring several papers together. Luckily, this reviewer responded rapidly, but you really don’t want me wasting a week or more waiting to hear from an invited reviewer who will have to decline.

Note, not all co-authorships constitute a CoI. For example, I’ve been a co-author on several large group synthesis papers where I don’t know all the co-authors well enough to have a conflict.





Leave a Comment
  1. Elina Mäntylä / Oct 8 2015 8:23 am

    If I know some young researcher that could be a good reviewer for my manuscript, I always try to recommend them. First reason is the one you pointed that they are more likely to say yes. The other is that I remember how great it was when I got my first manuscript to review. It felt amazing to be a respected scientist and give your opinion on a manuscript. I want to spread that feeling forward.


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