Being a Good Referee
- You are
performing a valuable service to the profession. It is worth doing well.
It also is good for your spirit when you have done something worthwhile
- As soon as
you receive a manuscript, make sure it is something you are qualified to
judge. If you had agreed to review because of a misleading title and you are
not qualified to do the job, return the paper to the editor as soon as
- A referee
report consists of two parts:
cover letter with the manuscript number/title and your opinion, and
report itself intended to be transmitted to the author(s).
- E-mail reports
are acceptable to most journals. If the editorial office is modern and the
journal is well-managed, e-mail reports should be preferred to reports by
fax or snail (regular) mail, because snail mail often unduly retards the
editorial process and fax reports often are difficult to read because of
low resolution and small letters.
sending the report via e-mail or fax particularly when the editor is on a
different continent. International mail is generally less reliable than
its domestic counterpart.
- To expedite
the refereeing process, you may fax your cover letter and comments. Use
high resolution mode, if possible. Just in case, also mail the report.
- If regular
mail is chosen, include two or three copies of the report.
- If you lose
the manuscript, apologize and ask the editor to send you another copy.
Editors understand that referees who travel frequently lose manuscripts
- Do not wait
six months to ask for a replacement copy or to tell you never received the
If you do not receive
- If within
four weeks (six weeks for international mail) you do not get the
manuscript you agreed to referee, contact the editor. The manuscript is
either lost or has not been sent out.
Does One Become A Referee?
Here is a brief answer in response to this frequently asked question. If you
are well established, you will probably get a fair share of articles to
referee. If not, there are two ways to become a referee:
articles to journals. If you write an article on a given subject, editors
often assume you are an expert in that area. You might become a referee
for papers on similar topics.
- Write a
letter to the editors. You can express your willingness to serve as a
referee in the areas of your choice. It is a good idea to enclose your curriculum
is more appreciated by the editor and the authors than a prompt referee
report. The future career of the author depends on your timely service.
- Do it
in 4 to 6 weeks.
be too prompt! Otherwise, you may get too many requests.
and sincere reports are your line of credit. You may need it when you
submit a paper to that journal.
copies are acceptable, but you may e-mail the report.
- If it
would take you more than three months to complete
the review, inform the editor about the delay.
a fair and constructive referee
not react even if the author attacks your previous contributions.
the days when you were a tadpole and the referees were gentle to you.
on the merits, not on the immaturity of the writer. Science advances
because the next generation is immature and willing to experiment.
you are unfair or sloppy in a referee report, the authors may strike
back. The editor will remember the incident, even if the decision is not
- If it
is outside your area of expertise, promptly return the paper.
the topic is in your area, studying the paper carefully may lead you to
write another paper.
sure that you do not plagiarize and steal the ideas in the paper, either
consciously or subconsciously.
instance, examine the motive of a referee who says to himself:
"Hm.... I can do better than this author without making all these
stupid mistakes. In fact, I am going to do it."
you want to borrow some ideas from the paper, even if it is badly
written, make sure you recommend its publication and explain how to
revise it. If the author gave enough ideas to you to write a related
paper, perhaps you should recommend its publication. Ask the editor when
the paper will be published so you can cite it.
- It is
unethical to recommend rejection of a paper which gives you creative
ideas to write another paper.
You can reduce untold amounts of frustration
you may impose upon authors and help the profession immensely if your cover
- the manuscript
number (it takes extra time to locate the manuscript without it).
title (in case there is an error in the manuscript number, this ensures
that the editorial office locates the manuscript).
- your permanent
Accept in present form or with slight changes.
Accept for publication after minor revision, with a suggestion about the
Reconsider for publication after extensive revision.
Reject, with suggestions for possible submission elsewhere.
you did not recommend one of the above, your letter is not well written.
letter should be brief, not technical
the reasons why you recommend that the paper be accepted, rejected, or revised.
you would like the editor to accept the paper, your recommendation must
you consistently recommend rejection, then the editor recognizes you are
a stingy, overly critical person. Do not assume that the editor will not
reveal your identity to the authors. In the long run, there are no
you recommend acceptance of all papers, then the editor knows you are not
a discriminating referee.
your comments that include your reasons, suggestions, and concerns.
on the manuscript's originality, clarity, contribution to the literature,
and relevance to real world problems.
suggestions about its length, organization, tables, and figures.
bottom line is this: If there is an important idea in the paper, make
constructive comments (e.g., how to streamline the arguments, what parts
should be cut) and help the authors publish the paper.
not, say so frankly. There is no point in beating about the bush. If the
paper is clearly below the journal standards, detailed comments are
you e-mail your report, go to Document Property and delete your name.
Your computer may automatically record your name as the author of the
report, which may be accidentally transmitted to the author.
you write a negative report, avoid citing your own papers
animals, referees often leave their marks in their reports.
you vote against publication, do not cite your papers. Someday the author
will become a referee and return the "favor" in the next round.
paradox of refereeing is this: When you are a referee, you are the
expert. When the other person becomes a referee of your paper, he or she
becomes the expert. Circumstances can change.
not say in the report whether the paper should be accepted or rejected.
This belongs in the cover letter.
careful with your negative reports. Do not demoralize the authors.
you consistently recommend rejection of all papers in your area, people will
stop doing research in your area. Soon the topic becomes obsolete and so
soon the negative word gets around and people in the profession might
figure out who you are.
your published paper is relevant, you may cite it, but it should be done
without hinting at the identity of the referee. Do not cite your
more than one paragraph
you do not, you are not a sincere referee, whether you are famous or not.
You should have given the job to others who would devote more time and
care to the review.
the authors have spent several months to years to complete the paper.
They deserve more attention.
the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
there is a new important idea, help the author to publish it
recommendation should be independent of whether the authors have cited
your papers or not.
- Do not
use the report as an opportunity to force the author to cite your paper
if it is tangentially related. This is unethical.
beings don’t write papers (What would be the point?) All papers written
by mortals have problems. Your role is not in finding all the faults in
the author can fix the problems with reasonable effort, do not
overemphasize the faults. Then recommend publication (in the letter).
something good, something bad
cannot write “perfect” papers. Even the best paper has some
problems, and you can ask the author to make improvements.
- You also
can say something nice about the worst paper. Remember you are dealing
with a person, and your report should not inordinately demoralize the
the days when you were a tadpole before you write a nasty report.
can recommend rejection for good reasons and still be kind to the author.
should be based on the ideas in the paper
first paragraph should be a summary of the contribution. The editor is not
knowledgeable in all areas.
evaluation should be based solely on the merit or ideas contained in the
not on who wrote the paper.
not make comments demoralizing the author in the report. Thomas
Edison’s mother was reportedly told by his teacher that Thomas was
“addled” and will never amount to anything.
there is a writing problem, it should be noted.
that English is spoken by only 8% of the world population.
righteous referee shows no favoritism. There is no justification for
10. Avoid pointing out mathematical
you are absolutely sure.
you are wrong, the author will protest, and the second referee might
you lose credibility, your future papers also are suspect.
of saying the authors made a mistake, you can say you cannot obtain the
if you are certain, say so and explain why.
11. If it is hopeless, say so, and save
the authors from further misery
try to be too nice in order to salvage an unpublishable idea.
a good referee does not mean you try to help everybody publish in that
capacities cannot be exceeded. Regardless of your suggestions, the author
cannot improve the quality of the paper more than 50%. Remember this when
you recommend revision.
recommendations should be based on the quality of an anticipated
© Kwan Choi, 1998-2002.