The ref’s a procrastinator

August 27, 2015

I was very interested by the feature concerning low refereeing standards (“On the receiving end”, Features, 6 August). One regrettable practice that was not mentioned was the increasing tendency for editors and referees to take an inordinately long time to provide reports, and then to provide only very brief reports.

For instance, some time ago I submitted a paper to a journal and heard nothing for six months. I wrote asking about the progress of my paper and received a reply apologising, saying that the refereeing process was under way but that the referees were all busy academics, and stating that the journal had “sent out prompts”. Another six months and another letter produced a reply saying that the delay was unacceptable and they were dealing with it. After another month, I received a letter from the managing editor, who had not communicated with me before, stating that the subject matter of my paper did not lie within the scope of the journal.

On another occasion, I submitted a paper to a different journal. After six months and a letter of enquiry, I received a referee’s report of about one side of A4. I made the changes requested and sent off the revised manuscript. After another six months of silence, a request from me elicited a further referee’s report of 110 words. The editor asked for a response within six weeks. I sent it off. That was in March. I have heard nothing since.

It is absolutely impossible to do anything about such low standards. If you harry journals and their reviewers, they reject your paper. There is no point in complaining afterwards because the damage is done. Delays in publication can be harmful for any academic, but in the cases of junior staff, the damage is incalculable. Postdoctorates are employed on short-term contracts. Junior lecturers are on probation. A paper is rejected after 18 months. It is then rejected again after another year. The researcher’s contract runs out. Without publications, one cannot get a job. Such delays can destroy a career.

Mark Jones
Lecturer in mathematics
Kingston University

As someone keen to pursue a career in academia, I read with disbelief the argument from some quarters that the peer review process should be phased out. If that is to happen, by what degree are we to judge candidates for top jobs: luck? connections (thereby making our profession appear even more elitist and closed off from wider society)? Furthermore, if there are to be no checks, why not let anyone, for example, publish an article on 17th-century natural law theory, having no basic grasp of early modern philosophy?

If I ever get a job in higher education, I would hope that it would be based only on the merit of my work on paper as a contribution to knowledge. Which means that being reviewed in a formal process, by your peers, on the basis of the quality of the arguments being deployed, is a vital and necessary part of the academic environment.

James Cullis
University of Sussex

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