I had no idea as an author of the difficulties that editors have in recruiting and retaining referees. That innocent phase ended once I began editing a journal, and had to identify and then negotiate with referees directly. The only experience I could draw on was my own role as referee for other journals, which was distinctly patchy. Perhaps the two worst elements of my experience that I was determined to avoid were the mechanistic approach some journals use, and the way in which I would be asked to review papers that were either not in my academic area or were not publishable.
The journal I edit therefore works with referees in a different way, following these steps:
- Referees are drawn from those who have published with the journal, and are sent a personal invitation to join the review panel. Guest editors for special issues will identify their own referees, and these are then invited to join the journal’s referees’ panel.
- If a paper makes use of an author’s research then we point this out to them when they are invited to join the panel, so as to explain why we have sent them the paper for review.
- We usually explain to referees if their decision matches that of the second reviewer, especially if they have just joined the panel.
- They are never asked to review more than two papers in a twelve-month period and, given the size of our referees’ list, usually only have one paper per year to review.
- The Editorial Board read all submissions to check that they are worth sending to referees. Consequently, referees will not find themselves wasting time dealing with mundane issues, inappropriate papers, or those that can’t be revised to the necessary standard.
- We use a contact database to manage the referees’ list so they can be matched with the papers relevant to their interests, but never use form letters that could be generated from that database.
- Every six months or so we check that the referees’ database is up to date (i.e., that people are still willing to review and that their research interests are up to date).
Consequently, we rarely have problems with tardy or non-responsive referees and in fact have often been asked by review panel members for papers to review. The drawback, of course, is that this personal approach takes time. Our view is that this is time well spent, for without a panel of referees prepared to share their professional expertise in helping colleagues to improve their work there would be no journal.