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It is well known that in mathematics the process of reviewing submitted papers is quite long. There are good reasons for that; intrinsically, reviewing a math paper involves checking and understanding thouroughly the proposed proof, which typically requires a significant time investment. Also, a lot of academics are always very busy and reviewing may not be the most urgent thing they have to do, so it tends to be pushed back.

But it seems that there are other, maybe not so commendable reasons. Apparently, the common wisdom around me is that you should be careful not to turn in your reviews too soon, or you will be flooded with requests by editors (who are all too happy to find someone gullible enough to hurry doing their reviews) and reviews will take up all your time. This is an advice I've often heard given to young researchers, including by people who can honestly not be accused of neglecting the community service aspects of their work. A lot of people I have talked to have a policy of never doing the review before the deadline or the k-th reminder from the editor. I even heard of a person who would do the review almost immediately after accepting it (when time allowed), but only send it after the deadline or later.

In an imperfect world where doing your task sooner than anyone else will mark you as candidate for exploitation, I understand the need for such strategies. But I wanted to check:

  • Is the risk so big?
  • Is this practice really generalized (also in other fields than mathematics)?
  • Do you have alternative strategies to avoid having too many review requests (of course, one can always refuse reviews, but since it can be delicate to do so too often, one may try and avoid requests themselves)?
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I don't understand what could be delicate about refusing reviews, especially if the requests come in after you have established a pattern of prompt reviewing. Someone who completed five reviews in two weeks each for a particular editor should be able to decline further reviews for a couple of months without a second thought. What am I missing? (I personally try to review as quickly as I can, simply out of fairness to the authors and the editor.) –  Stephan Kolassa May 14 at 13:36
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Five reviews in two weeks each. And the OP specifically asks about the situation where you review "too quickly" and subsequently get more review invitations - which implies that the deluge of invitations comes from those editors that previously got your "too fast" reviews. –  Stephan Kolassa May 14 at 14:43
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The question I find myself asking in situation X involving other people's papers: how would I like X if it were my paper? In this situation, how would I like it if reviewers were artificially delaying reviews on my paper just because they don't want to say "no" to future review requests. –  badroit May 14 at 15:22
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"I have already written four reviews for you this year. Please ask someone else." –  JeffE May 14 at 22:23
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"Thank you for your interest in my refereeing services. I receive many outstanding referee requests, and can only take on a limited number. I regret to inform you that your request has not been selected for review." –  Kallus May 15 at 13:14
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3 Answers 3

I can imagine someone purposefully delaying reviews, but in my experience it's not a widespread or standard part of mathematical practice, and I haven't heard it offered as common advice. I don't think referees have an obligation to inconvenience themselves to finish a review as quickly as they can, but it seems bizarre to deliberately delay when it would have been convenient to complete the review earlier (or, worse yet, when it was already done but not yet sent).

I don't see a real risk here, or a need to avoid review requests. There's nothing wrong with turning them down, and you can use a vague excuse like that you are already busy with other refereeing and don't want to cause unnecessary delays for this submission. In fact, a prompt reply will be appreciated; it already puts you ahead of the people who require reminders to reply to referee requests. (When a referee declines quickly, there's almost no cost, while it's annoying if I send several e-mails over a period of weeks but never hear back.) From my perspective as an editor, I'm not looking for people who will complete a review as quickly as possible. Instead, my ideal referee is someone who is responsive and reliable, who promptly lets me know what they can reasonably do and then does it within the timeframe they estimated. If they do that, they can turn down as many requests as they like.

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+1. I'd go beyond "bizarre" to "disrespectful": the author is anxiously waiting for a decision on their paper, and if it's a good paper, the community as a whole wants to see it published, the sooner the better. An intentional delay does a disservice to everyone. The math publishing process is glacial enough without your going out of your way to make it slower. –  Nate Eldredge May 14 at 15:21
    
@NateEldredge: if people post their papers on the arXiv or some other widely available source, then the community can read the papers without having to wait a year or more for the journal to finally publish them. There are also reasons why the community as a whole benefits from a delay in the review process. The explanation is too long for a comment box, see my answer. –  Michael Zieve May 18 at 11:44
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I'm honestly puzzled by this tactics. No one will make you write more reviews than you want to. I write my reviews very promptly (at least the editors of the journals I have reviewed for tend to point that out to me when I submit my reviews), but I have a self-imposed threshold for how many reviews I will do within a given amount of time. If I get requests that exceed that threshold, I politely decline and explain why. I don't understand what's so "delicate" about that. It's surely better to be a diligent reviewer who occasionally declines invitations than to be a notoriously late reviewer (on purpose!).

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This is a response to the answer by Anonymous Mathematician and the comment to that answer by Nate Eldredge. I just want to point out that there are ways in which the community benefits from there being some lag built into the refereeing process. If there were no such lag then an author would have every incentive to submit every paper to the very best journal in the field, expecting a quick rejection, after which the author can submit to the second-best journal, and so on. In this way, an author could expect his/her papers to wind up in better journals than they otherwise would, since once there are enough low-probability events then there's a good chance that one of them will occur. So it is to the author's benefit to do this, but on the flip side this would cause lots of extra work by the editors and referees of various journals. The main thing I see which discourages authors from doing this is that they don't expect an immediate response from the referees. So that is one reason why it isn't necessarily a bad thing for a reviewer to wait a couple months (say) before sending in his/her review.

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That is true, but it's difficult to call it a reason. If that was the case, journals would've do initial sieving were they'd reject some papers without sending them to referees (as done today by Nature, and PRL, for instance). I can see no (good) reason for purposely delaying the process. –  Ran G. May 18 at 23:52
    
Top math journals do initial sieving, but the process isn't so different from refereeing -- the paper is sent to experts who look at the paper to decide whether it can be rejected without in-depth refereeing. This again takes time from experts. Your comment ignores this time. –  Michael Zieve May 19 at 1:53
    
Does this argument not apply to fields other than math, or are you saying that other fields do suffer from this problem of lots of wasted referee work? –  Kallus May 19 at 15:57
    
I only know what happens in math. I can't make any comment about what happens in other fields. –  Michael Zieve May 19 at 16:48
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