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I was invited to review a paper from a decent journal in my field. I was provided a month to review the article.

However, due to some work related commitments, I was not able to provide reviews within the stipulated time (and somehow forgot about the deadline). After 2 weeks of the deadline, I received an email from the editor for providing reviews on the article. I emailed him back that I will provide the reviews and mentioned the date and he acknowledged the same. However, on the date I had provided, I received an automated email that if I don't provide the reviews they will be forced to go ahead with the reviews from other reviewers.

I emailed them again that I have read the paper and ready with my reviews and will be uploading them within a few hours. But while filling the review form, I received another automated email stating that they have decided to move ahead without my reviews. Since it was my first opportunity to officially review a paper from a journal, the situation left me with the following questions

  • Was it unethical at my part to not able to provide the reviews within the provided time ?
  • Will it have any impact on my reputation as a reviewer in future?
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    It is not unethical to be unable -- this is almost a type error. Ethics is about what you choose among the options that are available to you. As for reputational impact, all I hear suggests that breaking referee deadlines is more common than meeting them, and generally, promises in academia are generally considered as educated guesses. – darij grinberg Nov 10 '18 at 6:32
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    @darijgrinberg What about "accepting to review while being unable"? – user9646 Nov 10 '18 at 8:34
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    @user2357 I think the category that might be ethically relevant is accepting to review while knowing (or reasonably believing) you will be unable to ... – virmaior Nov 10 '18 at 15:13
  • @virmaior, your comment should probably be developed into a full answer. – Buffy Nov 10 '18 at 16:18
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Will it have any impact on my reputation as a reviewer in future?

As @darijgrinberg said in a comment, referees are quite often late with reviewing assignments. As an example, on one occasion (the only one I can remember) when I was unable to get a paper reviewed by the deadline I committed to, I sent an apologetic email to the editor a couple of days before the deadline explaining that I will be sending my report a week or two late. His sarcastic reply suggested that he found my apology very amusing and unusual, and he was in fact very pleased that I would be only a week or two late...

So, I think it’s not so much that your reputation will suffer because of this incident; rather, it’s more accurate to say that you have missed an opportunity to set yourself apart from all the other late reviewers - that is, it’s not a negative efffect but the absence of a positive one. But in any case I assume you will have many more opportunities of this type in the future, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

As for the ethics, again as Darij said, ethics has to do with willful acts. To forget things or be negligent or put yourself in situations where you are unable to deliver on a promise may be characterized as unprofessional (only a little bit in this particular case) and is certainly undesirable, but this has nothing to do with ethics.

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I wouldn't say it's unethical. Reviewers are providing volunteer service, so they really aren't obliged to provide a review. When a reviewer accepts a review invitation, they're also making a decision in the face of uncertainty: they could turn out to be busier than expected, or perhaps the paper more complicated than expected, etc. Reviewers accepting the invitation and then failing to provide a review happens so often that editors often prepare for it by inviting more reviewers than is necessary.

However, it is disappointing, especially if you do it often, and even more so if you explicitly promised in an email to the editor that you'll be able to provide a review in time. Therefore, don't do it if you can. If it happens often enough the editor might decide your word cannot be trusted, in which case you won't get reviewer invitations anymore.

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    On the other hand, if you ask for a reasonable amount of extra time, it will usually be granted without problems. – Nate Eldredge Nov 10 '18 at 15:23
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    Reviewers are providing volunteer service, so they really aren’t obliged to provide a review. I think this is an unfortunate phrasing that probably doesn’t mean exactly what you intended to say. Once you have accepted to do a review, you have taken it on as a professional obligation so you are “obliged” to provide it in the same sense that you are obliged to do anything else you promised someone else you would do. – Dan Romik Nov 10 '18 at 19:59
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I think the ethics question is often the other way (but journals seem untroubled by it!). Some journals send a copy of the submitted paper when inviting you to review it, but many ask you to accept on the basis of a title (perhaps an abstract), and you have little idea of how long or how complex the paper is. In such cases, the only possibly unethical issue is the journal expecting you to commit to an unknown amount of work in a predetermined period.

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..due to some work related commitments, I was not able to provide reviews within the stipulated time (and somehow forgot about the deadline).

Yes, that is unethical. You made a commitment to do a piece of work, with a deadline attached. The time for review exists to allow authors to have their work reviewed in a timely manner, and it is extremely inconvenient for authors and journal reviewers to have delays caused by referees who do not take their role seriously. Not only did you not meet the commitment you made, but you evidently did not even care about it enough to diarise the deadline. This was your first opportunity to review a paper, and you screwed it up, causing delay and inconvenience for the author and editor.

Will it have any impact on my reputation as a reviewer in future?

Unfortunately not. In a rational academia composed of professionals, failure to complete a review within the agreed deadline would impact your credibility and reputation in the future. However, we live in an academia where agreements to perform reviews within a timeline mean little to nothing, and so your actions are unlikely to be seen as fundamentally different from what happens in a large number of cases.

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    So basically you’re saying it’s unethical to ever make a mistake due to inexperience? Your criticism of OP would apply to anyone who ever does anything wrong in a professional environment. Your “rational academia” sounds like a very unforgiving place. – Dan Romik Nov 10 '18 at 23:46
  • No, I'm not. That is a straw man (which is also common in academia). – Reinstate Monica Nov 11 '18 at 1:53
  • @Ben thanks. By that analogy, isn't editor's decision to send paper without my review while clearly agreeing to the new deadline, is also unprofessional ? – krammer Nov 11 '18 at 10:00
  • @krammer: Your question is a little ambiguous on that point, since the various events are all described as occurring on the same day. From your description, I can only assume that when you gave him a new date for the review, he entered into a system that sends automated emails of that kind on that date, and presumably you did not get it in by the expected time of day. If that is incorrect, maybe you can make further inquiries with the editor. In any case, my point remains - when you don't do a review on time, it is an inconvenience to the article writer and the journal editor. – Reinstate Monica Nov 11 '18 at 12:19

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