48

I am a post doc in mathematics, and was just sent a request to review a paper. This is the first time it happened to me. I never heard of this journal before, but it is a Springer journal, and upon checking the editorial board it looks like a respectable journal. Also, the paper looks quite interesting, so it appears that I shouldn't worry about it being dubious.

I wonder however, if this is a good time in my career to do such a job. Given that I am a postdoc, constantly in the run for the next job, and probably this will take some of my valuable research time. Is it normal for postdocs to review research papers? Should I accept it? If so, should I mention the fact I review for this journal in my C.V?

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    How did you manage to become postdoc without having to review tons of papers 8-o ? – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 25 '13 at 20:56
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    @cbeleites, my field of study is very deep, and requires great amounts of learning before one is able to read a paper. I have never heard of a grad-student reviewing a paper in this field. – the L Nov 26 '13 at 8:01
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    @MathMan If you've never heard of a grad student reviewing a paper and only a very experienced individual would be capable of reading a paper, who better than you to review one? Sounds like you are the best possible candidate! – dpatchery Nov 26 '13 at 14:22
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    @dpatchery, well, experienced professors in my field would be more capable of course. – the L Nov 26 '13 at 15:20
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    @cbeleites, the problem is not badly written papers. The reason why grad students do not review papers in my field is that the lack the knowledge required to do that. – the L Nov 27 '13 at 12:08
76

Yes, reviewing papers is an integral part of your job now, and a very beneficial one at that!

It's true that the first papers you will review will take you quite a bit of time, but it's a sound investment (unless you consider dropping out of academia next month). You'll improve your reading and ability to read between the lines. It will help you gain a wider view of what others are doing in your field, because it will force you to really go through the paper in depth, not just skim over it as we are so often forced to do when a paper is not at the core of our own research.

Moreover, it will give you invaluable experience when you write your next papers, because you will be able to put yourself in the reviewer's shoes! You will see better what could be problematic for a referee in the presentation of your work.

As for whether you should list it on your CV: yes!

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    As a side note, there are actual humans who will be aware of your decision to review or not. Among these may be members of that editorial board. – JCooper Nov 25 '13 at 16:39
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    I agree with all of the comments so far. The only thing I'd add is that you should off course assess whether the subject of the paper is close enough to your areas of expertise. If the paper is too distant from your expertise, it will take more time to evaluate responsibly, if that's even possible. Editors try to choose reviewers who are suitable for a given manuscript, but this is judgement call, and editors have to depend on potential reviewers to tell them that if the MS is too distant from the reviewer's expertise. – Mars Nov 25 '13 at 17:54
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I have served as a referee for various math and related journals since I was a graduate student. I'm a postdoc now, and during this career phase, I have refereed way more papers than I wrote. I put on my CV the names of journals I have served for as a referee. I don't think I have done anything wrong about this. Let's see if I will land on a tenure track job this year!

On a bit more serious note, I think it's normal for a postdoc to referee papers. One of the editors of Nature once said the best referees are postdocs because they're on the cutting edge of research but naive enough to be honest. I don't know if this equally applies to mathematics. But I think the fact that the editorial board you find respectable chose you suggests that you are qualified and needed.

  • "I have refereed way more papers than I wrote" I guess that how it should be: stats.stackexchange.com/a/3483/4598 – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 25 '13 at 21:00
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    Yep. Everyone should write at least as many referee reports as other people write for their papers. (Yes, I know that's actually impossible.) – JeffE Nov 26 '13 at 1:58
  • @JeffE: I think you could relax this to as many reviews as are needed for the papers you submit as first author (otherwise with the usual numbers of coauthors in my field, we'd end up with 3 - 8 people x 2 - 6 reviews per written paper). However, having a director who is editor in chief somewhere, I can tell you who makes all those other reviews (the difference between the # of reviews actually written as calculated from needed reviews x submitted papers and the # of reviews people usually write per paper they submit)... – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 27 '13 at 11:57
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    In my field (theoretical computer science), there is no such thing as a first author. There are only authors. – JeffE Nov 27 '13 at 13:45
21

The other answers have focused on why reviewing papers makes sense to you.

But there’s a second, equally as important facet to it: It’s your duty as a researcher to review papers.

Sure, nobody’s contract mentions anything about reviewing papers, and no grant proposal ever allocates resources for it. But, to put it bluntly, that’s a bug in the system (and one, I might add, that badly needs fixing).

Peer review is a fundamental part of how science is done today. And, by design, the people to do it are researchers. It’s simply required that researchers perform peer review. Of course we could all just say “eh, let other people worry about this” but I hardly need to explain how conceptually broken and ethically objectionable this concept is.

14

Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

This sums it up quite nicely. Do you want your papers to be reviewed? Do you want the reviewers to do it properly?

I'm going to assume the answer to both questions is a profound YES. From the perspective of science, writing and reviewing are both crucial. As a scientist, it is part of your responsibility to review even if you consider it to be less rewarding.

This does not mean you should accept every review request. Sometimes you may get a request to review a manuscript which you may not be entirely suitable for as a reviewer. If the manuscript is in your field of expertise and there is no conflict of interest you should probably do it, though.

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    This is very true in general. However, when the academic job market is as cut-throat as it currently is, I think it is at least worth contemplating that certain services to the profession might be more fairly assigned to people whose future in the profession is not in great jeopardy. – Pete L. Clark Aug 25 '15 at 6:14
  • That said, I think refereeing papers is a sufficiently important part of the profession that a postdoc who has done none of that is missing out on an essential perspective and skills (evaluating the work of others is a key part of the profession!). So I would recommend that a postdoc in math should referee at least one paper. It might be a good idea to confer with one's supervisor and/or contrive to get a paper to referee for which close reading is directly beneficial to their research program. – Pete L. Clark Aug 25 '15 at 6:17
9

Yes, but you should be protective of your time. Here is my algorithm.

We have a duty to review papers, but how many?

How many reviews have you consumed?

My rule of thumb is that I will serve as a reviewer for each time when someone else was asked to serve as a reviewer for my paper. Therefore, if I have 4 first author papers, and each was reviewed by 3 people, then I have a duty to review 12 papers. When doing these calculations, I will discount my obligation if I had co-first-authors on the paper, but not for minor authors or senior authors. Senior authors are typically occupied with other obligations, such as serving as editors for journals.

Will you benefit from this review?

Are you interested in the topic? If so, you are getting the first peak at this research, along with an opportunity to get the authors to respond to your questions. Do you respect the editor, and are you happy that she considers you an expert?

Pay attention to how much time you spend on a review

I have a tendency to spend 5-10 hours on a review (biology), but have been told that 2-6 hours is appropriate. I am trying hard to compress that. The appropriate amount of time may depend on your field. A mathematician colleague of mine said that he spends several days reviewing each paper. This is feasible for him because publications in his field are very rare. Sometimes I spend a lot of time because I am interested in the topic but have not previously bothered to read the background literature, so I read several papers while reviewing the one. This may be a helpful or harmful habit for my career. Refuse to review a paper if it will require background reading that you are not interested in.

Don't review unless you can get it done immediately

If you can't make time for it in the next few days, then you probably don't have time for it. It's best for everyone if the review is returned to the authors ASAP.

Reject bad papers ASAP

Refuse to review papers with bad abstracts

I have reviewed a couple of papers even though they seemed pointless based on the abstract. It turned out that they were indeed pointless. My new policy is to refuse to review any paper with a bad abstract and write to the editor that I do not consider the paper publishable. I have not had the opportunity to do this yet, so I don't know how editors actually respond. However, I think this is a legitimate basis for rejecting a paper. If the abstract accurately reflects the content of the paper, then the paper is indeed pointless. If the abstract fails to describe what is notable about the study, then the paper is poorly written and is not ready for publication. Some journals say that their papers are not to be evaluated based on "impact", but if a paper is as pointless/trivial as the stuff I've seen, it is not worth the effort of reviewing it, and therefore it is not publishable.

Try to identify a fatal error quickly; if you find it, stop reviewing

Nobody benefits from detailed nit-picking on a paper that is not going to be published anyway.

  • I can't imagine how you would review a paper in 2 hours. Only reading and understanding the small details of the paper would take much more than that. And then you need to write a clear and detailed review. – Bitwise Nov 28 '13 at 18:13
  • That figure came from a senior scientist, who was in a different field than me. I imagine that his quickness could come from his experience (so that he interprets things quickly) and perhaps the predictability/simplicity of the techniques and theories in his field. Maybe the papers tend to be brief. He emphasized ignoring anything that won't affect the decision to accept/reject, so small details might not be relevant to him. In my field, good papers almost always get "accept with revision", so the details do matter to the decision. Last thought- reviewers are not copyeditors. – adam.r Nov 28 '13 at 19:21
5

There are already several good answers, but I will add one from a pure mathematician point of view, because this question is very dependent on the field (or at least, fundamental maths are outliers given the time needed to deeply review a paper: from a few hours for a clearly flawed paper to years in some cases).

Reviewing is part of your duty as a researcher, it adds a little bit to your CV, it pleases important people when done right, and most importantly it makes you learn stuff. But as said it takes a lot time to be done right, and you are in a position where your own research will earn you the right to have a career as professional mathematician or not.

I therefore consider that you should only accept to review papers that are either easy enough (or easily rejected enough) not to take too much time, or that are of primary interest for your own research, in which case a few weeks of part-time work on a review can be very beneficial.

  • Thanks for your input. The paper looks interesting, and quite similar to things I have recently worked on. I accepted the review job. – the L Nov 26 '13 at 11:25
2

I was referee for various IEEE journals / conferences / proceedings during my PhD studies.

Opportunities:

  1. a good opportunity for your CV
  2. some benefits from the editor

Duties:

  1. if you are member of a community (research is community) you must participate to the community's activities
  2. reject the review if the paper doesn't fall in your research field

Suggestions:

  1. if you do not feel up to it, you can only evaluate the scientific soundness and point this out to the editor

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