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My colleague lost his job in academia due to COVID-19. He has zero income at the moment and there is little to no funding or employment opportunity in his field (invertebrate taxonomy) in his region (a developing country). He is now looking for other non-academic jobs.

But being one of the few experts in his field, he is still frequently invited to review manuscripts. Each of these reviews takes a long time (especially large taxonomic monographs) and takes away his time to develop skills and look for jobs. And hours spent on peer-reviewing are not remunerated by anyone. Should he just outright reject such invitations? Should he give reasons for rejecting such invitations too?

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    Do they hope to get back into the field? If so, maintaining a basic review volume might be useful for the CV. Aug 31, 2020 at 3:51

4 Answers 4

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Peer review is not a tax: if it doesn't make sense for somebody to peer review, they shouldn't do it.

Instead, I view peer review as:

  • an opportunity to contribute to a community that I care about, and
  • beneficial to me in helping me "keep my tools sharp" on critical thinking, writing skills (even as a reader!), and exposure to authors and ideas I might not otherwise read.

Because responsible peer review takes a significant investment of time, however, I set a budget for myself on how much time is sensible for to contribute over the course of a year, and I refuse assignments that would take me over that budget.

I would thus advise your colleague to consider a sensible budget, given their current situation and how much those motivations make sense to them. Yes, peer review may take time away from job development. On the other hand, peer review may still feel meaningful as a contribution, an intellectual connection, a motivation, etc.

Maybe the budget should be zero. Certainly the budget shouldn't be 10+ hours per week. But it may be entirely reasonable to put in a couple of hours of peer review per week if they still enjoy and benefit from it.

Bottom line: the amount to continue peer reviewing is an assessment that your colleague needs to make for themselves based on their personal situation and to periodically reassess as that situation evolves over time.

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  • Thank you for the very good advice! Will forward it to my colleague.
    – user128926
    Aug 31, 2020 at 1:48
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Reviewers should never feel obliged to review a paper. If one is unable to review, there is always someone else who can. Do it because one wants to read the paper, because one is interested in the topic, and so on. If one genuinely does not want to review the paper, for any reason, decline.

If your colleague feels bad about declining, he could try to redirect the editor to someone else who can review it.

As for reasons to give when declining - a simple "no time" works.

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  • Thank you for the advice! Will forward it to my colleague.
    – user128926
    Aug 31, 2020 at 1:49
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    Peer review is an ethical obligation, but it not an obligation to review a particular paper at a particular time. Aug 31, 2020 at 3:59
  • PR is an ethical obligation? Maybe for university researchers, but surely not for the unemployed. Even for uni researchers I would dispute that participating in the current peer review system is ethical; some refuse to review for Elsevier journals because donating labour to a parasite company defrauding university budgets is not an attractive prospect (paraphrasing here). See also this blog post.
    – UJM
    Sep 3, 2020 at 14:14
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  • Your colleague could always reject some of the requests and accept others, perhaps choosing which ones to accept based on which ones he thinks actually are likely to develop skills that improve his chances of finding new paid employment.
  • If your colleague does want to accept any of the requests and he's claiming any kind of state unemployment benefit, he should check carefully whether the conditions of the benefit limit how much unpaid work he's allowed to do, or require him to declare any unpaid work to the authority that pays the benefit.
  • Personnel at the publishers of the journals for which your colleague reviews, and continues to be asked to review, are aware that your colleague has certain skills relevant to their operations. If any of those publishers have an office that's conveniently located for your colleague, it might be worth his while including those publishers in his job search.
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Is this a colleague or a friend? If a colleague, I think it is presumptuous to tell him what he should or shouldn't be doing with his time. I'm sure he is aware that he is under no obligation to review papers. (If not, then it would perhaps be helpful to point this out.) Whether he "should" review papers or not is like whether he "should" spend time gardening, reading textbooks in new fields, learning a new language, etc. -- none of a colleague's business. (Perhaps he enjoys the stimulation of reviewing papers; I often do.)

Of course, if you're a friend, this is different, but what your friendship is like is for you to assess.

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    -1 Uncalled-for attack on the asker. The question is a theoretical one. Aug 31, 2020 at 3:58
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: Where are you seeing an attack here? Sep 1, 2020 at 19:12
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    Agree with @AnonymousPhysicist, the tone of the answer is needlessly critical. I think it is presumptuous to tell someone that it is presumptuous to do something that person never said they are thinking of doing.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 1, 2020 at 22:09

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