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In February last year, I submitted a manuscript to a well-known Q1 BMC Journal in my (very narrow and small) field. The editor asked for some direct revisions after one week. We resubmitted the manuscript in March 2022. Since the, the status has remained "reviewers assigned" for the entire period. I contacted the journal times and they invited me to send them a list with potential reviewers. I did that 3 times. Still, they seem unable to secure potential reviewers. I have read about comparable situations here:

The editor cannot find a referee to my paper after one year

What happens if the editor cannot find reviewers?

However, my case is slightly different. The journal under discussion is the number 1 journal in the field. I published comparable manuscripts there 3 times (always accepted after major revisions). Based on the previous comments, I should try another journal but is it likely that others will find suitable reviewers if the best journal in the field fails? Thank you very much in advance for your input.

Edit: Nobody has every published on that niche topic before. It is very novel and what we try to publish here has - to the best of our knowledge - never examined. The field is medicine.

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    It happened to me: After holding my paper for 9 months, a top-10 journal in math returned the paper saying that they could not find a referee. I submitted to another top-15 journal that managed to find a referee and the paper was published. Feb 24, 2023 at 9:12
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    Are there more specialist journals that would fit your paper than the one you submitted to? Sometimes very focused journals are better at finding reviewers, even though they will normally not have a very high impact factor. Feb 25, 2023 at 17:29

2 Answers 2

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I'm going to digress a bit because you write "Nobody has every published on that niche topic before".

First, let's dissect why editors might fail to find reviewers. When editors invite reviewers, the four most common results are:

  1. No response from reviewer
  2. Reviewer responds saying no time
  3. Reviewer responds saying the paper is out of their expertise
  4. Reviewer agrees to review.

Given that you're dealing with the top journal of your field, the probability of #1 happening decreases somewhat. After all, everyone wants to be able to say they have reviewed for the top journal before. However, it still will happen (e.g. if the invitation is marked as spam, if the reviewer is on long leave and not checking emails, etc.) If this is the root cause of the editor not finding reviewers, from the editor's perspective, the solution is straightforward - work harder.

#2 cannot be helped; some percentage of reviewers simply will not be available (tenure review coming up, funding deadline approaching, heavy teaching load ...). However, like #1, working harder solves this problem. As long as one is identifying the right reviewers, someone will eventually be available.

Finally, #3 will also happen some of the time. The probability decreases the more meticulous the editor is, but it will still happen, especially when dealing with a paper that is out of the editor's expertise. For example, suppose there's a paper that uses method X to investigate the effect on material Y due to electrons produced by natural process Z. Do you invite a reviewer with expertise in X, Y, or Z? Ideally the reviewer knows all three, of course, but if you can't find any reviewers with expertise in all three (you probably can't; if you could then the paper would be non-novel), then it's very hard to tell which is more important. Unlike the other two, working harder does not solve this problem. If Y is most important and you keep inviting reviewers who know X, you'll just end up with a pile of "decline to review" emails and get nowhere.

Since you have said "Nobody has every published on that niche topic before", I would guess that your editor is encountering #3.

Given enough time (and enough reviewers who decline), they should eventually figure out what kind of reviewer they should look for, but until then perhaps you can help. Instead of sending them a list of potential reviewers, send them a list of what expertise is required to review your paper. Describe what you did in non-technical language, maybe indicate which fields are likely to be most impacted by your results or are most likely to be most interested, etc. (Something similar to this should already be in your Introduction.) If the editor knows what kind of reviewer they're looking for, all that's left is to put in the time to invite them.

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  • For #2, as well as continuing to try new people, after a while (say a couple of months) I think it is reasonable to retry people who've previously declined and ask if they are still too busy. Feb 25, 2023 at 10:18
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    I think this might be overly optimistic. Friends I know who are editors at this sort of journal (well respected in the field, but not high impact beyond the field) are telling me that 75%-80% of the review requests they send out are being turned down for reason #2. Feb 27, 2023 at 17:00
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    @IanSudbery sounds significantly higher than normal. One of the studies cited in academia.stackexchange.com/questions/193135/… indicate that among reviewers who decline only half say they have no time. Some percentage of reviewers do not answer the invitation, as well.
    – Allure
    Feb 28, 2023 at 11:11
  • @Allure Obviously I'm just talking about anecdotal evidence here, and people's subjective impressions (and second-hand at that). But I will note that that study cited in the answer you refer to was published in 2020 with data from 2015-2017, and people are talking about the current difficultly in recruiting reviewers being a specifically pandemic/post-pandemic thing. Feb 28, 2023 at 11:53
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I would recommend:

  • Requesting that the journal try again.
  • Then resubmitting to another journal.

Failure to find reviewers can occur:

  • By chance
  • When the editor is bad at their job (which is mostly finding reviewers)
  • If the journal has such a bad reputation people will not review for it
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  • I did that exactly this. Now the reviewer status changed from "Reviewers assigned" (which was there for 1 year) to "Editor assigned". I received no reply from the journal.
    – Dr.M
    Mar 4, 2023 at 7:16

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