I previously asked this question in the physics forum (tag soft-question), but was convinced that it better suits in the academia forum. So I deleted it and posted it here.

I was recently asked to review a paper for a well-established physical journal, but as I have a lot to do in the moment, I'm tempted to refuse it. This is even more the case since I quit my scientific carreer roughly a year ago.

Thus my question: particularly outside physics, what are the benefits of being a referee? [beside the idealistic attitude of "bringing on physics" -- this is a valuable point in principle, but in reality, I've been long enough in the business to know that this is hardly the case for most papers. In contrast, most papers originate due to the need to continuously publish, a thing which I consider to be wrong].

For people in science, I see a clear opportunity in being a referee.

  • First, it gives you a connection to the journal editors and contributes to your authority.

  • Second, by concentrating on the paper, you are forced to learn something on your topic which might help you later. Further, you might be able to add citations to your own work and thus increase your influence.

  • Third, from a global point of view, you have to do it since you also expect your own papers to be reviewed (although this point is somewhat of a social dilemma, since [neglecting the previous points] it would be better to review as few as possible and concentrate on your own research).

However, do you see any personal advantages once you have quit physics? Are there maybe some if one plans to return some day?


3 Answers 3


To me, refereeing papers in subject X is a non-negligible part of being a professional academic in subject X. So the premise that you want to referee a physics paper having "quit science" seems moderately self-contradictory: using your expert level qualifications to evaluate a scientific work is being a scientist, isn't it? I'm almost sure it is. :)

So I guess you haven't "quit science" completely, or -- and this may come to the same thing -- the physics community is not fully aware of this fact. One thing I might do if I were you is to make sure that the editor who asked you to review the paper knows that you are no longer employed as a physicist. If I were an editor, that would be useful information, and unless I knew you rather well and knew that you retained a special expertise in this particular area, I would probably select someone else.

I think it's clear that you no longer have any kind of ethical obligation or professional expectation of reviewing papers. I also suspect that once the community understands that you really are doing something else now your referee requests will come rarely or cease altogether. So this is probably a decision that you need to make more for any particular paper than as a general life decision. I would say: if you feel just as qualified to referee the paper as before and if you want to referee the paper, then do it. For instance, if you see something valuable in the paper that you think that some other qualified person might miss, then it might be a nice parting gift "to science" to speak out for the worth of this research. On the other hand, if it's just business as usual (or worse, motivated by "the need to continuously publish"): well, you don't have to clean the bathrooms in the apartment that you're not renting anymore, do you?

If you have thoughts of breaking back into science later on, then I think you need to think seriously about how to keep your connections and your intellectual life, um, alive. There are many aspects to this, and making sure that you continue to referee papers is not, so far as I can see, especially close to the top of the list. If I'm looking at the CV of someone who left academia for a while and is trying to come back (and it does happen), I will look to the work they have done recently and their plans for work in the near future. I don't really care whether they've refereed some papers in the meantime.


However, do you see any personal advantages once you have quit physics? Are there maybe some if one plans to return some day?

If you have quit the scientific community altogether and are working as say, a fisherman, then there will obviously be no professional gain from continuing to review papers.

If you plan to (maybe) return to the scientific community at some stage, having reviewed some papers might help you make the case in an interview that you've been keeping up to date with the literature, but it's still not a strong advantage.

So there's not much to be had in terms of professional benefit in this scenario. The question then is whether or not you feel there's a personal benefit for you: maybe you find the paper(s) interesting to read and learn about, maybe the editor is a friend of yours and you'd like to keep their favour, maybe you like that warm feeling you get when you help progress science a little ... answering these questions are entirely up to you.

(All I know is that if I wasn't in an academic career, there's not a snowball's chance in hell I would be reviewing the papers in my area for the "fun of it".)

  • Thanks for the clear words. You, as the other answerers, don't seem to attribute a large professional value to being a referee, and this although you are in science. Thus for me, it should be even less...
    – davidhigh
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 16:34
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    De nada. I think reviewing is an important part of a scientific career so my answer is really in the context of having moved away from research. I added a comment to your question where I linked a related question ... here I mention some of the career benefits I've gotten from reviewing and there's some other good answers in there in that context.
    – badroit
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 16:48
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    All I know is that if I wasn't in an academic career, there's not a snowball's chance in hell I would be reviewing the papers in my area for the "fun of it" This made my day. Commented May 14, 2014 at 20:04

I don't know how universal is this but in my country there is a proverbial saying "learn a craft and leave it, and when you're hungry squeeze it". Since here the "craft" is personal networks, and personal networks do not let you "squeeze" them easily once you have "left" them, then reviewing papers every now and then should not be too heavy an investment in an uncertain prospect -which could be returning back in science, but also it could be something else you cannot imagine right now. Ask any freelancer.

Do the editors know that you have left your scientific career? If yes, their invitation may say something about their opinion of you. But if they don't know it, I would suggest to make it clear right now: if they are happy to keep their invitation standing, then everybody knows you are doing them a favor. If they want to recall their invitation in light of this information, you will avoid possible later embarrassments.

  • Good suggestion, I will inform the editors about it. The first part actually states the problem quite well. The next problem arising from it (--which is completely up to myself and thus no point for discussion), is to priorize the various other things one could do instead. Surely one can't do everything just because things might arise you wouldn't have believed -- that is so for almost any of my plans. Thanks for your answer!
    – davidhigh
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 16:28
  • You're welcome. I am glad my sensitivity to informational matters offered something useful in this case. Commented May 13, 2014 at 16:33

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