Why do professors take on service duties, such as reviewing papers for a journal, or sitting on university committees?

What benefit does this have to their careers? I can't imagine they enjoy reviewing papers, at least not more than all the other things they need to fit into their busy schedule.


5 Answers 5


Most professors are required by their departments to do some sort of service to the university and department. It's a duty of their job, often assigned by their department chair, and may be required as part of their tenure case. Someone who is actually a professor may be able to say more.

Paper reviewing, and the peer review system as a whole, is a cooperative system. Profs need peer-reviewed publications to get tenure, so someone has to do the reviewing. Nobody gets explicit points or credit for reviewing, but if everyone tried to free-ride, then no papers would get reviewed, and the system would collapse. As a non-professor, I don't do as much reviewing (dozens of papers a year) as my professorial colleagues (hundreds per year, often, depending on field), but every time I submit an article to a journal, I'm asked to do a review by the editor, which helps keep me involved in reviewing. I suspect that people also don't want to develop reputations as free riders, so when asked to review, within reason, they do it.

In addition, sitting on a program committee for a conference involves a lot of reviewing, and it can be a great way to meet and network more closely with more senior or more junior researchers depending on your own level, both of which have their advantages. Doing both kinds of reviewing and doing it well can help one build a reputation as someone who supports the system. Besides the general benefits of a good reputation, it may lead to program committee chair positions, other conference organizing positions, and journal editorships.

In the end, having a bad reputation for not reviewing and not doing other kinds of service could seriously affect one's tenure case or future job prospects.

  • Hundreds per year? That's amazing. It takes me months to do 1 review...
    – Kimball
    Feb 15, 2015 at 15:17
  • 1
    @Kimball, which is why I said "depending on field". Mathematics or other theory papers requiring someone to review the proof in detail before accepting are the clear exception here, but I was just at a workshop with a computational chemistry prof who asserted he reviewed $O(150)$ papers per year (presumably including conferences).
    – Bill Barth
    Feb 15, 2015 at 15:46
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    I hope you didn't take my comment critically, because that's not how I meant it. I know things are different in other fields (and there's also variation within math), I just had no idea how many orders of magnitude different.
    – Kimball
    Feb 15, 2015 at 15:59
  • @Kimball, no offense taken. I was a bit surprised by the 150 number, too, but then I realized if I scaled my reviewing to someone who was submitting 10 papers a year or more, then I'd be in the same boat.
    – Bill Barth
    Feb 15, 2015 at 16:02
  • I had heard people in other fields try to review 3-4 papers for each paper they submit, so this was in the back of my head, but I guess some people review a lot more (or submit a lot more than I expected).
    – Kimball
    Feb 15, 2015 at 16:05

In addition to the other good answers here, service is also a good way to promote something that you actually believe in:

  • Do you like Conference X and want it to be better? Somebody's got to run it, and run it well, or else it's going to be a crappy conference.
  • Don't like jerk reviewers? Be a thorough reviewer who gives constructive criticism.
  • Were you helped by others in any way? Step up to do the same and pay it forward.

Taking on service duties demonstrates to the community, including co-workers and superiors that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in; it demonstrates a certain level of team spirit. Not doing so could get noticed at some stage and might affect your reputation as a good employee or community member.

A benefit from sitting on certain committees is that it could allow you to influence policy or decision making.

You could also derive a certain feeling of personal satisfaction from undertaking service duties.

  • In addition to all the reasons given here, some might consider it an honor to be asked to do a review, even though it may be a chore. Essentially, you're being asked, "We need someone with a lot of expertise in this field to help us decide if this is a well-written paper that would be of interest to the community, or just some piece of junk. Can you help us do that?" It takes quite a gruff curmudgeon to respond, "No, I'm too busy."
    – J.R.
    Feb 16, 2015 at 9:45

A professor that wants his career to survive needs to help his university to survive.

Two "survival" tasks for the university are reviewing others' papers, so that the university will continue to be seen as a source of research, and "administrative" tasks that allow the university to continue operating.

Not every professor will enjoy doing both sets of tasks. Some will prefer one to the other, and specialize in those, while a few can do "nothing" and let others carry the burden for them.


1: It is a job requirement (relevant to tenure, promotion and raises, being allowed to have graduate students, and in extreme cases, keeping your job). 2: It can be in your self interest to support good research and weed out bad research. Likewise teaching, and policies about teaching (such as, what courses are required, what can be used to satisfy generic requirements).

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