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I am curious to know what actions are generally thought to be acceptable when one sends a request for a paper review, especially a journal one.

When academics are asked to review a manuscript and they have the relevant expertise, is it common for them to decline the review without giving any reason?

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Established scientists receive a large number of review requests. A few years back I decided to tally the review requests I received, and the number I accepted. In the end I received 112 and accepted 28 over the course of a year. Add to that the editorial work I did for three journals and you get an awful lot of uncompensated, unrewarded time invested for the good of the field. (I typically spend about eight hours a week on reviews and editorial work.) So yes, I declined a large number of review requests every year, many of which I would have been well qualified to handle. When the editorial system allows, I try to at least leave a note explaining that I'm too busy, but as jakebeal notes, this is not always an option.

So yes, qualified reviewers can and do turn down many review requests, often without providing an explanation. As an editor, I know that if I ask well known researchers this will happen as often as not, and I don't mind that one bit. What I do dislike is when people don't bother to click the "decline" link on the review request, and force me to wait for a week before giving up and trying to find a new reviewer. This slows down the review process and ultimately slows down science for everyone.

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    Yes, not even clicking the "decline" button is soo aggravating. It holds up the entire process :-( – Wolfgang Bangerth May 8 '15 at 16:09
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Speaking as an editor: generally if somebody declines they do not give a reason.

The biggest reason for this is that the automated "please say yes or no" forms generally don't force people to explain why they are saying no. So they don't say.

I think this is a good thing. If somebody doesn't feel they are willing/able to put in the effort to give a thorough and professional review, I would much rather they be able to simply and easily say "no" rather than either being pressured into saying yes or having to come up with excuses.

The people who I really love though, are the ones who point me at somebody else who wants to do the review. I don't care why they aren't reviewing; I do care about finding competent and professional peer reviewers.

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    When they suggest someone else I'm using it's often a postdoc in their group, or a new PhD who's just left the group (or an experienced postgrad in the group). It's good experience. – Chris H May 8 '15 at 8:36
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    I don't think I've ever been in a situation where I know someone else who would want to review a paper I get. I would love to know these people though. – Kimball May 8 '15 at 11:52
  • Can you comment on the relationship between the people turning down the reviews and the new reviewers they refer you to? In your experience, is it generally to other established scientists, or to postdocs / students they know? – E.P. May 9 '15 at 10:05
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    @E.P. Usually it is other established scientists. If they want to have a postdoc or student review, they just accept and use that person as a sub-reviewer. – jakebeal May 9 '15 at 13:30
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    In my area of theoretical computer science, it's very common for review requests to explicitly ask the reviewer to suggest a couple of other people, if they decline to review. Of course, it's only a request so people can decline without suggesting anyone. (Indeed, trying to make it obligatory would just result in people ignoring the review request, rather than declining it.) – David Richerby Sep 1 '17 at 13:26

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