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There are some clear reasons to decline a review request, such as conflict-of-interests or not enough free time (e.g., going on a vacation..). But what if you are just not interested in the paper you got (i.e., it is loosely related to what you do, but not entirely irrelevant)?

On which occasions is it appropriate to decline a review request? Does it matter if the review is for conference vs journal?

  • 14
    It is appropriate to decline a request from an elsevier editor when you signed the petition on thecostofknowledge.com :). – Gopi Mar 9 '12 at 5:57
  • Well, make up a reason that does not harm anyone's feelings ... ;-) – Anthony Labarre Mar 9 '12 at 8:08
17

There are a few clear reasons to decline a review request, although in complete honesty, I've never actually declined to review a paper yet, so these are all at least "in theory" for me. Some of them are one's you've mentioned, but there are some others:

  1. Conflict of interest. This one's pretty clear, though with the way some reviews are handled - based on recommendations, closely related expertise, etc. what actually constitutes a conflict of interest can get a little vague.
  2. Lack of time. This is one that people seem to ignore or discount, but it's a big one. If you can't give a paper the attention it deserves, or your review is going to be late (predictably, not because of unforeseen things), then you should probably decline to review it. You're not doing you, the authors, or the editor any favors by making them chase you down for months to get a review.
  3. Lack of expertise. If you read the methods section of a paper and your primary thought is "Huh?" not because the paper is unclear, but because its far afield from your expertise, I'd strongly consider contacting the editor for advice and asking not to be a reviewer.

I wouldn't necessarily not be a reviewer due to a failure to find the paper sufficiently interesting. If your expertise is indeed appropriate and the work is not of sufficiently compelling interest, that is a review finding all its own. Additionally, one would hope that you can evaluate the scientific merit of things that - while you are capable of understanding - you might not find directly interesting.

Whether or not it matters if its a conference or a paper likely depends on your field (how important are conferences?) and the particular conference or paper. For example, I might make a special effort to "find the time" for a journal I submit to (or would like to submit to) or a conference I frequently attend, but might not for a journal or conference I've never heard of.

9

Besides the obvious "conflict of interest", the main reason is time. Being an academic requires finding a balance on all the demands on your time. My policy is to accept no more than one major reviewing obligation (e.g. journal article, grant, 3-ish conference papers) per two-week period. When I'm asked, I look at my schedule & tell the solicitor when the next available slot is. Sometimes they take it, sometimes they don't, it depends on their policy, urgency & my schedule.

I'm not sure I have this right: I still sometimes miss review deadlines I've committed to & I don't publish new results as quickly as I think I should. But as I said, it's a matter of trying to find a balance, and I do get quite a lot of reviewing done.

3

I think that it's ok to decline a review request because you don't find the paper interesting if it's a colleague or somebody similarly close who asks you to do it. If they're the one on the PC/editorial board and have already agreed to do the review, it is, put simply, their problem. Of course, that might not be possible if you're a PhD student and your supervisor asks you to do the review :)

If you are approached directly by a member of the PC/editorial board because of your expertise in the area and not because you happen to be working in the same building, I would certainly do the review even if I don't find the paper interesting. The same goes for bidding processes some conferences use where you commit to reviewing a paper based sometimes only on the abstract.

  • I'm not familiar with the term PC. What does it mean here? – Joel Reyes Noche Mar 9 '12 at 10:24
  • @JoelReyesNoche It means Program Committee, the group of people responsible to handle the reviewing process for a conference. – user102 Mar 9 '12 at 10:49
3

I've had to refuse several reviews in the past, and it was either because I didn't have the time to write a proper review, or because the topic of the paper was beyond my scope of expertise.

I also found myself in the position where I should have refused a review, because there was a conflict-of-interest that, at the time, I didn't perceive. I didn't know the authors, but I had submitted a paper on a similar topic to the same conference, and after a while, I realised that unconsciously, I was thinking that if I reject the paper (I was hesitating between reject and accept), it increases the chances of my paper to be accepted. I still managed to review the paper objectively (and for the record, I accepted the paper, and mine was accepted too). Clearly, this line of thoughts was not correct, and I'm not particularly proud of it, but once you got it, it's hard to understand how objective you will be able to be, since you could actually over compensate and accept the paper just because you're afraid of the bias.

To answer precisely your question, the situation where you don't want to review is different than the one where you can't. If you can't (because you don't understand, you don't have time, etc), then just say why, and it's fine. If you don't want to, then it's just a matter of how much you want to please the person who asked you to review the paper, compared with how much time it will take you.

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