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A rather prestigious mathematical journal asked me recently to referee a paper. More precisely, they asked me to provide "a brief (but relatively quick) report".

Does this mean that this is only a pre-referee report? What should be included in such a report?

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    "Does this means that this is only a pre-referee report?" We have no idea what the editor intended when they asked you for a report. But they surely know -- ask them, not us! Jun 13, 2016 at 9:03
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    I'm surprised that the question about pre-referee reports hasn't already been asked here but I couldn't find anything. That part is a good question, so I hope we get some good answers. Jun 13, 2016 at 9:05
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    It sounds like the referee wants to know if the paper is good enough to have a reasonable chance to be accepted, since for very prestigious math journals chances are a full refereeing would be a waste of time since even pretty good papers can be rejected based on a cursory evaluation. So, what is probably expected is a few paragraphs, maybe 1/2-1 page, with your summary of what the paper does and whether you think it's worth evaluating in depth given the high standards of the journal. But as @DavidRicherby said, we don't know for sure so you might want to just ask the editor.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 13, 2016 at 9:11
  • @DavidRicherby please ask a new question instead of changing the meaning of this one. Jun 13, 2016 at 9:22
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    @AnonymousPhysicist What's the point? I removed the unanswerable content from this one and kept the part that can be actually answered. Why do you think it would be better to ask a new question, and then close this one as being an unanswerable question plus a duplicate of another? Editing is one of the things you're supposed to do to a question that should be closed in its current form. Jun 13, 2016 at 9:24

2 Answers 2

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Some years ago, a few of the top mathematical journals began asking for "quick opinions" (or variants of this wording) on submitted papers, and this practice has spread a little since then. A quick opinion is not a full referee report, but just an indication of whether the paper looks like it could plausibly meet the journal's high standards. For example, are the main results truly exciting and important? The idea is that separating the high-level evaluation from detailed examination of the proofs greatly speeds up the time until rejection for most papers. This is good for authors, since nobody likes to wait nine months to hear that their paper wasn't remotely exciting enough for the Annals of Mathematics to accept, and it makes it easier to recruit good referees (offering a quick opinion is relatively easy, while full refereeing is harder but at least the paper is likely to make it worth your while).

Given that you describe the journal as "a rather prestigious mathematical journal", I'd bet that this is what's going on. In that case, all you need to provide is a single-page report offering your conceptual evaluation of the paper (interest, importance, novelty) and whether it merits further, more detailed consideration.

However, I'd recommend asking the editor if there's any ambiguity, for example if they used the word "referee" to describe you (which to me would indicate a full report). As an editor, I'm happy when referees ask for clarification, since it indicates that they are taking the process seriously. And it's safer to ask than to spend time writing a report that may not be what the editor wanted.

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    In my experience, requests for preliminary assessments of this sort often include something along the lines of "If you think the paper is good enough to be thoroughly refereed, please suggest some suitable referees." Jun 13, 2016 at 15:48
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A very likely possibility is that they have already contacted two referees, but have received no answers from one of them, or conflicting answers. So what they want from you is a quick general opinion on the paper to help them make a decision; someone has already looked at the technical parts in more detail, so you should focus on evaluating the level of the paper. Since the manuscript has already been sitting on their desk for a while, they want it fast.

Another possibility is that the paper has just been submitted, the editor looked at it quickly and it seemed a quick reject, but he/she wants a confirmation. So in this sense it may be a "pre-report"; if you don't answer negatively, you may be asked to write a more detailed report. But the other possibility seems more likely to me.

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    And the only way to know which case it is is to ask the editor who asked you for the report! Jun 13, 2016 at 11:36

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