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In the comments to one of the answers to this question, the asker points out that he is asked to submit his review of a manuscript for publication via email and that there is no formal online system with checkboxes or text boxes. This struck me as strange, as having reviewed papers for several biology and math journals I have never been asked to submit my review via email to the editor. Even for very small journals published independently, I have always been asked to use an online system, where all contact is viewable by the editor-in-chief and other parties at the journal.

Do reputable journals ever ask reviewers to submit their reviews via email, or is such a request a red flag that you are being asked to review for a scam journal? Do all reputable journals have online reviewer systems?

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    Is there any reason why they shouldn't? – henning May 4 '17 at 8:14
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    You misspelled “obscure” and wrote “secure” by accident. Just in case that wasn’t an accident, let me clarify: these online review systems are of course not secure, they’re, without exception, incredibly shoddy pieces of work that would make real engineers cringe. – Konrad Rudolph May 4 '17 at 10:57
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    @KonradRudolph yes I did not mean secure, I was struggling for a word, perhaps "transparent" is better. Basically I mean anyone who should have access to all contact by authors and reviewers can see all correspondence. – WetlabStudent May 4 '17 at 11:18
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    ... maybe it's worth mentioning that I've heard of social science journals who couldn't do anything with tex or even pdf files, and everything, from submission of articles to communication must be done with Microsoft Word documents sent via e-mail. – vsz May 5 '17 at 6:06
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    @vsz socail sciences? I've seen reputable engineering/computer science/physics journals not accept tex. I cringe – Ander Biguri May 5 '17 at 19:25
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I have interacted with several reputable math/TCS journals, both as author and as reviewer, entirely via email without the involvement of an online submission. I have even witnessed senior members of the community expressing the sentiment that they never agree to the semi-automated referee requests sent by online submission systems, but only to referee requests sent "by hand".

Summary: Yes, there exist reputable journals conducting peer review entirely by email.

Now whether or not a journal soliciting peer review without an online submission system is more likely to be disreputable than one that does, I do not know. I see no particular reason to assume either way.

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    No, semi-automated requests are not disreputable. We do not have secretaries anymore which take care of our daily chores, as much of that is expected to be handled automatically. Really, as an editor, having to take care of the lists/logistics of reviewed/nonreviewed/undecided papers is pure waste of time if it can be done automatically. Why should it be disreputable if an editor concentrates on the main duties of their job, namely reading papers/reports and making decisions rather than juggling emails, action items and trigger events? – Captain Emacs May 4 '17 at 9:48
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    @CaptainEmacs I don't think anyone is claiming semi-automated requests were disreputable? I am certainly not. – Arno May 4 '17 at 10:10
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    I seem to have misunderstood your response that '[some people] never agree to the semi-automated referee requests sent by online submission systems, but only to referee requests sent "by hand"' as a response to the question about reputable journals. I am, of course, not saying that this is your opinion, but interpreted your response that some people do not respond to these as an indicator for disreputability. If not that, what would be the reason that these people do not respond to semi-automated systems? Lack of personal touch? – Captain Emacs May 4 '17 at 21:06
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    @CaptainEmacs The stated reason is, roughly, that they get a lot more requests than they could handle, so they have to reject a lot anyway - and then it boils down to personal touch, and maybe "if it is a lot of work for me, I want the editor to suffer a bit, too". I had mentioned this as it indicates that the semi-automated messages should not be read as a sign of more reputation at all. – Arno May 4 '17 at 22:34
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    @CaptainEmacs See this: I will not log in to your website – ShreevatsaR May 5 '17 at 4:38
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Not long ago all reviews were handled not by email, but by paper mail. I submitted my first paper in 2003 and at that time submission was still by paper. However, I got an acknowledgement that the paper has been received via email, but the response of acceptance from the editor was in paper again. An online system was not in sight at that point.

I would say that there is nothing inherently bad about email communication with the editor. It may just be that he or she is just old fashioned. These days I still get asked by some editors from reputed journals for reviews in personal emails and send my response via email, too. Nothing bad about this.

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    "I submitted my first paper in 2003 and at that time submission was still by paper." For that particular journal. I also submitted my first paper in 2003 and I've only ever submitted by email or through web interfaces. – David Richerby May 4 '17 at 9:08
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    Oh, true - other journals had been "ahead" in technology… – Dirk May 4 '17 at 9:25
  • I was also surprised about this. I haven't submitted by snail mail since the 90s. – Martin Argerami May 6 '17 at 14:07
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My experience (in pure maths) is that this is normal for journals that are run out of a university - which includes some very good ones - and only the for-profit publishers have polished online interfaces.

  • A bit of a plug for the group of open-access journals I'm working for (as a layout/copy editor): although most of them are still using only e-mails and secretaries, we're currently transiting to a customized OJS (Open Journal Systems), while still being free and getting money only from subsides of our universities and the CNRS. – Luris May 5 '17 at 18:51
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Supplementing the other answers: I myself tend to be suspicious of the legitimacy of automated requests to referee, with someone I know listed as editor... since there are many bogus journals that claim several genuine scholars (for me, mathematicians) as "editors". Some of these requests are indeed bogus. A few are not. When I receive an automated request, I email the purported editor to ask whether everything is kosher. If they say it is, then I do the refereeing.

I think it is not a good thing that refereeing gets automated, and all still without pay, of course. So that traditional publishers need fewer employees, while yet profiting from the good-will volunteerism of academics.

That is, I don't think the issue is "transparency", but, rather, whether or not we (collectively) willingly become cogs in an automated machine that doesn't pay us anything, but charges us (or our libraries) to see the outcomes of our work.

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    This is another matter. I've seen a tendency toward rejecting reviews from for-profit journals. If academia were to embrace that, the for-profit journals would be done for. Given the tendency toward open access journals, this makes the dichotomy even stronger. I used to be on the editorial board of a journal run by a for-profit publisher. At this point I don't think I would even review for one. – Fred Douglis May 4 '17 at 23:10
  • I should add, Paul's comment about charging libraries (or us) applies not just for the for-profit publications but for those run by nonprofit associations. They need to recoup expenses because the publications do provide a service. But I think there is a big difference in what they charge, and what they provide. – Fred Douglis May 4 '17 at 23:12
  • Refereeing doesn't get automated. The editor still has to use their own intellect and experience to choose suitable referees. Honestly, I don't see what difference it makes whether the editor types your email address into the mail client and writes your email (which may well be copy-pasted anyway) or types your email into a different piece of software which sends you a pre-composed email. And the whole "are for-profit journals" a good thing debate is contentious and completely tangential to the question. – David Richerby May 5 '17 at 11:25
  • @DavidRicherby, to my perception, it is not at all the same to receive an email from software (whom I've not met?), than from a person, especially if the person is known to me. In particular, I am far more willing to do a personal favor for a colleague, than for software serving a corporation. All the more so if I can't just email a report, but have to have an account, a password, and do whatever point-and-click the software demands. – paul garrett May 5 '17 at 12:20
  • I still don't see the difference. Your colleague either told one piece of software to ask you to review a paper, or told a different piece of software. Your point about needing accounts and passwords and things to use the web interfaces is a much stronger one. (Though, still, compared to the effort of reading the paper and writing a report, the effort of creating an account is pretty negligible, even when you include the effort of retrieving your forgotten password the next time you review for that publisher.) – David Richerby May 5 '17 at 12:30

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