Referee communication preferences

Looking at our operations, one of the observations is that the response rate from invited referees could be much better. Avoiding delays at this level is crucial at improving the overall timescales for editorial processing.

On the one hand, we don’t want to overburden anybody. On the other hand, things work much better if quick yes/no replies are given to refereeing invitations, and if referees who have accepted to deliver a report, do so within the agreed deadline.

Some things come to mind about how we can improve this:

  • should we add a one-click accept/decline button in the referee invitation email (no login required)?
  • should we offer the option, upon accepting a refereeing invitation, for the referee to self-determine a “promised by” date for report delivery (within acceptable bounds), and show these promised dates to authors?
  • if a referee does not respond to an invitation after a few days, is the right default to consider this referee to having refused the invitation, or to have implicitely accepted it?
  • how often should we send email reminders to referees?

Your opinions on the above, together with any further thoughts or ideas, are most welcome.

First, we should make sure that only worthy submissions reach the referees. It should be easy and relatively common for editors to desk reject submissions, in particular if they are not written clearly enough. This can come with an encouragement to resubmit later.

Then, for the referee’s workflow, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: JHEP has a rather efficient workflow that could be emulated. This includes a “promised by” date (with a bound of 30 days), with an automatic email reminder when that date approaches, and the possibility to extend the deadline if need be. I am not sure what they do when there is no reply to the invitation, but it seems dangerous to assume it has been accepted.

The one-click accept/decline button looks like a good idea, but raises the issue of choosing the promised date by default.

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What are the frequencies of referee responses (yes/no/no response)? If no reaction is frequent, then it seems best to:

  • Count lack of response as declining the invitation.
  • Write in the invitation email something along the lines:

    Please let us know as soon as possible if you are able to review the manuscript by following the accept link or decline link. We hope to hear from you within 5 days, after which we will consider you unable to provide a review (although if you reconsider, you you may contribute a report as long as review is open).

On a related note: where can one find the default email templates or provide feedback on those?

Quick note: we already have a multi-stage setup in place to do a first filtering:

  • prescreening (plagiarism checks and the like)
  • screening (submissions have to be actively picked up by a Fellow, who can also call for an immediate desk reject).

Referees are only invited once the submission passes screening (and thus has an Editor-in-charge).

So I’ve compiled some numbers to check the referee responses: for the 12 months up to end of April 2021, here is what the database says:

  • 2660 invitations
  • 1953 answered (73%)
  • 707 unanswered (27%)
  • 1220 accepted to review, so 46% of original invitations (62% of answered ones)
  • 1074 fulfilled, so 88% of accepted, 55% of answered, 40% of invitations.

Note that this includes multiple reports by the same referee (for resubmissions).

For the email templates, you’ll find most of them here.

Nice to see the data!

At face value the rates themselves don’t seem to be problematic, or am I wrong? Could it be that they are distributed very unevenly across different submissions and/or editors, and that is the actual problem?