Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Should you referee this paper?

Being a referee is somewhat of a thankless task. It means being a good citizen and putting the interests of the scientific community before your own. Furthermore, if you are conscientious and provide a helpful report in a timely manner, the journal editors will "reward" you by sending you more and more papers to referee. Postdocs can easily sink a lot of time into refereeing papers, to little personal gain. Someone once told me a helpful rule for being a good scientific citizen: you should referee approximately the same number of papers per year as you submit [normalised to the number of co-authors]. I encourage my postdocs to follow this guideline.

Some good reasons to referee a paper:

  • You have some constructive feedback that will improve the paper.
  • The paper has serious flaws.
  • It is good experience to learn how referee's may respond to your papers.
Some good reasons to not referee a paper:
  • You are too busy and can't provide a report in a timely manner.
  • You can't be objective because of a conflict of interest.
  • You already referee more than your share of papers [see the rule above].
  • You already have one paper to referee.
  • You really don't have the expertise to evaluate the validity and/or importance of the paper.
  • The paper is so poorly written it is difficult to follow. 

Some bad reasons to referee a paper:

  • You just can't say no.
  • You mistakenly think that if you say no the journal editors won't be sympathetic to your next submission.
  • The paper is from a competitor and you want to stop it getting published.
  • You mistakenly think that being a referee looks particularly good on your CV.
  • The paper cites a least one of your papers and so you want it to be published.


  1. I don't think the math works out if you only referee one paper per paper you submit. The typical scientific paper has ~2 referees.

  2. Good point, Stephan! I guess I will have to start refereeing twice as many!