About one week ago I was asked to review a paper for a journal which shall remain nameless. I accepted but hadn’t yet started as I had other things on my plate. Then today I received a message from the journal with the following message:
“Please be informed that Dr XX has reached a decision on this manuscript. Thank you for you efforts in agreeing to review our manuscript. We hope this does not discourage you to review more manuscript in the future.”
My first reaction was of relief. I could delete this from my to-do list. Then I was glad that I had not yet put any work into this. And then I got annoyed. Annoyed that the system is so rotten that I could have already invested time and effort (for free) which would have been wasted. Annoyed that I try to be a good reviewer, and editor, try to defend the virtues of the peer-review system, and yet its problems just become more and more apparent every day. It’s like trying to justify teenager behaviour, you may love your kid but he is just an asshole. Reviewing and academic editing is a job we do for free for, in most cases, for-profit publishers. I do not have a better solution to the system (not sure that online pre-prints are the solution to an already overwhelming breadth of literature), but it surely sucks at times. And this is one of those sucky times.
After this happened I went to see again the manuscript and noticed that it had been in the system for nearly 80 days, so probably the editor felt pressured to make a decision. But if the journal was looking for my help within a narrower time window than usual, then surely they could have said so. I may have said no, but at least I would not have been asked to do something for no reason.
In my limited experience as an associated editor* I have also experienced other problems, like the difficulties in finding reviewers. Some people do not even bother to say no. Luckily as an editor I have not yet seen terrible reviews but I am sure at some point I would have to deal with unfair criticism or irrelevant comments. As an author I sure have. As a reviewer I have as well. Some authors can be damned rude in their responses. Even small details like having to remember passwords for all the different journal sites waste my time (you may be thinking I could just use one password for all, but because not all sites have the same requirements I have several of this “unique” passwords now…).
So clearly the system needs help. And some of that help needs to come from the bottom up. We need to be better reviewers, better editors, and better authors. Review as if the manuscript was yours. Write as if you were the reviewer. And edit considering both author and reviewer can be mistaken, unfair, and even bad scientists.