A brief article recently published in BioEssays provides helpful insight into the thought processes of journal proofreaders when choosing peer reviewers for scholarly articles. The writer of the article, an editor speaking from experience, suggests that the efforts of authors to help both a journal editor and themselves may sometimes backfire due to the psychology with which proofreaders approach the lists of preferred and non-preferred reviewers provided by authors.
Authors who may be under the impression that long lists (of five to ten names each, for instance) of preferred reviewers and non-preferred reviewers may ensure positive peer reviews could actually be stacking the cards against themselves and their papers. Because the quality of scholarship and thus the reputations of journals are at stake, proofreaders value the independence of peer reviews. This is why journals ask that an author choose preferred reviewers with whom he or she has no potentially compromising connections, co-authorship being the most obvious. Yet the editor who wrote this short article indicates that such connections are often found in the lists of preferred reviewers provided by authors, and discoveries of this kind tend to produce suspicion. If even one of the scholars on a preferred list is found to have the kind of relationship with the author the editor wishes to avoid, it raises alarm bells about connections with the others on the list that may not be immediately visible. Editors certainly check via publication indexes and search engines, and some will choose reviewers they find rather than or along with those suggested by an author, while others will ‘avoid the preferred list altogether.’
A non-preferred list can cause problems as well, especially if it is long and combined with a long preferred list, a situation that will make it seem like the author is trying to control the peer-review process. This tends to make proofreaders seek out their own reviewers, reducing the chance that the sufficiently independent experts named by the author will be chosen and increasing the possibility that less qualified reviewers will make the decisions about the paper. It may also persuade the editor to choose names from the non-preferred list, if only for practical reasons associated with finding enough reviewers. If an author absolutely must provide a long list of non-preferred reviewers for valid reasons, it is recommended that those reasons be explained in a cover letter or in connection with the list.
For authors working in a small field, suggesting reviewers may be helpful to the editor, but when there is considerable co-publication in the field, it may prove difficult to suggest independent peer reviewers. Here, too, explanation is the answer. The best policy, however, especially when providing lists of preferred and non-preferred reviewers is problematic, may simply be not to suggest anyone at all. Relying on the content of your article (particularly its title, keywords and abstract) to supply everything the editor needs to find appropriate peer reviewers implies a healthy confidence in your work and the kind of trust in the editor that establishes a good working relationship.
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