Ethical obligation to find reviewers
Case text (Anonymised)
An associate editor handling a paper for this journal reported to the editor-in-chief that he had not yet been able to recruit a single reviewer—all those who have been contacted had declined or not responded. The paper is in scope for the journal, it seems of reasonably quality from a brief read and the associate editor is appropriate; but this is a small and specialised field, and finding expert and unconflicted reviewers is proving challenging (not helped by the paper length and the sophistication of the paper).
We are persevering but if we cannot recruit reviewers soon we intend to write to the authors telling them of the situation and asking whether they want to withdraw the paper.
(1) If they do not want to withdraw the paper, are we ethically obliged to keep trying to find reviewers?
(2) Or do our editorial responsibilities only extend to making ‘reasonable attempts’ to find reviewers?
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. If the editor believes the paper has merit, he should try his best to find a suitable reviewer. Some members of the Forum said that in cases where this is difficult, they often ask their editorial board members or call in favours from other colleagues. But it is up to the editor to decide in which instances he should pursue the quest for reviewer—for some papers this will be warranted, but for others it may not. If a lot of reviewers have refused the paper for example, does this imply the paper has little merit?
The Forum agreed that it is very important to keep the author updated—it is fine for the editor to communicate to the author that he is having problems finding a reviewer, and that although he will try his best, he may not be able to succeed. One suggestion for a solution was to consider asking several reviewers to review different parts of the paper, especially for those papers that are highly technical or complicated.
The editor agreed with the advice of the Forum. Although it does not solve any particular case he was grateful for the feedback from others. In this particular case, part of the problem was that the paper was from a specialist subarea of the field, with only a few people working in it, so there was only a limited pool of possible reviewers. In the end, the editor was able to obtain two reviews, both of which said "reject" so that was the decision in the end, as confirmed by the associate editor. The editor tries to get three reviewers for each paper, but routinely rejects on two high confidence ones.