Yes, please–do volunteer to be a reviewer

Yes, you CAN volunteer to be a peer reviewer!

Get any two researchers together in a bar at the end of a day at any randomly chosen conference.  They will get around to complaining about the difficulty of getting grant funding these days, service responsibilities in their institution, and how grad students don’t want to work as hard as we did back in the day.  But, before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.  (See the English notes below for an explanation of the expression “pain point.”)

“Peer review” is the process by which academic writing is considered for publication.  The mechanics of it are this:

  1. An author submits an article to a journal or conference.
  2. An “associate editor” at the journal or an “area chair” at the conference finds reviewers who are willing to read and comment on the paper–your “peers.”
  3. The reviewers read the paper, write up detailed comments on it, and make a suggestion regarding acceptance.
  4. The associate editor or area chair makes a decision about the paper.

That decision in step 4 can take a number of forms, including outright acceptance (rare), rejection (not rare), and giving the author the option of making changes in response to the reviewers’ comments and resubmitting the paper, in which case steps 3 and 4 repeat.  (They can repeat multiple times, too.)

At step 2, the associate editor or area chair needs to find three reviewers in the typical case–rarely fewer, and sometimes more.  (I once submitted a paper to a journal for which I am the deputy editor-in-chief, and the editor who handled it had it reviewed by SIX reviewers–the most I have ever seen.  To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, that made sense.)

Three reviewers per submission, and the big conferences in my area (computational linguistics) typically get between 1,000 and 2,500 submissions–that’s 3,000 to 7,500 reviews per conference.  There are several big conferences in my area–assume five per year, and that’s 15,000 to 37,500 reviews that need to get written per year.  And that’s just the conferences–journal publications are appearing faster than ever before in history, which is in itself not a surprise–most things are happening faster than ever before in history—but, the publication rate has been growing logarithmically, and if you’ve been reading about Zipf’s Law for a while, you know that that’s fast.   Journal submissions take quite a bit more time to review than conference papers, too–a conference paper in my field is typically limited to 8 pages, but most journals in my field no longer have page limits at all.

Just for grins, here are the page counts on my 5 most recent journal articles: 15, 8, 14, 24, and 12.  The 8-pager was in a journal with a page limit–of 7 pages!  We paid an extra-page fee.

Who writes those peer reviews?  Well…your peers.  You write your share of those 15,000 to 37,500 reviews, and the authors of those 5,000 to 12,500 papers write reviews of your papers, and… Well, it’s a huge workload.  How huge, exactly?  It’s hard to say what an average would be, but I have a reviewed a couple hundred papers over the course of the past couple of years.  Is that typical?  Probably.  And the conference papers come in bursts–conferences are deadline-driven, so all of the 1,000 to 2,500 submissions to an individual conference are being done at once.  A reviewer for a conference in my field is typically assigned 5 papers.  Of course, there is a limited set of time slots when conferences can happen–they mostly take place during breaks in the academic year, so either during the summer, or around the end-of-year holidays.  That means that their submission deadlines tend to cluster together, so you are probably reviewing for multiple conferences in the same time period.  How many?  I’ve written 14 in the past two weeks.  I may actually have spent more time reviewing other people’s papers than working on my current grant proposal–and it’s the grant proposals that bring in my salary.  Could I say no to review requests?  Of course.  But, it would not be fair to do so–while I’m reviewing those papers, someone else is reviewing mine.

….All of this en préambule to the answer to a question that I don’t get asked often enough: can you volunteer to be a reviewer?  The answer: yes.  Here’s a good example of a request that I got recently:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

I am a Ph.D. student at university name removed, majoring in computer science, under the supervision of advisor name removed. My main research fields are bioinformatics, deep learning, machine learning and  artificial intelligence.
I have done some researches in bimolecular function prediction, Nanopore sequencing, fluorescence microscope super resolution, MD simulation, sequence analysis, graph embedding and catastrophic forgetting, which were published in journals, such as PNAS, NAR and Bioinformatics, and conferences, such as ISMB, ECCB and AAAI. Attached please find my complete CV about my background.

I am very interested in serving the community and acting as a reviewer for the manuscripts which are related to my background. I know you are serving as an associate editor for a number of journals, such as BMC Bioinformatics. If you encounter some manuscripts which are highly related to my background, feel free to refer me as a reviewer.

Thank you very much for your consideration! Have a nice day!

My response:

Hi, name removed,

Thank you for writing–it is always nice to see a volunteer for reviewing!  However, I only handle articles on natural language processing, which seems outside of your areas of expertise.  I would recommend that you send your CV, and a similar email, to associate editors who specialize in your areas.  Your advisor could suggest some, and you could also look at the editorial board of relevant journals, especially ones in which you have published.
Thank you again for volunteering, and keep looking for opportunities–I am pretty sure that you will find them!
Best wishes,
Beauregard Zipf
Response to THAT:

Dear Dr. Zipf:

OK! Thank you very much for the clarification and the instruction! Have a nice day!

Notice what you do not see in this exchange: what people are afraid of, which is a response saying something along the lines of “who the hell do you think you are to dare to propose yourself as a reviewer?”  Of the 200 emails that I probably plowed through that day, this offer might have been the only message that actually brought me a little joy–even though I couldn’t use this particular reviewer, I’m certain that someone else will.  Yes: you can volunteer to be a peer reviewer!


French notes

en préambule (à): as a preamble, en guise d’introduction.
la relecture par les pairspeer review.  WordReference.com also gives l’évaluation par les pairs and l’inter-évaluation, but I’ve never actually heard that last one.  Native speakers??
Want to read a French-language blog post about peer review in computational linguistics?  Here’s one by my colleagues Karën Fort and Aurélie Névéol.
English notes
pain pointa marketing term referring to the problem that a salesman is going to try to solve for you by selling you his product.  How I used it in the post: Before that, they will complain about the real pain point of academic work: reviewing.

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