1 – Research journals: reading them and reviewing for them

Journals are meant to be the coal-face for current research in a field. Each journal focuses on a specific field of research, often remarkably narrow. In the past week I have reviewed three research papers for research journals. That is quite a few hours work, and it prompted me to wonder why I spend my time doing it.

Reviewers are called on to provide advice to the editor about the suitability of a submitted paper, and advice to the authors about how they can improve their paper or the research it is based on. As reviewers, we aren’t paid for our efforts. It is more of a community service, within the community of researchers. If you publish in a journal, there is a good chance you will be called on to review for it at some point.

Some people, even some researchers, think that journals are used to communicate research results. Of course this is true to some extent, but in my experience there are much more effective ways to communicate your results, if that is your main aim. The internet, electronic media and verbal presentations at meetings or conferences all can have better impacts as communication vehicles if you use them well.

The main role of journals is to provide quality assurance. The very act of submitting a paper to a journal causes authors to think carefully about what they really mean to say and to critically evaluate their own work. After all, the work is going to be critically evaluated by other experts, so you can’t dish up rubbish, or at least you would hope not to. The advice from reviewers and editors further improves the product, even if you don’t end up getting published in the journal of your choice. So journals remain crucial to the standing of research, despite the fact that they are not all that widely read, even by other researchers.

How widely read are they? Here is one indication. When writing a research paper, we have to acknowledge the prior research that we are hoping to build on, and in doing so we give signals about which research we have read, or at least which research we have read, understood and remembered. This is information that universities are willing to pay for, so there are people who keep track of who is citing who else. Some of the results are fascinating. Nearly a quarter of scientific papers published are never mentioned by anyone else. It’s even worse in the social sciences and the arts. Of papers published in the social sciences, around half are never cited. In the arts and humanities the figure is over 90 percent.

So why do I spend time doing all this reviewing. The reality is that, morally, there is little choice. I want to benefit from having my work accepted in a journal, so I have to do my share of the work that allows journals to operate. But I must admit it does rankle to see the subscription fees that some of the journals change, while I am doing work for them for free.

You might wonder what I recommended to the editors about the three papers I reviewed. One was very good, one was OK and one was a shocker. That was actually quite a good outcome from the point of view of saving me time. Most papers I review are OK: not so bad that you can recommend rejection with little effort to spell out the problems, but not so good that there are few improvements to recommend. The good one and the shocker were both quick to review.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing, Paper presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Canberra, Feb 13-15 2002,

Revised version published as:

Pannell, D.J. (2002). Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing, Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics 50(2): 101-116.

Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, 26/10/03: The dramas of scientific publishing,

Transcript (16K),

Selected email responses to the talk