Volunteer recognition, finally!
Posted by Arjendu on January 17, 2008
Gene Sprouse wrote me yesterday (as well as to many many many other physicists):
The Editors thank you for your help during the past year as a referee for the journals
of the American Physical Society. Your thoughtful and well-informed reviews are crucial
for our decisions, and your comments help authors improve their manuscripts. We sincerely
appreciate your assistance and look forward to your ongoing contribution to the physics
To express our appreciation for the essential work that anonymous peer reviewers do for
our journals, we are starting an annual program to recognize approximately 130 of our
42,000 active referees each year as “Outstanding Referees”. Each awardee will receive a
certificate and pin, and we hope to thank each in person at one of our annual APS meetings.
The list of Outstanding Referees will be published online and in the journals although each
can choose not to be recognized publicly. We will select the referees based on many factors
that may include diligently returning reports in a timely manner, reviewing many papers
over many years, or providing especially insightful advice. The award will be one-time and
the referee must be living. Neither nationality, APS membership, nor field of scientific
expertise will be a factor. We hope that all referees will be pleased, whether or not they
are chosen, that we are recognizing some who have done an especially outstanding service to
Well, finally! Not because I’m expecting to be one of the Outstanding Referees, but some sort of recognition for this is a very good idea. It’s a little strange that the nominal ‘make or break’ activity for reward in academic physics — publications — is handled by unpaid anonymous refereeing. I don’t mean to say that the referee’s name should be published along with the authors (although in certain moments I have wondered if that might change things for the better considerably; transparency and acceptance of responsibility is almost always a good thing. But it would make it hard within the current power system for junior referees to do a good job of reviewing senior authors’ papers).
But some sort of lifting of the veil might help. Here’s why:
Physics has a relatively high publication rate (compared to Math, say), which I’ve heard attributed to a tendency to publish a lot more papers than are actually useful (or read, perhaps). There is a sense in which we believe, I think, that the good stuff out of all that will survive/rise to the fore, and so some sloppy papers getting through, or some inappropriate rejections don’t mean a lot. Great attitude in general, and probably responsible for the rise of arXiv (the free online unrefereed repository so many of us use).
I try my hardest to do a conscientious job when called to referee: Respond promptly, be honest about reading the paper carefully and understanding it, be clear and respectful about what I don’t understand, or about things that look wrong to me, and to be as constructive as possible in the comments/reports. In general, I try to act like a colleague down the hall from the authors — and I love it when I get referees who treat me the same way.
But the acceptance of slop in the system combined with the anonymity means that no one beats up on the referee if a particular paper that (s)he let through turns out to be flawed or incomplete and there is no payoff for being careful, compassionate, intelligent in your refereeing (except for serving the cause of physics itself, don’t get me wrong). What’s the external incentive then for doing a good job?
There was the usual reception hosted by the editors at Physical Review the last time I was at a DAMOP conference and I ducked into the tail end of it because I was feeling hungry and remembered that they always had good nibbles at the Phys Rev reception. I landed up chatting briefly with one of the Editors and in passing suggested to her that some sort of name recognition might be very valuable. It would give us an incentive — however minor it might seem, academics thrive on minor incentives 🙂 — to do a good job and it would give us some sort of responsibility for our product. All good things. The American Journal of Physics publishes the name of all their referees every year, and I think it’s worked really well for them.
I very seriously doubt that mine was the only such feedback they’ve gotten over the years, or that this was what was led to this new initiative, but about time!