Boycotting peer review is just a kind of gatekeeping

The ‘boycott peer review’ hot takes are reappearing on social media. Long-time readers of my blog may remember my post on why I think boycotting peer review is unreasonable, written the last time this hot take was doing the rounds. In that post I mostly focused on the impacts on the system and the editors, which are important reasons not to boycott peer review.

But refusing to review papers also impacts the authors. This is obvious and should not have to be said, but it seems that it is often forgotten when academics shake their fists at Big Publishing.

I mostly see senior academics posting these statements, proudly proclaiming they refused to review for a ‘for profit’ journal. They are speaking from a position of privilege, and I worry what message this sends to the next generation of scientists.

Think about the early career authors trying to get their research published. For them, one paper can mean so much more to their career than it would to an established academic with hundreds of papers already under their belt.

We’re already seeing authors having to wait longer to receive a decision because of COVID-19, mostly due to an increasing number of declined or unanswered review invitations. As an editor, I’m working through more than double the number of invitations per paper than I was pre-COVID, before I find at least two reviewers who accept to review. I’m also finding that original reviewers are increasingly unavailable to review the revision, meaning I have to go through another round of invitations to find a second reviewer for the revision, or do the review myself. This hardly ever happened before COVID.

I’m also hearing of an increasing number of experiences where authors receive desk rejects purely on the grounds that the editor can’t find a reviewer who will accept the invitation to review. This is not a valid reason to reject a paper, but it’s happening nonetheless. Faced with over 20 failed invitations, each of which can take 1-2 weeks waiting for a response, the editor has to make a call at some point whether the author is better off trying their luck at another journal.

Declining a review invitation for genuine reasons is perfectly acceptable. But refusing to review because of a misguided belief that the publisher will suffer is inherently flawed and just increases the burden on the community. And it’s simply unethical to refuse to review papers for journals that you have published in yourself, even if you were a co-author with no control over where the paper was submitted.

Early career researchers, as authors and handling editors, will suffer disproportionately from these boycotts compared to established academics.

So please think before boycotting peer review. There are definitely predatory and dubious for profit publishing houses that don’t deserve our time or endorsement. But if your only reason for boycotting a reputable journal is because they make a profit from publishing, or belong to a publishing house that makes a profit, please think about who will actually suffer. And if you do decide not to review, please just respond to the invitation and suggest alternative reviewers to save the editor and author some time.

© Manu Saunders 2021

7 thoughts on “Boycotting peer review is just a kind of gatekeeping

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel September 30, 2021 / 9:34 PM

    I was going to say “I totally agree” but then realized I should be more nuanced. I do refuse to review for journals that do two things: those that request reviews in less than 3 weeks, and those that publish the reviews (so-called “transparent” or “open” peer review). In both cases, I’m doing this not because of an attempt to punish the publisher, but simply because these things are abusive of me as a reviewer. I think it’s completely OK to boycott a journal for these reasons. So, should I refuse to publish in those journals I’m refusing to review for? Well, if I’m solo authoring, then yes, clearly. But if I’m authoring with someone else, especially an ECR, then refusing to publish in that journal is ALSO gatekeeping. So none of this is quite as simple as either the hot takes or my intuitive response to them!

    On < 3-week reviews:

    On transparent reviews:

    Liked by 3 people

    • Manu Saunders October 1, 2021 / 8:48 AM

      Yes, of course there is always nuance. Here I’m specifically talking about the people that boycott purely on this anti-publisher stance. Agree with you on the open peer review, I have also changed my mind about that recently.
      With reputable journals that give you short deadlines, I usually accept if I’m interested, have the expertise and time, but I automatically ask for an extension and have never been knocked back – I don’t think enough people, especially ECRs, realise you can ask for extensions…


  2. Marco Mello September 30, 2021 / 11:59 PM

    That’s a really complex issue, so I partially agree with you this time.

    This kind of boycott is not necessarily gatekeeping, but neither does it solve the problem. The real gatekeeping are the outrageous APCs and access costs charged by many journals managed by Big Publishing. Some APCs for a single paper are higher than six months of an assistant professor’s salary in Brazil! Or all the scholarship money received by a student to survive during a 2-year Master’s degree. So who is kept outside the gates of Big Publishing Citadel are not necessarily ECRs from central countries, but virtually all scientists at all career stages from peripheral countries.

    In my opinion, we need to go back to the model of academic journals being managed by academic societies, with a focus on the mission of advancing science. In the 90s, many people thought it would be a good idea to let professional publishers manage our journals, so we could focus on the scientific and not the technical facet of publishing. Nowadays, we have access to all technological tools needed to take the power back. In addition, the subscription money paid by our governments from peripheral countries to grant us access to journals from central countries is obscene. It would be much better used to keep a higher diversity of independent, local, academic journals running.

    To start this change, we need to stop fetishizing fancy journals in our academic assessments. We need to re-discuss our values and how we operationalize them. That would help all scientists, ECRs included.


    • Manu Saunders October 1, 2021 / 8:52 AM

      Thanks for the comment Marco. I agree there are lots of complex issues. I think the outrageously high APCs at a handful journals is a separate issue to what I’m talking about here – where people claim a blanket boycott on reviewing papers, in a misguided attempt to ‘punish’ the publisher.
      Agree with you about fetishising fancy journals – a blog post for another day!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bartosz Bartkowski October 1, 2021 / 12:14 AM

    Yes! I agree with virtually every word, even though it has taken me a while to realize this and stop my personal “I won’t review for Elsevier journals” crusade. But you’re perfectly right: peer-review boycotts are harming the wrong people.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JC October 1, 2021 / 12:21 AM

    Interesting thoughts with which I agree at large. It is also interesting to blindly assume publishers are the bad guys and we (scientists) are the good cowboys. I’m not saying there may some truth there, but generally I think we need to think and speak based on data.


  5. William OBrien June 8, 2023 / 9:24 PM

    I am a review boycotter – but only for the high charge publishers. My primary reason is these high publication fees effectively cut out the voices of researchers from low to middle income countries and also researchers situated in small to medium sized universities where support for publication is low (or absent).

    In my field (social sciences, psychology), the bias for publishing research from WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic countries) researchers using WEIRD samples is already a severe problem. These high publication fee journals worsen the problem.

    I do not want to contribute to a system that enriches companies and simultaneously worsens the diversity of voices and quality of research in my field.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s