Peer review is the backbone of scientific medical publishing. Most reviewers receive little reward and face competing demands for their time. Diseases of the Colon & Rectum is a surgical specialty journal that, similar to most journals, relies on peer review to define what is new and legitimate to publish. It was hypothesized that the frequency of “nonresponse” and “reviewer declines” responses to review requests increased over the last 6 years.
In this observational study, using 2 data sets, the editor in chief (EIC) (1) prospectively collected “reviewer declines” e-mail responses over a 6-year period, examining reasons for declining reviews, frequency of recommending alternate reviewers, and other comments and (2), for this same 6 years, the EIC queried the manuscript submission and review system for total review invitations by editor, number declined, invitations without response, and for reviews cancelled due to noncompletion.
From January 2016 to December 2021, the journal received 872 to 1379 submissions per year (mean of 1024 submissions per year) for which 24,766 review invitations were sent, 17,306 by the EIC (70%). Overall, 19,004 invitations were accepted, of which 18,100 were completed on time (73%), 904 were initially accepted but cancelled due to noncompletion of the review (4%), 2235 invitations were declined (9%), and 3496 (14%) never received a response (Figure 19). The EIC prospectively collected 516 “reviewer-declines” e-mail responses from 474 unique reviewers representing a 23% sample of review declinations. Among these, 41% provided no reason and 34% were “busy with other commitments”; other common reasons included “away from the office” (8%), vacation (7%), and family obligations (2%), among others. Conflicts of interest were cited in 2% of declines and in less than 1% allegations of scientific misconduct were made by associate editors or reviewers for other journals. These cases involved the same manuscript and allegations of duplicate submission; the manuscript was withdrawn. Fourteen percent of declining reviewers suggested alternate reviewers (often with e-mail addresses). Reasons for declining did not change over time. Over the 6 years, EIC invitations became less likely to be declined and reviews cancelled for delay decreased. This appeared to coincide with development of a mentored peer-review program and institution of high-profile reviewer awards at the Society annual meeting. These data also encase the pandemic when editorial board members and reviewers were very involved in acute care of patients with COVID-19.
This report becomes a baseline for ongoing quality improvement. There were no substantial changes in frequency of or reasons for declining reviews over time, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1Hiram C. Polk, Jr. MD Department of Surgery, 550 South Jackson Street, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA, email@example.com
Conflict of Interest Disclosures
Susan Galandiuk receives a stipend for editorial work from the American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons.