Advice: how to suggest referees in your cover letter to the journal editor

When you submit a manuscript to a journal, you write a cover letter to the editor. Your cover letter should say more than just “Here’s a manuscript, please consider it, thanks!” It should have one-paragraph, non-technical summary of your work (at least less technical than your abstract), explaining why it’s interesting/important/novel/etc. and why it’s a good fit for the journal to which you’re submitting it. That encourages the journal to send your ms out for review, which leading journals are increasingly reluctant to do these days. And you usually have to include various legalistic statements, for instance stating that the work reported in the ms was conducted according to all applicable laws and treaties.

This post isn’t about any of that, it’s about another aspect of a good cover letter, one that’s often omitted: suggestions for referees (and, sometimes, requests that certain referees be excluded).

Speaking as a former handling editor, I can tell you that editors typically welcome suggestions for referees. It’s difficult to get people to agree to referee these days, especially for papers outside the area of the editor’s greatest expertise (because in such cases the editor often doesn’t know who is likely to agree to do the review and to do a good job). So your suggestions are welcome. They’re just that, of course–suggestions. The editor may ignore some or all of them. But by all means make suggestions.

When suggesting referees, it’s best to list a few names (say, 3-4), with email addresses, and to briefly explain why you think the people you’ve suggested would be good referees. I often use phrasing like “The following international leaders in the field are among those with the expertise on [topic of the ms] and/or [study system or approach used in the ms] needed to review the ms:…” That phrasing signals a few things to the handling editor. It signals that you’re suggesting the best people, not just your buddies (not that you need shy away from suggesting people you know, even people you know well; just knowing someone isn’t a conflict of interest). It also signals that you think your ms is good, and believe it will stand up to scrutiny by the best people. And in explaining the reasons for your suggestions, you’re helping to guide the editor’s choice of referees. Even if the editor doesn’t use your suggested referees, he or she hopefully will choose others with similar expertise. For instance, I’ve use this phrasing to try to encourage editors to send my protist microcosm papers to others who’ve worked in that system. Such referees not only have the specialist expertise to evaluate every technical detail of my methods, they’re less likely than other referees to misunderstand my ms (and serious misunderstandings do happen sometimes). Finally, you’re signalling your understanding of the audience for the paper, and the readership of the journal. As an editor at Oikos (a general ecology journal), I occasionally handled papers on some specific organism or system, where all the suggested referees were narrow specialists on that organism or system, who (when I looked at their websites) turned out never to have published any general ecology papers. For me, that was a signal (one among others, of course) that the paper wasn’t really a good fit for Oikos. An author who thinks of their paper as an ecology paper, aimed at an ecological audience, ordinarily will suggest referees who are ecologists.

When suggesting referees, if there’s someone who you strongly suspect won’t agree to do the review, don’t bother suggesting their name. For instance, you may not want to bother suggesting extremely famous (and therefore busy) people who you don’t know, unless your paper really is right up their alley or you have some other reason to believe they’ll agree to do it. As another example, I’ve discovered through my experience as an editor that certain people never agree to do reviews. I don’t bother to suggest their names when submitting my own papers.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but when suggesting names, don’t try to pull a fast one and suggest anyone with whom you have a conflict of interest (e.g., someone you’ve co-authored a paper with recently; check the rules for the journal you’re submitting to). And you wouldn’t ordinarily suggest someone who’s already seen a draft of the ms and given you feedback. Anyone who’s done that should be listed in the Acknowledgments, of course.

When should you suggest that certain individuals not be asked to review your ms? In my view, requests to exclude referees should be phrased carefully. One unfortunate side effect of online ms handling systems, I suspect, is that they will erode this care. Many journals now have fill-in-the-blank online forms where you can name preferred and non-preferred referees. The ability to just plug names into a form will, I suspect, encourage authors to suggest referee exclusions without saying why, and so will encourage authors to suggest exclusions on grounds that would not stand up to scrutiny. My advice: don’t give in to the temptation to just fill in the online “non-preferred referees” form with the names of anyone who you think might not like your ms. Sure, use the online form–but explain your reasoning in the cover letter.

What are legitimate reasons for suggesting that someone be excluded? A conflict of interest is the most obvious and clear-cut. If there’s someone who might be asked to review your paper, but who would have to decline if asked due to a conflict of interest, reveal the conflict so that the editor doesn’t bother asking that person for a review. The exception is that you don’t need to bother listing names of people who work at the same place you do. That is a conflict of interest, but it’s obvious enough that it probably doesn’t need mentioning; no competent editor would ever ask for a review from your co-workers.

Conversely, it is not legitimate to suggest excluding someone just because you think they won’t like your ms. Further, it’s a bad idea to try. If you say in your cover letter, “I don’t want Dr. So-and-so to review my paper because I don’t think he’ll like it,” or words to that effect, the implication is that you don’t think Dr. So-and-so is competent to judge your paper, or that he won’t be fair. After all, if Dr. So-and-so is competent and fair, and he doesn’t like it, well, that’s the considered judgment of a competent, fair colleague. Obtaining such judgments is the whole point of peer review! You think Dr. So-and-so might not like your paper? Well, from the point of view of the editor, maybe that’s because your paper has problems! (In which case, perhaps you should’ve phrased your request as “I don’t want Dr. So-and-so to review my paper because I’m afraid he’ll spot the problems with it.”)

And note that saying something like “I suggest excluding Dr. So-and-so because he has previously reviewed my ms” will not fly. The fact that someone has reviewed your ms previously does not disqualify them from reviewing it again. If an editor rejects your ms based on the review of Dr. So-and-so, and then a second editor at another journal decides she also wants a review from Dr. So-and-so, sorry, that’s life. If you’ve revised the ms so as to address Dr. So-and-so’s objections, you’ll be fine. If you haven’t, well, Dr. So-and-so’s review probably will still be negative, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Remember, it’s the editor who makes the decision on the ms, not the referees; their role is merely to give the editor advice. When you resubmit a rejected ms to another journal, it gets handled by a different editor. If that editor, like the first one, also wants a review from Dr. So-and-so, and like the first editor finds that negative review compelling, you have no grounds to complain (assuming of course that the editors in question aren’t just mindlessly “counting the votes” of the referees, which good editors shouldn’t do).

Plus, are you so sure Dr. So-and-so won’t like your ms? I was once asked for a review by an editor who was having trouble finding referees for the paper, and so asked me even though the authors had asked that I be excluded. I actually liked the paper! I don’t know why the authors asked for me to be excluded, although I have a pretty good guess. But the point is, this is one more reason why you shouldn’t try to exclude referees just because you’re worried they might not like your paper.

Of course, if you want to exclude Dr. So-and-so because you don’t think he’ll like your ms, you could try just asking for him to be excluded, without specifying a reason. But as a handling editor, that always made me suspicious. If anything, it made me more inclined to ask Dr. So-and-so for a review.

So if you’re afraid that Dr. So-and-so won’t like your ms, well, sorry, but there’s nothing you can do about that and you probably shouldn’t try, unless there’s some other, legitimate reason to request that Dr. So-and-so be excluded. So, are there such reasons, besides conflicts of interest? I think there are, but it’s a grey area, so don’t take what follows as gospel.

One reason is that the person has some fundamental objection to all work of a certain sort. For instance, I once requested that someone not be asked to review an ms of mine using the Price equation, because this person has published a paper dismissing the Price equation as trivial. I explained in my cover letter that many papers had found the Price equation a valuable approach, and that my paper’s goal was to present a specific, novel application of the Price equation rather than to debate its value in general. That is, I asked for my paper to be judged on its own merits, not by virtue of some controversial criterion totally independent of its specific content. Similarly, I’ve occasionally asked that individuals who’ve written papers making blanket objections to all microcosm experiments not be asked to review my microcosm experiments. As I say, this is something of a grey area; there may well be some valid fundamental reason why all work using some particular approach is fundamentally flawed. And if there is, it’s perfectly legit for the editor to ask for reviews from people who will point out those fundamental flaws. But unless there’s widespread agreement that your approach is fundamentally flawed (in which case, what are you going to do, ask that everyone in the world be excluded from reviewing your ms?), then I think this sort of request is legitimate. The editor might of course ignore your request, but it’s fine to ask. Just to be on the safe side, whenever I request that someone be excluded for this sort of reason, I make sure that my suggested referees are all broad-minded people without a dog in whatever larger fight I’m trying to steer clear of.

A related case is when you have a paper that is tangentially related to, but not really about, some controversial topic, and you don’t want your paper to get caught in the “crossfire”. In such cases, I think it’s fine in the cover letter to explain this, and to ask for referees on both sides of the not-really-relevant controversy to be excluded.

I admit, I’m having trouble coming up with other good reasons why you might ask for someone to be excluded as a referee. In ecology and evolutionary biology it’s hardly ever the case that two labs are racing one another to be the first to complete the exact same study, thereby giving each a strong incentive to review the other’s work negatively. So it’s hard for me to imagine any ecologist or evolutionary biologist citing that sort of thing as a reason to exclude someone. Can anyone think of any other legitimate reasons to ask that someone be excluded from refereeing a ms, besides those already listed?

How much does all this matter, in the sense of affecting the fate of your ms? I don’t know, in all honesty. Probably not all that much, compared to all the other things that affect the fate of your ms. But every little helps.

All this is just my two cents of course; others may have different advice (which hopefully they’ll share in the comments!)

p.s. All of this advice assumes you’re submitting to a selective journal. If you’re submitting to a non-selective journal that only evaluate mss for technical soundness, you can probably just suggest anyone who has the appropriate technical expertise, who doesn’t have a conflict of interest, and who isn’t especially likely to decline a request to review the ms.

p.p.s. I’m sure one reaction to this post is going to be to bemoan the fact that any of this could matter. That the fact I’m posting on this at all just shows the subjective nature of the whole peer review system. To which I’d respond, good luck developing a system for evaluating and communicating science that involves humans but is purely “objective”…

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25 thoughts on “Advice: how to suggest referees in your cover letter to the journal editor

  1. Great post! That’s surely a topic of major importance nowadays, as the competition in top journals is so fierce, that the selection of referees largely affects the acceptance probability of a sound ms (I’m not talking about the really poor ones). The only point in which I disagree with you is the race between labs. It exists in Ecology too, unfortunately. In some fields, there are different schools of thought, and people do not always debate on pure rational grounds. Sometimes two different ways are equally valid to solve a problem or to assess a phenomenon, but instead of accepting this diversity of thought, some people from mainstream, competing research groups just try do disqualify each other’s approach, so their own approach looks like the only one possible. Anyway, as you said, it’s hard to invent a purely objective system of ms review, as subjectivity is human nature.

    • Thanks Marco!

      Re: labs rival labs racing for a result, I think you actually mean something rather different than what I had in mind. In the post, when I referred to ecology labs rarely racing for the same result, I mean just that–*exactly* the same result. The way there was a race to sequence the human genome, or the way in physics different labs often race to be the first to create particular states of matter or to create new elements. That kind of thing hardly ever happens in ecology.

      What you’re talking about it something different, but also important: controversial topics. Here different groups are not racing each other to the same result–instead, each thinks the other group’s results are fatally flawed. Me asking to exclude people with blanket objections to all microcosm experiments, or blanket objections to the Price equation, might be examples here. These sorts of cases do indeed crop up fairly often in ecology. They’re challenging for all concerned, I think, especially for editors. Because the issue isn’t objectivity; each opposing side really does think they have–indeed, may well actually have!–perfectly objective reasons for criticizing the other side.

      These sorts of situations are challenging for editors. You don’t want to choose one side over the other. But nor do you want to automatically assume that each side’s approach is legitimate. An extreme example might be the chemists (and there still are a few hundred of them, I think) who still believe in tabletop cold fusion–you don’t want to give them “equal time” in scientific journals, any more than you’d want to give equal time to creationists or climate change denialists. And nor do you just want to let each side in a controversy ignore or dismiss the other’s work.

      One approach is to remember that the audience for the work of both sides is larger than either side. So you have papers from both sides refereed by smart, broad-minded people who aren’t involved in the controversy.

      Another approach is to stop publishing papers from both sides of the controversy, once both sides run out of new things to say. That was the approach of David Ehrenfeld, the first EiC of Conservation Biology, during the “SLOSS” (“single large or several small”) debate about design of nature reserves. He decided neither side had anything new to say, and so refused to publish any further papers on the entire topic, which seems to me to have been a perfectly reasonable decision.

      • Thanks, Jeremy, now I get it. I had this kind of trouble even as an editor of small journals. Imagine refereeing school fights in Conservation Biology, Ecology, Nature etc.

  2. Great post Jeremy! Having served as editor, senior editor, and interim EiC at various times, at Ecology Letters for almost a decade, I’m always amazed at how many manuscripts come in with no suggested reviewers or worse, only a few obvious close collaborators/friends. While it’s certainly true that editors don’t select all of the ‘suggested’ referees, it makes our job much easier and ensures reviewers who might be more relevant than a handling editor might be able to come up with. Also, suggesting younger people who are more eager (and have more time) to review, but might not be on the radar of the editors yet, is really helpful. Listing a couple of the ‘big-wigs’ is fine, but as Jeremy points out, these people are rarely in a position to say yes to all of the reviews they’re asked to do.

    Finally, I want to mention that it’s also extremely helpful if you look through the list of the editorial board of the particular journal you’re submitting to and suggest at least 2-3 of them who would be most appropriate to handle your paper. A very large proportion of authors do not do this even if they do suggest reviewers, and it can be very frustrating These suggestions are typically very closely adhered to by the EiC and ensures that the handling editor in charge of suggesting reviewers, adjudicating the reviews, and making a recommendation is most appropriate. And, it saves the Senior Editor/EiC a ton of time!

    • Thanks Jon. And good point re: suggesting handling editors to the EiC. I should’ve remembered to mention this in the post. I always do this, but you’re right that the vast majority of authors don’t bother.

      I think authors forget that EiCs have to assign *lots* of mss to their handling editors, very quickly, and they can’t possibly be intimately familiar with all areas of ecology. It’s often not at all obvious to the EiC which member of the editorial board should be assigned to handle any given ms.

  3. More posts on submitting MS etiquette, please. I realize one is supposed to learn these things as a grad student, but I think sometimes advisors have become so used to the system they forget what needs teaching…

    • Sure, happy to oblige. Are there specific issues on which you’d like advice?

      More broadly, I’ve been thinking of doing a “what topics would you like advice on?” post. I think there’s a place for us to just toss out unasked-for advice. After all, people don’t always recognize when they could use advice! But obviously, it would also be useful for us to give advice that readers want.

  4. Hi Jeremy,
    As a subject editor for a “boutique” entomological journal (specialized, with fewer submissions) I would like say I enjoyed your post. Indeed, the suggestions are often helpful, especially if your paper is on a more specialized topic that would really benefit from review by an expert (if you submit a paper on the biology of a parasite I know nothing about – your suggestions can really speed my ability to find the right experts). I would also agree that explanations are important, especially for excluding reviewers.

    Given the popularity of gang science (or science by vote?) that comes up occasionally within subdisciplines of ecology/evolution that some editors may not be aware of, it is important to let editors know that your work may be perceived as “going against the grain” of established points of view and that may be why you have chosen to exclude some reviewers. This will usually be viewed as only a “suggestion” by a good editor, but at the very least it may compel the editor to better inform themselves of the situation.

    I had direct experience with the latter in publishing some of my work on invasive ants and providing background to editors on how some reviewers would (predictably) deal with my manuscripts. In at least one case, it lead to an editor reading some of my previous works and rendering what I would describe as a more objective, balanced decision on a manuscript than they may have made if based solely on a reviewers comments.

    • Thanks Josh, glad you liked the post.

      Your point about how to suggest referees for a paper that “goes against the grain” is a very good one. If it’s predictable how people from a certain “camp” will review your ms, then explaining the situation to the editor certainly is fair enough. That’s subtly but importantly different than just saying “Please exclude referees X, Y, and Z because I don’t think they’ll like my ms.”

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  6. Nice post Jeremy. I take your general point to be that one should be both honest and proactive when suggesting reviewers, which makes perfect sense.

    You asked for other possible reasons for requesting reviewer exclusion. I’m not sure where this falls into your framework, but the number one reason to me, clearly, is whenever you have reason to believe that a person is not fully objective, for whatever reason. But sometimes that reason is purely personal–what then? How are you supposed to elaborate on that, by saying “Person X does not like me and I think there’s a good chance that this will effect his/her judgment in the review”. Then what, go into the reasons why person X doesn’t like you? How much to reveal in that regard? The fact is that some people carry personal animosities around, sometimes toward an individual, sometimes toward a research group, sometimes toward anybody who disagrees with their scientific position. They do. And to deny this is to act like the emperor’s not naked, because… because somebody doesn’t like to hear that the emperor’s naked, that’s why.

    The way I’ve dealt with it is to just state that I don’t think person X is objective, knowing that I can’t state my *real* feelings on the matter because that will probably upset somebody or other’s apple cart, and/or cause them to in fact choose person X when they might not otherwise have even considered it, because they think you’re making up an excuse to cover the “real” reason for the request–that person X will actually discern real problems with the paper.

    Also, as to submitting to a second journal after rejection (when you’ve got a solid paper)…yeah that’s all well and good and nice and proper and procedural and everything, and of course :just the way it is”, but something inside me tells me the process is supposed to work right the first time. This is just a statement I feel the need to make– not an argument of what anything you’ve said on that issue.

    • Re: purely personal animosities, yes, they certainly do exist, though I think and hope they’re rare. Not sure what to do about them. I suppose you could try just being open in the cover letter. You’d have to phrase it very carefully. Perhaps you could say something like “I recommend that Dr. X not be asked to review the ms. While Dr. X undoubtedly is an expert in this area, there are serious personal issues between us that might affect his review.” I admit I’m not really sure how that would go over with an editor. If it was me as the editor, I’d probably respect it and not ask for a review from Dr. X. Unless I had some strong independent reason to want a review specifically from Dr. X (e.g., the ms uses a new approach Dr. X invented), in which case I’d probably ask for a review from Dr. X but read it carefully to look for any hint that it was biased.

      Which leads to the broader point: a good handling editor, who uses the reviews to inform her own judgment and doesn’t just “count the reviewers’ votes”, is by far the best defense an author has against biased reviewers. For instance, on one of the last mss I handled for Oikos, the authors asked for a certain reviewer to be excluded on grounds of potential bias. But the ms was about the reviewer’s previous work, I felt obliged to ask for a review from that reviewer. The review was indeed negative, but it was negative in ways that were pretty easy for me to recognize as arising from personal bias, a view that was supported by reading the other reviews.

      Now, are all editors good at their jobs? No (which is one reason to also suggest handling editors in your cover letter, as another commenter pointed out). But if the editor’s not good at his job, I don’t know that there’s much you can do as an author to “steer” the peer review process towards a fair outcome. A cover letter can only do so much, no matter how it’s phrased.

      • Good suggestion Jeremy and I agree that there’s a wild card element to bringing the issue up. It’s probably best to simply say that one has reason for concern regarding the objectivity of person X, which really is the bottom line issue anyway. It’s not like you should have to explain why you think person X is not objective, regardless of what the reason is. In my view anyway.

        As for the animosity issue, my views are probably strongly colored by my experiences with the dendroclimatology community to date, where I’ve seen and experienced some worrisome things along that line. I’ve not experienced that in ecology, and I sure hope I don’t.

  7. Really interesting post; many thanks. I do suggest reviewers these days, but this gives me a few more thoughts to bear in mind when I do.

    On reasons for suggesting non-reviewers. I am just about (i.e. later this week, hopefully) to submit a manuscript, and we’re planning to suggest a non-preferred reviewer. The reason is simply that our work undermines his. We show, among other things, that his previous (and much cited) explanation of the phenomenon in question is probably wrong. So it seems to me he has a conflict of interest. In the cover letter we were planning to simply say just that (“We respectfully request that you do not send the manuscript to Prof. X, due to a conflict of interest”), but your post has made me wonder if we should say more. Or maybe not list him as a non-preffer reviewer at all. Any thoughts?

    • Thanks, glad you liked the post.

      Re: asking someone to be excluded because your work undermines his, speaking as a former editor that’s definitely not a conflict of interest and you should not refer to it as such. Indeed, I wouldn’t bother suggesting that Prof. X be excluded at all. This may not be what you want to hear, but I think many editors will be very likely to want a review from Prof. X, and quite rightly so. For instance, imagine if your paper were a direct comment on a specific paper of Prof. X’s. In such a case, it would be standard for Prof. X to review your paper, and to be invited to write a reply if your comment was published. The situation you describe sounds rather analogous, and so for analogous reasons I don’t think it’s legit to ask for Prof. X to be excluded. I think your request would not only be ignored, I think it would look a bit odd to many handling editors.

      I think the best you could do would be to say something like the following in the cover letter: “Our work undermines previous work by Prof. X, and for that reason might be controversial. We suggest that the following individuals are among those with the expertise and broad view of the field to provide an ‘outsider’s’ view of this controversy…” That indirectly alerts the handling editor to the situation, and encourages the handling editor to ask for reviews from people who don’t have a dog in the fight.

      Just my two cents, by all means ask other colleagues for a second opinion.

  8. Thank you so much for this interesting take. This is always something that is heavily on my mind when submitting manuscripts! Thank you Jeremy!

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  13. This is a very informative post. I am new to this process and have never suggested referees. My doubt is that who is a potential referee? If I am submitting a ms in an international journal on a topic for which there is no particular expert in my country and obviously I know the big international names only, since it was their work that inspired me. What am I supposed to do in this situation?

    • Can you ask for suggested names from someone who has more experience with the process?

      You might also consider authors of the papers you’ve cited, or students or postdocs in their labs if those authors are very prominent and so unlikely to referee your work.

  14. Pingback: FYI: rejected mss often get the same referees when resubmitted to a different journal | Dynamic Ecology

  15. Another possible reason for requesting that someone not review a paper…. I submitted a paper that was initially reviewed pretty favorably, then rejected after resubmission based on a bunch of new things one reviewer brought up in the 2nd round. In other words, this reviewer “moved the goalposts,” which I find tremendously annoying. After discussing this with the editor, I am now submitting the paper again to the same journal, starting the review process over (the editor said this would be an acceptable option), and requesting that that reviewer (whoever he/she was) not be used again on the grounds of goalpost-moving. I think that’s a legitimate request, though the situation that inspired it may be rare.

    • Yeah, a reviewer who moves the goalposts is someone who basically didn’t do their job properly the first time around, and it’s not really fair to the authors. That’s one of those situations where a good editor needs to step in and use his/her own judgement about what further revisions the ms needs, if any. Not just “count the votes” of the reviewers or tell the author “respond to the reviewers’ comments”.

      The only legitimate reason I can think of for moving the goalposts like that is if the first round of revisions creates or reveals new issues that couldn’t possibly have been spotted or anticipated earlier. For instance, if an ms was unclear on some methodological point, the reviewer asks for clarification, and then the clarification reveals that the methods were seriously flawed.

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