Image Credit: Pexels
Image Credit: Pexels

Is your editorial board struggling to find peer reviewers for your latest manuscript submissions? You’re not alone.

With the number of new journals published per year growing at a steady clip of over 5%, according to the latest STM report, there are more manuscripts to review than ever. At the same time, increasing work and life stressors placed on finite reviewer pools in recent years (the COVID-19 pandemic being no small factor among them) has led to reports of higher reviewer invitation decline rates across disciplines. It’s not an easy time to be an editor!

That doesn’t mean willing reviewers aren’t out there, though — it’s just a matter of knowing where to find them and developing a retention strategy once you do.

In our last blog post, we shared tips for retaining peer reviewers by cultivating a robust database of willing candidates. In this post, we’re focusing on ways to find new reviewers. Let’s get to it!

1. Make note of relevant researchers referenced in manuscript submissions

This first tip is a common one, but it’s also among the easiest ways to find new peer reviewers for your journal — be sure to check the references section of manuscript submissions for potential candidates. Authors are obviously citing related works in their papers, so this can be a great starting place to find experts in their research area.

Of course, you’ll need to be mindful of potential conflicts of interest and avoid sending review requests to any colleagues or collaborators cited by the author. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to those scholars about other submissions. So when reviewing references sections, be sure to take note of anyone relevant to your journal’s field that could be a good reviewer candidate for the kinds of papers you receive, and if reaching out to them would be a conflict of interest for the manuscript at hand, keep them in your back pocket for the future.

2. Search existing databases of scholars

The next sure way to find new peer reviewers is to regularly search existing databases of scholars for potential candidates. And there are likely more options than you think!

Of course, the go-tos are designated reviewer-finder tools. Among the most popular ones are Web of Science Reviewer Locator, a subscription-based service from Clarivate for finding reviewers in all disciplines, and Journal/Author Name Estimator — a.k.a Jane — a free article association tool for research in the biomedical and life sciences that pulls from PubMed data. Some editors may also have access to publisher-based reviewer databases like the SpringerNature reviewer finder. But those aren’t the only options.

Editors can also search available research indexes and discovery tools that their institution subscribes to or that offer free versions to find potential peer reviewers, including:

  • Web of Science: The WoS index covers all disciplines with a free “Researcher Search” tool editors can use to look for reviewers. Editors can input research institutions or names/ORCID iDs of authors of articles related to papers they have in need of review into the “Researcher Search” tool to find more scholars who have published in that area from the citations/co-authors of articles returned in the search (of course, excluding anyone who has worked with the paper’s author or been affiliated with the same research institution as them within the last ~5 years). Editors with WoS subscription access via their institution can perform even more in-depth keyword searches of the WoS Core Collection and affiliated databases, such as SciELO Citation Index, with options to filter results by topic area, publication date, number of citations, number of publications per author, and more.
  • Dimensions: “The most comprehensive collection of linked data in a single platform” — Dimensions covers all research disciplines with a free search tool editors can use to find potential peer reviewers in the author/references list of published articles via research category listings and targeted keyword searches, with powerful filtering tools that can be used to narrow down results by publication type and more.
  • Google Scholar: Arguably the best-known free research index, editors can perform targeted keyword searches in Google Scholar and filter results by content type and publication date.
  • PubMed Search: Editors of journals in the biomedical and life sciences can also perform targeted keyword searches in PubMed and tools built off of its database, including PubReMiner and Anne O’Tate.
  • Scopus index: Editors with subscription access to Scopus via their institution can perform targeted searches of that index.

Journals that use Scholastica’s software and services can also search across all of our editor, author, and reviewer users who chose to make a public Scholastica profile. Editors can search Scholastica to find scholars that match their peer reviewer criteria, looking at each scholar’s user profile to see their current professional position and listed research interests.

3. Ask authors for recommendations and invite them to be future reviewers

Submitting authors can also be a great source of reviewer recommendations and even serve as peer reviewers for future submissions. Starting with recommendations, journals can include an optional or required field in their submission form for authors to input suggested reviewers for their manuscript.

Of course, as in the case of checking references for possible peer reviewers, it’s imperative to be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest when seeking reviewer recommendations. First, provide authors with guidelines for what constitutes a conflict of interest at your journal by adding instructional text within your submission form and/or linking to your ethical policies page. From there, be sure to have your editors closely check all recommended reviewers to ensure that they’re not recently affiliated with the author and that they are indeed real scholars.

Speaking to the latter point, all editors should be mindful of the potential for reviewer fraud, where an author creates a fake identity to review their own submission. While this is not very likely, it does happen. To prevent reviewer fraud, be sure to require authors to provide links to institutional affiliations and valid institutional email addresses (i.e., not a personal gmail address) for all reviewers they recommend.

Editors can also look to their journal’s past authors to find relevant reviewer candidates. Peer review software with manuscript searching and sorting functionality can help here. For example, Scholastica’s Peer Review System features a Manuscripts Table for organizing submissions throughout each stage of peer review with powerful filtering functionality to find manuscripts by keyword and custom tags added by the editors. So journal editors can even add a tag like “potential reviewer” to manuscripts with authors to whom they’d like to reach out with future peer review invitations.

Journals can even give submitting authors a way to opt into being contacted about relevant peer review opportunities (e.g., by asking authors of accepted manuscripts if they’d be open to peer reviewing for the journal in the future in the sequence of emails sent to them post-acceptance).

4. Help bring early-career researchers into the fold

Another pool of potential peer reviewers ripe with opportunity is early-career researchers (ECRs). ECRs are often eager to take on peer review assignments as learning opportunities and tend to have fewer professional obligations competing for their time than more senior colleagues.

Since ECRs are new to academic publishing, they will require more support than seasoned scholars to learn the ins and outs of peer review in the form of reviewer training resources. There are many existing training materials out there that journals can direct ECRs to, and of course, any materials your editorial team prepares will be an investment in grooming future peer reviewers, so it’s well worth the effort (plus, all scholars could benefit from reviewer best practice reminders from peer-review resources!).

Among existing peer review training courses are the Taylor & Francis “Excellence in Peer Review“ program, Nature’s free Masterclass, the Web of Science Academy (formerly Publons Academy), and the Voice of Young Scientists programs. Journals can also ask ECRs to have a faculty advisor agree to look over and sign off on their initial reviews as training.

When it comes to finding potential ECR peer reviewers, your journal’s editorial board is often the best starting point. Ask your editors to identify qualified ECRs they and their colleagues have worked with, reach out to those researchers, and ask them for additional ECR recommendations to begin building up a network of ECRs. As discussed by Dr. Gareth Dyke, Editor-in-Chief of Historical Biology, in this blog post, journals can also seek opportunities to team up with scholarly institutions to reach and train ECRs (e.g., by offering a reviewer course in partnership with a university library).

5. Network, network, network

Building off the previous point, remember to leverage the network effect to keep connecting with new reviewer candidates. By that, we mean going beyond database searches and engaging with scholars virtually and in person, such as via online research forums and disciplinary conferences. Remember, every researcher you meet is a potential future peer reviewer or source of recommendations!

To maximize the network effect, aim to make this an all-hands editorial board activity. Combined, your editors are likely attending a fair amount of national and international conferences, seminars, and workshops, all of which present opportunities to find potential peer reviewers. Every one of your editors should be an ambassador for your journal. Be sure to have a meeting to discuss what that means and outline concrete ways each of your team members will help to promote your publication and build relationships with potential reviewers.

As editors identify reviewer candidates at online and in-person forum/events, they can connect with them on social media platforms like LinkedIn and Mastodon to stay in touch and abreast of their latest professional activities.

6. Invite referees to review for your journal before you need them (and ask them for recommendations!)

Another thing to remember when you’re searching for peer reviewers is that you don’t have to wait to have a review assignment ready to reach out to reviewer prospects. In reality, you can (and should!) contact reviewers that you’re interested in working with in the future to introduce yourself and your journal and gauge their interest in reviewing for you.

For example, Marcel Minutolo, past editor of the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management (JBAM), which uses Scholastica to manage peer review, said that rather than just adding the possible reviewers he came across to a list of hopefuls, he would go a step further and contact them.

“I’d email the possible reviewers and ask them if they’d be interested in hearing from JBAM when we have a review assignment that’s relevant to them. Then, for those who responded favorably, I’d use Scholastica’s built-in reviewer invitation feature to invite them to create a Scholastica profile so I could easily contact them in the future.”

In the event that a scholar says they’re unable to review for your journal, don’t be afraid to ask them for alternate recommendations either! While they might not have the capacity to take on additional review assignments they may know of other researchers who’d be eager to, like qualified ECRs.

Journals using Scholastica’s Peer Review System can easily keep track of all the reviewers they’ve invited via their Reviewers Table and individual reviewer details pages. Editors can add custom tags to reviewers denoting their specialties and any internal notes they want to keep, such as which reviewers they plan to contact next. They can then use those tags to search and sort contacts in their Reviewers Table along with reviewer performance data Scholastica automatically records, including the number of assignments reviewers have in progress, the number of past reviews they’ve completed, and their average time to complete a review. Editors can use these quantitative data points to quickly gauge reviewers’ reliability (e.g., do they finish assignments on time?) and whether it’s OK to send them a new invitation to review or too close to past outreach. So editors can build a reviewer database and perform targeted searches within Scholastica rather than sifting through disparate lists of names or maintaining complex spreadsheets.

7. Give interested candidates a way to opt in

Finally, we know this blog post is about finding reviewers, but don’t forget that there may also be potential candidates looking for opportunities to peer review. Again, ECRs are a prime pool and many would like to see more reviewer volunteer signup opportunities, as discussed by Dr. Shruti Turner here.

Be sure to periodically put out calls for reviewers using all of your journal’s relevant online channels such as:

  • Social media: Post periodic calls for peer reviewers from your journal’s social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
  • Journal website: Add a call for reviewers to your homepage or author information page with instructions on how to volunteer to grab the attention of scholars interested in your publication.
  • Your journal’s email list: If you keep an email list of the scholars who have worked with your journal, you can send them a call for reviewers email. Invite those on your list to volunteer to review or to suggest other scholars in the field who may be interested.
  • Journal blog/podcast: If your journal has a blog or podcast you can also use it to post a call for peer reviewers.

In your calls for peer reviewers, highlight your journal’s mission and the aims and scope of your publication. Invite scholars to contact your editorial team if they’re interested in future peer review assignments, and be sure to emphasize your appreciation for volunteers.

We hope you’ve found this roundup of ways to find peer reviewers helpful! Do you have additional tips to share? We’d love to hear them! Please post in the comments below.

Guide to Managing Reviewers Course