Recommending reviewers…?

Q: When I submit a paper to a journal, should I recommend possible reviewers to the editor?

Author: Bill Carbonaro, University of Notre Dame

I think the short answer is “yes, by all means!” The longer answer is a bit more complicated and I’m guessing that opinions vary.
From an author’s perspective, recommending reviewers to an editor makes good sense. Ideally, we all want knowledgeable, fair, and conscientious reviewers to read and respond to our work. In particular, we always want reviewers who are a good “fit” with the topic and methods used in our papers. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a review of one’s paper where the reviewer (a) isn’t an expert in the area that you are studying, and/or (b) doesn’t understand the data/methods that you are using. Perhaps I’m being idealistic here, but I think most of us actually want reviewers who can help us improve our work! After all, that is one important part of the review process, isn’t it? Good reviewers should evenhandedly judge the quality of work, while also providing useful and constructive suggestions for improvement. If you know scholars who the “fit the bill,” then by all means – tell the editor who these people are!
Having said this, it can be tempting to “stack the deck” with friendly reviewers (or just plain “friends!), who you know will like and support your work. (E.g., “my research finds strong support for theory X – please send my paper for review to the three main proponents of theory X.”) If you are rather blatant about this, it may make you look bad in the eyes of the editor, and – maybe s/he might be less likely to acquiesce to your request, and avoid your recommendations altogether.
I will also recommend against the following practice: asking a faculty member to “pre-review” your paper and then, after making revisions based on his/her feedback, recommending that person as a reviewer for your paper! I have had this happen on more than one occasion, and perhaps it was just a coincidence. But – personally, I can’t help but feel that I’ve “been had” when this happens. In fact, in these cases, I decline the request to serve as a reviewer. From my perspective, I’ve already affected the paper, and it’s time for someone else to weigh in and evaluate the work.
Now – I must confess that I have never asked an editor how they feel about this practice. I would think that, from an editor’s perspective, it certainly makes life easier, since it must be challenging to think of three or more reviewers who would be a good fit for every paper they receive. It has to be particularly useful for ASR and AJS, where editors are getting papers from many subfields with which they are quite unfamiliar. I’m guessing that most editors pick one or two people that they trust from the author’s suggested list, and then pick a few reviewers who are not on the list.
So – in short, it is advisable to recommend a few (two or three?) reviewers whose opinions and feedback you respect and look forward to receiving. It will probably increase the chances that you will get high quality reviews of your work – and, in an imperfect world, I think that about all that any of us can ask for.



  1. From a current journal Editor’s perspective…

    …I _love_ when an author suggests a few reviewers. Sure, I take the suggestions with a grain of salt; I would never rely exclusively on suggested reviewers because it’s hard to know when the author is stacking the deck. But in general, I assume that the author really wants to (1) know what the top experts in the area think of their work and (2) get useful feedback to help improve their work. I also assume that the author often knows who the top sub-area experts are better than I do.

    However, that’s not why I love when authors suggest reviewers.

    The journal I edit gets a couple of hundred submissions a year. Each must get three reviewers. But, only about 40% of invited reviewers agree to review; the rest decline or declare themselves unavailable. That means I usually invite 7 or 8 people to review any given manuscript. If you do the math, that’s in excess of 1,500 invitations per year. ANY help I can get is great. (For exactly the same reason, I also _really_ love when people suggest alternative reviewers when they decline to review a manuscript. I understand that people are busy and over-committed, but it only takes a few seconds to think of a couple of alternative reviewers.)

  2. These comments on recommending reviewers make good sense. As former editor of an ASA journal, please let me add a couple of thoughts.

    1. I always appreciated authors’ recommendations for reviewers. Every manuscript deserves a fair hearing by people who are qualified to review it. But I hope that authors understand that recommendations are just that – recommendations. Editors have no obligation to accept those recommendations, and for a variety of reasons will often choose not to.

    2. At least for me, recommendations for reviewers were especially useful for manuscripts that fell somewhat outside the mainstream sociology of education. This might be because they analyzed a very specific population (maybe a particular geographical area, or a numerically small ethnic or religious group), or were set in a national context unlikely to be familiar to most journal readers, or used highly novel and not widely understood methodologies (whether quantitative or qualitative), or some other reason. Research communities can be very small, and I always valued guidance on how to navigate them.

    3. It’s also ok to recommend that a particular individual not be asked to review. If you believe that Professor A would not provide a fair and even-handed review, speak up. I would usually honor this, but only when a convincing explanation was provided.

    1. Yes — that’s a good point about ELIMINATING certain reviewers from consideration. In my experience Soc of Ed types are pretty even-handed, but I can imagine situations where this might be justified.

  3. One follow-up question to the original post so I can use this information in practice as a graduate student. I’ve seen various submission portals where they ask for potential reviewers, however, others do not. Does this mean that I should recommend reviewers in my cover letter if its not part of the submission process or where should I note possible reviewers if its not part of the formal submission process?

  4. I always submit a short cover letter with my papers, and that is where I recommend reviewers to the editor(s). I typically add a short explanation of WHY they would be good reviewers. (E.g., “These three scholars are experts on peer effects, and they are each very familiar with the data and methodology that I am using in my paper.”)

  5. I think the cover letters that are submitted along with journal articles probably merits a whole separate post.

    In terms of the suggestion of reviewers, I’ve heard of people doing the exact opposite of what was described above: paying others with whom they disagree to review their paper prior to submission so that that person can’t be a reviewer for the journal. Which always struck as me as particularly unethical.

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