Why do some academics review so many journal papers?

The strange cases of scholars churning out several reviews a day are perplexing, given the lack of obvious rewards for such prodigious output

February 14, 2024
A stack of papers to mark and a cup of coffee
Source: iStock

Finding time to review one or two journal submissions a week is a tricky task for busy academics, but not for so-called “hyper-prolific reviewers” who can knock out as many as seven reviews every day.

While hyper-prolific authors in academia have been much discussed, the curious cases of scholars already nearing 100 peer reviews for 2024 alone has recently come under scrutiny on social media.

Academics can have a foot in both camps, with one Middle East-based scientist publishing 180 papers in 2023 – an average of one every two working days – and reviewing 812 publications in the same year.

That incredible volume does not, however, come close to the levels achieved by hyper-prolific reviewers in previous years, said Graham Kendall, former provost of the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus.

In a 2022 paper, Professor Kendall identified the 10 most prolific reviewers on the Publons platform, of whom three had reviewed a paper a day on average over the course of the previous 16 years. Some had reviewed as many as seven papers a day on average in their most productive years.

While the incentives for prolific publication are understood, the reasons for reviewing so prodigiously are less obvious, since the task is typically unpaid, Professor Kendall told Times Higher Education.

“In my experience you get promoted on things like grant income, papers published or [indicators of] international esteem such as giving keynotes, but I have never come across a promotional or employment panel that looks at how many papers you have reviewed,” he said, describing the phenomenon as “a little strange”.

“I know people put that sort of information on their CVs – perhaps ‘I have reviewed n papers for x journal’ – but I have never done that. I’ve never even kept a record.”

Professor Kendall said that he still “struggled to find a good reason as to why you would want to review so many papers”.

Other studies have suggested that some prolific reviewing might not correlate with publication success. A 2018 study by Edinburgh Napier University academics found that 49 of the top 100 reviewers on Publons were low-cited researchers, of whom seven had zero citations or outputs.

One identified reviewer was reviewing three papers a day and producing 2,400 words per review – an output that would equate to about 12 hours’ solid typing per day for a proficient typist.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (7)

The reality is the vast majority of these individuals do not review the papers. In my field, it is pretty common that the individual reviews the papers. However, when I was in graduate school (and even an undergraduate -- but I was an UG mainly taking graduate level courses), it was not uncommon for professors in research classes to hand out papers they had been given to review and asking people to write a review of them or discuss them as part of the class. Colleagues who operated large scale centres or laboratories invariably handed the work to others as part of their job contract or as a 'learning exercise'. So it is not a new phenomenon except in that there are way more journals and way more submissions and hence way more demand for reviewers and assessment exercises foster a more is better model of scholarship. In addition, many lower tier schools view reviewing for 'prestigious' (and this is defined in the eye of the beholder) journals as a good thing and also can be used as an excuse or justification for points toward promotion.
Two other possible explanations: 1. To build social capital with editors so that their own papers are treated more favorably; 2. To gather latest insights, ideas, and lit review, for one's own learning and consequently, use in own papers.
I enjoy reviewing and take it very seriously. An author deserves careful consideration of their work and solid, constructive notes. For that reason I don't do more than one a month and often fewer. The benefit for me is that when I receive a really good article to review or an article has something novel or intriguing, it can be exciting. I have reviewed articles that have given me new perspectives or challenged my own ideas and even helped me when I have been a bit stuck in my own work. Poor articles also deserve constructive feedback that enables authors to develop their writing or their ideas. I have certainly benefitted from such feedback and I believe we have an obligation to fellow researchers. I struggle to imagine how banging out several reviews a day can result in good quality review and feedback.
Those who can't do, review. And do it poorly, no doubt
Obligation to fellow researchers to share ideas and improve their papers. And of course within reasonable limits. Review by one self and not outsourced.
In the end, one AI will specialize in emitting interesting questions for research, another will specialize in gathering relevant data, another AI will specialize in analysing and the last AI will specialize in reviewing the work of the first three.