An under-appreciated activity of the research academic, which is also probably unknown to everyone else, is the reviewing of manuscripts that have been submitted for consideration for publication in an academic journal. These manuscripts are typically between 20 and 40 pages long and the reviewing itself is often done blind. That is, the names of the authors do not appear on the title page, and the reviewers themselves are not known to the authors during the process. We are asked by an editor of the journal (another academic somewhere) to complete this review by sometime between 3 and 5 weeks from the receipt of the manuscript (usually sent electronically these days). This kind of reviewing has no pay associated with it, and isn't often considered as part of one's normal workload assignment at the university. For me, a typical review can take at least 5 hours to complete (including carefully reading the manuscript) and is about three pages long, single-spaced. The authors, the editor of the journal, and the other reviewers of the manuscript all receive a copy of the review.
About now you're probably wondering why anyone does something like this for no compensation. Well, first there is the notion of future reciprocity to consider. That is, if I later submit a manuscript to this journal, 3-4 reviewers will be asked to review my paper, including perhaps an author of a manuscript that I reviewed. If no one is willing to conduct reviews, then the whole peer review system would fall apart. Besides the reciprocity factor, there are also other more intangible benefits of reviewing: One gets to read about the very latest (unpublished) work in the discipline. One has some influence over what is and isn't published in the field's journals. And, reviewing helps your overall networking and profile in the field, which could lead to invitations to join prestigious editorial boards or to become the editor of an important journal.
In the early, heady days of my career I was asked to be a reviewer for many journals. I was probably doing 3-4 reviews a month by 2000, and I was even asked to join one of those prestigious editorial boards for five years. But, just about then these invitations to write a review started to drop off, and finally, a few years later, I was being asked to review a manuscript no more than 3 or 4 times a year. In fact, I was no longer asked to review for the most prestigious journals at all. There are a few factors that probably led to this state of affairs. First, during this time I went through a difficult period of life, and I frequently took a very long time to return my reviews. In some cases, editors were forced to make a final decision about the manuscript without my review because I never finished it. Second, as my productivity (i.e., the number of publications/year) dropped, so did my profile, and I think people just forgot about me altogether. This decline of my profile was entirely my fault, but it is something I hope to change in my new position.
In fact, things have already started to turn around. In the past six months I have received about eight requests to review manuscripts, including two from those "prestigious" journals. I have completed most of them on time, and I am trying now to get them done within two weeks of receipt or else I will decline the invitation. One of the less rewarding aspects of reviewing is that it is difficult to tell if you are doing a good job when writing a review, especially if it contains a lot of negative feedback. Last week I completed three reviews. One was for an editor who had stopped sending me manuscripts about four years ago when I failed to complete a review in a reasonable amount of time. This week he sent me a copy of the action letter that he sent to the authors, and I was pleased to see that he liberally quoted from my review when justifying his decision to reject the manuscript. Five hours later, he sent me a personal message to thank me for my excellent review and mentioned how I had raised some issues that no one else had noticed. That felt very good.
I am actually looking forward to writing my next review tomorrow. A little validation can go a long way, don't you think?