Back in May, ProPhi linked to pleas and advice from editors Berit Brogaard (UMSL) and Thom Brooks (Newcastle/Durham). Readership has increased significantly since then, and many current readers have missed this comment by Allen Wood (Indiana).
Delays in getting papers refereed is, in my opinion, a serious problem, which has harmed the careers of several young philosophers I know of, and (assuming my acquaintance is a random sampling) is a serious problem for job seekers and untenured faculty members, who are already facing enough problems in trying to start their careers. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to add some remarks from the perspective of a former journal editor (back when I was at Cornell I often edited the Philosophical Review) who still referees papers quite often for a number of journals.
I admit I have had a tendency to blame the deplorable state of affairs at least in part on journal editors, because I still recall the time when Carl Ginet and I, editing the Philosophical Review and doing nearly all the refereeing ourselves, almost never made an author wait more than a month to get an answer (most of them heard back from us within two weeks). But I realize that practices have changed ( computers have made everything slower and harder, contrary to what one might have thought), and I realize the professional culture of referees (a euphemism for their habit of procrastination and professional irresponsibility) may be the more serious problem. Thom Brooks has been a superb editor for JMP, and his excellence has paid off in the high quality of the journal. His advice to referees is a very useful document. I agree with just about everything Berit Brogaard says as well.
When asked to referee, my policy is to decide on the spot yes or no. It is also my policy, if I say yes, to do the job very soon – the same day, if possible, but in no more than two or three days. If I can’t do it right away, I decline. I am on the editorial boards of half a dozen or so journals (one of them is JMP), and my policy (with very few exceptions) is to referee any articles those journals send my way, unless there is a quite specific reason why I should not referee that particular article. On the other hand, in order to save myself from having to do too much of this kind of work, I have adopted the policy of declining to referee articles for any journal with which I have no such affiliation. I make exceptions to this policy when a particular article looks interesting or I look very well suited to referee it, or in the case of a couple of journals whose editors I know and I don’t want to turn them down. When I decline to referee a paper, I often (not always) suggest other people for them to ask. But if I am declining because I am VERY busy, I don’t always have time to sit and wrack my brain for such names.
Another policy of mine is to refuse to participate in on-line reviewing systems (with username, password and the whole abominable shtick), which I find cumbersome, inflexible, and in short, totally infuriating and utterly beyond the pale. Editors who want me to do this work for them will have to accept reports addressed to them in the form of e-mail attachments. Otherwise, I need refereeing work like a hole in the head, and if they won’t accommodate me on this point, I won’t do it for them. I think these on-line systems should be abolished, but I suppose there is no more prospect of this than there is of capitalism being abolished (which I also favor). And as is still done in defense of capitalism, you can make the argument that the disgraceful irresponsibility of referees is simply a consequence of human nature, so there is nothing to be done about it, and the current generation of young philosophers is going to be condemned to hopeless career prospects (just as the next generation of workers is now being condemned by capitalism to hopeless life prospects). But if everyone asked to referee a paper realized how much harm they do by sitting on it for months on end, and even a certain percentage of them cleaned up their act and did their refereeing within a week of being asked, the world would be a better place, and some very deserving young scholars and philosophers might even notice it.