A suggestion: Good refereeing certificates

Some one tell me what’s wrong with this idea: Journal editors should publicly acknowledge their best referees. Obviously, they can’t say which papers the referee worked on, but they could write a note saying

To whom it may concern: Jane Doe has refereed more than twenty papers for the Journal of Isotropic Widgets, and she has always done a through and careful job. Our journal is greatly improved by her efforts.

Professor Doe could then list this on her webpage and CV, and hopefully it would help her tenure case and her professional reputation. As things currently stand, referees can list the journals we have worked for on our CV’s, but there is no way to indicate the quality of that work.

The only argument I see against this is that the process of writing these letters would be very subjective. But that’s also true of the writing of recommendation letters and of the acceptance of papers to journals. Am I missing something?

13 thoughts on “A suggestion: Good refereeing certificates

  1. Sure, it’s subjective. But I have a sense that if there are a lot of different subjective appraisals of the same person, the “errors” in those appraisals are more likely to cancel out and give some “true” sense of the person’s ability/willlingness to work hard/whatever else people are looking for when they hire/award tenure/etc.

    We have “good teaching” awards that are often based on anonymous teaching evaluations; this seems similar.

  2. Isn’t that a bit like taping a “kick me” sign to someone’s back? I mean, yes, good refereeing is too rare and worth encouraging, but I’d think many academics would not want their status as good referees to be widely advertised, because that would only lead to them getting overloaded with more refereeing work.

    As for Michael’s comment about “good teaching” awards, again, good teaching is definitely worth encouraging, but I often hear jokes about those being the kiss of death for an untenured academic.

  3. How is a “good teaching” award a kiss of death? Are you saying that this could be held against the untenured acadmic?

  4. I like the idea, but I’m not sure how it would play out in practice. I suspect some journals, maybe even most journals, would give these out like candy. Nobody is going to want to serve as a referee if they think their efforts aren’t even appreciated, and the pain of not getting recognized is probably greater than the pleasure of getting recognized. I’d guess it would reach an equilibrium where everyone who didn’t do a truly bad job got a certificate. Maybe some journals would be more selective, but then it’s much more of a pain to keep track of each journal’s standards.

    There are also different kinds of good refereeing. There’s being prompt and responsible and professional, and then there’s going beyond the call of duty to referee a long, complicated, and poorly written paper and write a five-page report. The latter sort seems more worthy of special recognition, but it’s difficult to offer such recognition without identifying the referee, at least to the author of the paper.

    The “kick me” sign comment is a very god point. I’m not sure about the comparison with teaching awards, though. My impression is that the danger there is that the recipient can be unfairly viewed as having misplaced priorities and devoting too much time to teaching at the expense of research. On the other hand, refereeing is a sufficiently small part of being a mathematician that only a truly heroic amount of refereeing could really serve as a distraction from research.

  5. I suggest that we assume for sake of discussion that the referee is asked in advance if s/he wants to be feted publicly this way.

  6. On the “kick me” issue, do editors really have the time to looking through people’s CVs to find out what refereeing citations they’d have? I think as long as there wasn’t a centralized clearing house for these the “kick me” problem wouldn’t be too bad. Furthermore, instead of putting it in the CV directly one could instead just have them in the file for raises and tenure and whatnot without putting them on your webpage.

  7. How is a “good teaching” award a kiss of death? Are you saying that this could be held against the untenured acadmic?

    Keep in mind, we are talking about jokes here, and probably a bit of exaggerated tenure-committee Kremlinology. I suspect the logic is that if your research has slipped at all, and you’re getting teaching awards, your tenure committee will be inclined to think that your research didn’t slip because you had an off-year, but rather because you’re the sort of person who would rather do award-winning teaching than do research.

  8. I suspect the real sticking point of this is that this sounds like a lot of work for editors, and the sort of people who edit journals are the sort who have plenty of other things to do with their time.

    If you really wanted this to work, you would want to have a system wherein the editor, immediately upon reading your review, could hit one button and it would move your counter of referee goodness one step further. I think anything else is asking for too much free labor out of people.

  9. I’ve had the good fortune of having had some amazing referees who really improved my papers. I think good referees definitely deserve something… but “who gets to referee a paper” is such an arbitrary thing. And the level of an individual as a referee can vary wildly from paper to paper.
    I think the financial incentive idea might be the best one- for journals to give financial bonusses to their best referees, sort of like prizes. The bonusses can (and maybe should) be anonymous, but the authors may nominate their referee as a candidate, and the journal may decide on the prize. It gives people and incentive to do good refereeing work without compromising anonymity.

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