I've been an Associate Editor for an important journal in my field for roughly two full months now. Whereas I'm not sure it was my best idea ever to agree to this, it has certainly been instructive. I will undoubtedly be faced with dozens of novel issues as I receive more manuscripts to review, but below are a few things I have learned so far.
- The topic and quality matter less than the authors. I have handled a bunch of papers now that are seemingly similar in content and quality. The major difference between them has been the author list: Some have prominent* names on them and some do not. But finding reviewers for the latter category is like pulling teeth, while locating them for the former is not. I assume that people are more willing to spend their time reviewing for those they see as producing good work. If the author list is unremarkable, people figure their time is better spent elsewhere.
- Don't believe the project number of papers you will handle. I've been doing this for two months and have already handled what the editor told me would be my likely annual allotment. Just come a little closer, this won't hurt a bit....
- Ignoring a review request is a shitty thing to do. Everyone is busy. We get that. And sometimes you just happen to have more on your plate than normal and can't take a review. This is why you have a "no thanks" option. Use it. Don't leave the AE sitting around waiting for a response. Inevitably, the second I give up on someone and invite a couple more, everyone suddenly agrees to review. If I wait, the original person never gets back to me. Just make a choice.
- If you work in a specialized subfield and won't review papers in that subfield, who will? Twice I have gotten papers on a topic that severely limited my potential reviewer list. I contacted the extent of the qualified people that I was aware of and all of them declined. Oooookaaaaay, now what? Who's going to review your papers when you send them in?
- Getting rejected without review is better than dragging the process out. I know it sucks to get the letter rejecting the paper you sent into a journal you like. And without review! How dare that AE! Well, the thing is that your time just got saved. Rather than going through the whole review process, only to have the manuscript spit out the other end, you can now reformat and send somewhere else. Not ideal, but the better of two bad options.
- If you sit on reviews, you lose the right to complain about time in review. Self explanatory, really.
I'm sure there are other things I'm not thinking of right this second, but the main point is that reviewing is about the community. Like it or not, we are the vehicle that drives the speed of publication.
*In the field of interest for the journal, that is.