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I have been asked to review a paper that I know to have been authored by a friend and former colleague. Is it my responsibility to inform the editor and decline to review the paper?

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Even if you are perfectly objective, your objectivity is going to be questionable. You don't have to decline the offer but I'd suggest to decline it. –  Trylks Jun 11 at 17:42

6 Answers 6

Assuming you reviewing the paper would not violate any guidelines of the journal or conference in question, the primary issue is objectivity: can you review the paper on its own merits, or will your association with the author in question "color" your opinions?

Personally, I would never review a paper written by a former co-author or personal friend. However, I may accept the review of someone whom I know professionally but have not worked with in any formal capacity, provided that I am not working on a similar project.

In this particular example, you claim that the person is "a friend." If that is the case, then I would recommend leaning against accepting the review.

The issue of informing the journal editor is a separate matter. You may explain that the reason is you know the author, but you are not necessarily obligated to do so. If you want, you could simply say "I don't have the time right now," and that would be just as valid a reason as "it's a conflict of interest." But I don't think there's anything lost by informing the editor of why you don't feel comfortable providing the review.

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It might be nice to let the editor know that you're willing to review other works (assuming that's true). That might be one benefit to informing him of the conflict of interest--- it is less of a "blow off". –  Dennis Jun 11 at 4:59
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Other than that: being upfront and open about it will ensure that, when somehow, sometime, the proverbial feces hits the fan, it won't bite you in the tushy. –  RobIII Jun 11 at 8:22
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I think it's naive to think you can assess yourself whether you can be objective or not. –  Relaxed Jun 11 at 9:54
    
@Relaxed Why is that naïve? You think I can't be objective in assessing whether I'll be objective or not? –  Joshua Taylor Jun 12 at 1:05
    
I'm absolutely clueless about why you suggest him not to tell the editor the reason for the decline. –  Lohoris Jun 12 at 14:36

All other things the same, it would be better to inform the editor and decline, yes.

Similarly, if the author is not a "friend", but some sort of opposite to that, ideally one would decline for the opposite reason.

It starts to become trickier when the author is "a competitor".

In any case, with time, it can easily happen that many people in a given field are well known to you, "good acquaintances" (or "bad"...) if not "friends". That is, the ideal of dispassionate opinion due to lack of personal connection becomes impossible, not matter the ideal.

Thus, in practice, although it is harmless to inform the editor, they probably won't be surprised, and most likely would not at all insist that you decline... although you are within your rights to do so in any case.

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+1 for 'with time [...] many people in a given field are well known to you'. This situation is unavoidable in small fields, so letting the editor know the degree of connection, and discussing it, is the best strategy. If the reviewer is uncomfortable with the closeness of the connection, that's an extremely respectable reason for declining to review, which any editor would, I think, accept. –  Norman Gray Jun 12 at 11:23

Some journals have rules about reviewing the work of former colleagues. For example, I've seen journals claim that papers will not be reviewed by people that have been at the same institution over the last five years. You have to check with the editorial policies of the journal to see about this but if the editor has made a mistake by sending the paper to you, they'll appreciate you pointing it out.

The bigger issues are that (a) you know who the author is so the review will not be blind and (b) the author is your friend which might reasonably be seen as a conflict of interest. If you know the author because you have seen the work in the paper before, that is a third problem. I would not review papers that I know are written by my friends for all of these reasons and I think it is in the interest of the journal and of the peer review process to defer review to someone else.

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I think it's clear from the question, but double-blind review is not the norm in many disciplines. –  Bill Barth Jun 10 at 19:36
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@BillBarth: I assumed that because the author said they knew the paper to have been written by a friend, as opposed to simply saying that it was written by a colleague, that they did some deduction and the review was supposed to be double-blind. I certainly might be reading too much into a short question and would welcome clarification from the person asking the question. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Jun 10 at 19:39
    
@BenjaminMakoHill: Some of the journals I review for will only tell me the name of the author after I accept the review. –  aeismail Jun 10 at 19:57
    
No @BenjaminMakoHill, I think you're right on. I think that reviewing a friend's work is probably a conflict and should be avoided, double-blind or not. +1 –  Bill Barth Jun 10 at 19:58

Is it my responsibility to inform the editor and decline to review the paper?

It is your responsibility to inform the editor of the situation, but the two of you can decide together whether or not your should decline the review.

The editor may ask you whether you feel that you can objectively review the work (the real answer is that none of us are truly objective, but the question here is whether you would feel comfortable rejecting the paper if you think it is bad and accepting the paper if you think it is good).

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It depends. Is this a double-blind refereeing system? If so, how do you know the paper was written by a close colleague? (Technically, everyone working in your discipline is a colleague, but some colleagues are closer than others.)

In some disciplines, blind reviewing isn't used or single blind reviewing is used. In that case, you know because the author's name is on the manuscript.

In either case, I would notify the associate editor who asked me to review the paper that I have a (potential) conflict and explain the situation exactly. If I felt I could maintain a disinterested perspective on the paper I would say so and leave the decision up to the associate editor. If I felt I could not maintain a disinterested perspective, I would say so and decline to review the paper.

With all that said, my perspective on my duties as a referee is a little different from the norm. I review work for technical correctness and point out any errors and limitations I might find. I comment on whether I find the work interesting. I will not make publication recommendations. I see that as the editorial board's job, not mine. That perspective reduces the potential for conflict of interest in my mind. I basically won't tell an editor anything I would not say directly to an author.

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Is it my responsibility to inform the editor and decline to review the paper?

Yes. It should also be stated somewhere, but there is no other way.

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