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Around a year ago, I reviewed a paper for a journal. The originality of the paper was questionable, and content and presentation were severly lacking throughout. Consequently, both another reviewer and I recommended rejection and gave detailed explanations to which the associate editor agreed. The decision including the review reports were sent to the authors.

Now, a colleague of mine just told me of a review request from another journal. Briefly summarizing the content of the paper, I realized that this sounded quite familiar. Expressing my concerns to my colleague, we compared the authors and the papers, and realized that this was exactly the same paper that was reviewed and rejected earlier, nothing has been changed (apart fomr some journal style specific things).

How should we proceed?

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Probably would be inappropriate to influence your colleague's review of the paper... evidently the authors did not agree with your appraisal, rightly or wrongly, and resubmitted elsewhere. This is allowed. If the paper has serious problems beyond matters-of-opinion, your colleague will see that without prompting, and say so in the review. Done. No issue. – paul garrett Mar 8 at 15:36
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As far as I know, there's nothing ethically wrong with submitting a rejected paper without changes to a different journal. It's not a smart thing to do in most cases, but it's not unethical. So there's nothing for you to do but step back and let your colleague review the paper on its merits (or lack thereof). – user37208 Mar 8 at 16:11
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@user3825755, first of all, are you really allowed to talk about the papers you had reviewed in the past? Or even more critically, is your colleague allowed to talk about the paper that he/she is reviewing? In most of the journals I know or know of, I am not allowed to do so at any cost, even after reviewing it - this is built-in in the single-blind policy, i.e., the author(s) is not allowed to know who the reviewers are or were. If the two journals in your question have such a policy, then you and your colleagues have clearly violated it. – John Mar 8 at 18:45
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If your colleague is talking about the paper that he\she is currently reviewing, it is possible that the author of the paper may know who the reviewer was. Such a violation does have consequences that I have heard of - the journal banned the particular reviewer from reviewing or submitting the papers to this journal. In your case, the risk is double that since there are two journals involved. The other aspect is, as @paulgarrett mentioned, you shouldn't influence your colleague's decision. You could very well be a 'competitor' or 'enemy' of the author - one of the reasons for the above policy! – John Mar 8 at 18:50
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@John, indeed, I think that (e.g., in the U.S.) people submitting manuscripts to journals (e.g., in math) have a reasonable expectation of confidentiality, that would preclude any such discussions. Similarly with grant proposals and such. A poor quality submission is not entitled to less... or, as these things usually go, it's a slippery slope: violation of rules is rationalized by declaring people outside the protections ... of the rules. – paul garrett Mar 8 at 18:55
up vote 83 down vote accepted

If you were asked to re-review an "unchanged" manuscript there are a number of things you can do (e.g., Asked again to review a paper, when the authors don't wish to modify it). The issue is that this is not the case. You are no longer part of the review process.

The first thing you should do is STOP. The behavior you have engaged in so far has been completely unethical and a clear violation of every reviewer agreement I have ever seen.

  • Your colleague should never have told you about the paper under review.
  • You should not have mention that you reviewed a similar paper in the past.
  • Neither of you should have mentioned authors or the title.
  • The actual manuscripts should never have been shared and/or compared

To a lesser extent, it is not even clear why you still have your copy of the manuscript.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) provides Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers which can be thought of as best practice. These include:

  • respect the confidentiality of peer review and not reveal any details of a manuscript or its review, during or after the peer-review process, beyond those that are released by the journal

  • not involve anyone else in the review of a manuscript, including junior researchers they are mentoring, without first obtaining permission from the journal; the names of any individuals who have helped them with the review should be included with the returned review so that they are associated with the manuscript in the journal’s records and can also receive due credit for their efforts.

  • keep all manuscript and review details confidential.

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I agree with your answer, thanks for the plain-spoken reply – user42643 Mar 8 at 19:34
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This sounds like a step-by-step instruction to push unsound papers through the review process by retrying just for long enough until the authors are lucky to encounter a set of reviewers who happen not to notice the flaws. – O. R. Mapper Mar 8 at 20:25
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@O.R.Mapper there are lots of unethical ways to get unsound papers published and from my understanding the peer-review process was not designed to protect against unethical authors. That said, in my opinion, disagreeing with reviewers is not unethical. – StrongBad Mar 8 at 20:34
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@StrongBad My understanding is that reviewing is kept anonymous to protect the reviewer from retaliation by the author, therefore allowing negative reviews if appropriate. Your points sound completely over the top to me. Also, there are obvious cases where this must not be followed, such as when a new researcher is learning how to do a referee report. – Jessica B Mar 10 at 7:24
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@JessicaB there is a big difference between anonymous and confidential. This answer has nothing to do with the anonymity of the reviewer, it is about the confidentiality of the manuscript. As for new researchers, you need to ask the editor if you can consult someone. They almost always say yes. – StrongBad Mar 10 at 13:16

Between the two reviewers, you've created quite a nasty situation. First -- the author did NOTHING wrong.

Second, you and your colleague have done something very wrong. The fact that you know nothing substantive has changed means you were essentially handed the manuscript, which is very bad behavior on both your parts.

My recommendation is that the new reviewer should probably contact the editor that sent him the manuscript and say simply "for reasons I choose not to discuss, I suddenly find myself in conflict, and can't provide a review", delete the paper, and never discuss it again. Your colleague is not in a situation where he should try to provide a fair review, as he's obviously poisoned.

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Exactly. All accidental, and perhaps with good intentions, but, nevertheless, ... – paul garrett Mar 8 at 20:57
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"Your colleague is not in a situation where he should try to provide a fair review, as he's obviously poisoned." - I suppose this hinges on whether the review is supposed to be a test of the reviewer's knowledge, and nothing else (so using information the reviewer did not find on their own could be called "unfair" and thus spoils the result), or a test of the manuscript's quality (so chances are, the result becomes more accurate if the reviewer receives additional information). – O. R. Mapper Mar 8 at 21:12
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@O.R.Mapper -- First, "wrong" is very different from "failed to take advantage of an opportunity to make something clearer". The author has an unencumbered manuscript, and it is certainly within his rights to submit it wherever he wants without having former reviewers influencing new reviewers for no reason. Second, I really don't see the parallel in your somewhat related question. The issues at hand here are reviewer misconduct, not the actions of the author. Had you submitted to a new journal, nobody would have questioned your right to do so without revision. – Scott Seidman Mar 8 at 22:16
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@O.R.Mapper The review process is of course supposed to be a test of the manuscript's quality, but individual reviews should be independent of one another. By having two reviewers confer over the manuscript, you end up with correlated reviews, which is surely undesirable. – Will Vousden Mar 9 at 12:56
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@O.R.Mapper "Should" is being used in difference sense though. "most answers I received was that authors should almost never completely ignore any reviewer comments." -- "should" there means "unwise", not "unethical". It was probably unwise of the author to keep resubmitting the paper without taking prior reviews into consideration. That doesn't make it unethical. The author isn't the one asking the question, therefore what is wise or unwise for the author to do is irrelevant. – LindaJeanne Mar 9 at 15:26

The goal of the review process is to fairly and accurately evaluate the merits of the submitted manuscript, while making sure no one gains an unfair advantage through knowledge of the manuscript before it is available publicly.

I see no issue about unfair advantage here, since you and your colleague were both already in possession of the same manuscript. That being said, ethical boundaries are very field dependent, and the culture in your field may be different. For example, I have reviewed a number of papers and have never been explicitly asked to keep submitted manuscripts confidential (though it is generally understood that I should).

As for your colleague's responsibility of evaluating the paper, there is some unfortunate tension between the goals of fairness and accuracy, and you need to make a judgement based on the specifics of the situation. But here are the main points I think are important:

  1. It is unreasonable to expect every reviewer to understand every tool used in a submitted paper. Discussion of papers (which both parties already have access to) is to be encouraged (though the fact that one is reviewing the paper being discussed should perhaps be kept confidential, depending on the situation). From this point of view, I would consider it unethical not to let your colleague know about a serious logical error in a paper they are reviewing.

  2. On the other hand, your colleague should form their own critical opinion about the paper. Their knowledge that the paper was previously rejected and then resubmitted without any revision has (probably) already biased them against it.

So, if there is a serious issue in the paper which absolutely has to be pointed out, then by all means do so. Otherwise, I would do as the other answers suggest and let your colleague form their own opinion about it.

The fact that the authors have not addressed your original reasons for rejection is unsettling and could be a reflection of unethical behavior on their part, but without more information, we (and perhaps you) cannot know for sure.

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Your field has some very liberal ethics compared to mine. In my field, if I want to discuss a paper with a colleague, I need to mm pass it by the editor. – StrongBad Mar 9 at 10:33
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One difference in math might be that the paper is usually already publicly available on the arXiv. (For example, the suggestion that one might discuss a paper as long as one hides that one is refereeing it.) – Tom Church Mar 11 at 0:20

"One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor". A paper unsuitable for one kind of journal might be suited to another. While non unethical, submitting the same paper suggest a lack of critical thinking by, at least, the submitting author.

[EDIT] I do undertand, though, that, depending on the domain, authors may consider their paper could be resubmitted, without changing a line, to another journal. This really also depends on the reasons for rejection.

[EDIT] I agree that the peer review system requires confidentiality, and independence. Authors deserve several chances to get published.

[EDIT] Yet, some misconducts are becoming apparent. Redundant publications, plagiarism, for instance. This is not the case here. However, some authors do not hesitate to resubmit again and again, sometimes to journals with putative lower expectations, with hope they will finally go through, with some chance and unwary editors and reviewers.

Such practice floods the peer review system.

Since the paper already made it to the reviewers (and was already reviewed in the past), there are two options:

  1. let it flow without interference,
  2. interfere.

I am in favor, in the OP case, of the second option. I feel important to let the editor know about the situation, while performing the review. This would warn him from accepting the paper solely based on other lacky reviewers (which might be the intend of the submitting author: to get lucky with reviewers). I do feel an editor should be, at his place, capable of critical judgement on such a warning.

  1. What would be optimal is to have Journal 1 editor inform Journal 2 editor that he got aware of the situation, and inform Journal 2 editor about his decision for rejection. It is possible if you know well Journal 1 editor.
  2. Summmarize the main traits of the evaluation (including those from your co-reviewers for Journal 1), to save some time for your colleague, and invite him to write these concerns in the section "information to the editor only". I believe non-so-ethical to provide all the initial reviews to your colleague, yet, in extreme cases...
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I don't think it would be appropriate to tell the new editor that the paper had already been submitted-to and refereed at another journal. Nor to give the colleague a copy of the earlier referee report. – paul garrett Mar 8 at 16:43
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@paul garrett I fully aggree with the 2nd point. Could you please tell me more on why the 1st point does not fell appropriate when submitting exactly the same paper to another journal, if it is in the same domain? – Laurent Duval Mar 8 at 16:50
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Telling the editor that the paper had already been submitted may inadvertently prejudice them. That fact should be irrelevant to their judgement on it, which should be on its palpable merits-or-not alone. Any other action suggests collusion against the authors... even if not intended. – paul garrett Mar 8 at 16:52
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You point about journals with lower expectations seems a bit off. Many journals have high expectations about "importance and impact", but I like to think that all respectable journals have high expectations about "correctness". – StrongBad Mar 8 at 21:08
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I see no evidence supporting subjective interpretation. This is pretty black and white. The editor of the 2nd submission is not entitled to the history of the manuscript in this case. – Scott Seidman Mar 8 at 22:27

You should not have mentioned that you reviewed the paper before. You should not have shared an opinion of the paper with your colleague even if the review was for the same journal even less so for a different journal. The point of multiple reviewers is to get multiple independent opinions.

By sharing your opinion before publication, you've undermined the integrity of the process. Having said that, you can share facts. If you know of facts which make this paper unoriginal, and your colleague shared the manuscript with you prior to knowing that you already reviewed it, they were mildly unethical. They are, however, entitled to the additional information that you may have which shows that the paper is unoriginal. You should have stopped sharing at that.

The reason your colleague was mildly unethical is that you would need to find a way to communicate lack of originality without hinting at the fact that you had already recommended that the paper be rejected. So this put at risk the independence of their review.

Now that their opinion is biased, they should communicate to the publisher that there is a newly-formed conflict and they cannot provide an independent review. The language used in Scott Seidman's answer, in this question thread, seems like an appropriate way to make such a communication.

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Well-put. ........ – paul garrett Mar 10 at 15:46

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