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I have received a manuscript to review for a journal. The interesting thing is, I had already reviewed this article (exact same title, abstract and author list, almost exact same content) for another journal a few weeks ago where I recommended that it be published, but only after major revisions of both form and content. When I first reviewed it, I wrote a two-page review, listing some questions and several “actionable” comments, ranging from some concerns about exactness of the text (some conclusions didn't seem fully backed by the results) all the way down to trivial stuff (grammar, a few typos, graphic issues with the figures, etc.).

Now, the manuscript has come to me for review again, but it is almost unchanged from the first version. None of the serious stuff has been addressed, and even most of the trivial stuff was not fixed (there's at least one remaining typo, and the figures still aren't fully legible). However, I think this behavior from the authors is clearly a bad signal, which should be somehow conveyed to the editor: they're not willing to amend their work, and would rather do some journal-shopping.

What would you suggest me to do? Should I just re-send my earlier review? Add a note to the editor about my knowledge of the “history” of the paper? Or maybe even include it in my review, so the authors are aware that people know of their behavior, and maybe feel bad enough to change their ways?


PS: I wrote it in the present tense, but it's actually a story from my past. I'm not sure I did the right thing at the time, and I think it's better to actually formulate it as an open question…

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What was the recommendation made to the authors for the first journal? Was it also major revisions, as you suggested, or a rejection? –  Pedro Jan 14 '13 at 18:02
    
@Pedro I do not know… in my field (I don't know how field-dependent that it), editors very rarely communicate their final decision to the reviewers. –  F'x Jan 14 '13 at 18:23
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Is it possible they submitted the same paper to multiple journals at once, before they would have received the first rejection, so were unaware of the suggested changes? –  ernie Jan 14 '13 at 19:09
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@ernie: that seems very unlikely if the journal requires transfer of copyright; usually the submission guidelines explicitly disallow submission if the paper has been submitted in an archival publication. –  Andrew Mao Jan 14 '13 at 20:35

6 Answers 6

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Personally, I would inform the editors of both journals. For the new editor, I would attach your earlier review, and recommend rejection.

Then it's up to the new editor to decide what to do in this situation. This falls in the category of ethical problems, and I think most journals recommend that reviewers contact the editor immediately in such a situation. Perhaps the journal has a policy for this, or the editor may discuss the matter with other editors or the chief editor.

Let me add why I find it unethical. Peer review relies upon the volunteer labour of anonymous reviewers. Reviewers may invest significant time, and do not really get anything in return. If authors of a manuscript completely ignore reviews, and instead submit an unchanged manuscript somewhere else, I would, as a reviewer, be quite annoyed. At the very least they could reply to the reviews, state point-by-point that they disagree, refuse to change anything and then submit it somewhere else; but completely ignoring is wasting peoples time.

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Where are the ethical problems? Is it unethical to review in both places or unethical to sequentially submit unrevised manuscripts? –  StrongBad Jan 14 '13 at 16:16
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I think it's unethical for authors to use reviewers time to get constructive suggestions for improving a manuscript, and instead of improving it, simply submitting an unchanged manuscript somewhere else. This is a waste of reviewers time. –  gerrit Jan 14 '13 at 16:19
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Reply point-by-point...where? It would be very odd, and come off as whining, to reply to a rejection from the editor with a list of disagreements with the report. Also, note that the article wasn't unchanged (I agree that that would be much worse), it just didn't take into account the most important---but likely also the most subjective---suggestions. –  Henry Jan 14 '13 at 16:31
    
@Henry True. I wouldn't like such a response either, but at least whining (a.k.a. rebuttal) acknowledges that the reviewer has been working on it. –  gerrit Jan 14 '13 at 17:09
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@Henry to be clear: some changes were made, but they were really minor (and didn't cover even “trivial” mistakes like typos, grammar and nonmatching figure captions) –  F'x Jan 14 '13 at 17:10

I was recently on the something like the other end of this: a paper I wrote was rejected with a number of comments and one major objection to the content. I made the small changes, but not the big one, and resubmitted to another journal. The new journal sent it back to the same referee.

The referee may well have felt I was engaged in journal shopping; in fact, in response to the report, I'd consulted with other people in the area, and gotten very positive feedback in support of the way the paper was written. I therefore thought it was reasonable to try again with a different journal, since there seemed to be genuine disagreement over the right approach.

The situation was handled quite well, and I'd recommend something like it to anyone on the other end: the editor was notified, and made the decision to ask for the report from the original referee, but also got a second opinion from a new referee.

In this case the story has a happy ending: the original referee didn't just resubmit a variant of the original report, but went above and beyond by explaining their main objection more clearly. The new explanation actually convinced me, where the old one hadn't, and I made the changes.

The moral being, the author may have actually taken the referee report seriously but honestly disagreed. That's not always the case, but in that situation you should consider the possibility---and that's why you definitely want to notify the editor, who should probably get a second opinion.

added: Just to be clear, I'm trying to address the general case of a referee in this situation, not just the particular instance that happened to F'x. There's a range of possible behavior by the paper author which could sound similar to what F'x is describing, and which some future referee reading this question might be experiencing, from the case where the author has resubmitted a paper unchanged to the case where the authors have incorporated many minor suggestions and given careful consideration before not taking some more important ones. F'x is describing a situation which sounds like it's closer to the first, I'm describing one which leans closer to the second.

A particular referee, in a particular case, may be able to judge which scenario is more likely, but it doesn't matter for the referee, because the correct answer is the same: notify the editor.

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the author may have actually taken the referee report seriously but honestly disagreed, in that case, they could at the very least have informed the referee, via the editor. No loss in replying we disagree with major point X, and if the editor then rejects it, to then submit it to another journal. That's different from what @Fx describes. –  gerrit Jan 14 '13 at 17:11
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@gerrit: If the editor asks for a response, the appropriate thing to do would be to explain why the suggestion hasn't been taken. But I think we're discussing the situation where the editor has already rejected, in which case a rebuttal is no longer appropriate. –  Henry Jan 14 '13 at 17:33
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Yeah, that has happened to me as well once or twice. What I then do (and advise others to do) is first to make your case to the editor in a reply (list what you are willing to change, and what you want to keep unmodified). Then, either they accept the amended manuscript, or they reject it (ask you to modify further than you want to). If you arrive at that point, resubmitting to another journal is fair game, I think. But that's a pretty different situation from the one I ask about in my question… –  F'x Jan 14 '13 at 17:34

I see nothing wrong with authors choosing to submit to a new journal instead of making changes suggested by reviewers, although not fixing typos just seems silly. I also think that if authors choose to go this route, they deserve to get a new batch of reviewers. While I like to think of myself as reasonable and impartial, I am happy to have authors confirm this by submitting someplace else. When I receive requests to review a manuscript that I have already reviewed, I turn the review down with a note to the AE that I have already reviewed the manuscript for another journal. I do not to say what journal or anything about my recommendation.

If for some reason I agree to review a manuscript and later find out that I have previously reviewed it, I would immediately contact the AE and explain what has happened. I would offer to provide a revised review. I would acknowledge in the review that I was reviewer N for the previous journal.

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There is something wrong with merely submitting the paper to another journal, which is that it is very likely to be wasting the time of another set of reviewers. As a reviewer I would not be very pleased to find out that I had worked hard to find errors and suggest improvements only to find out someone else had already pointed out these issues to the authors, who had simply ignored them. –  Dikran Marsupial Jan 14 '13 at 17:45
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@Dikran You might simply not agree with the reviewer’s assessment. It happens. Indeed, reviewers can be wrong (gasp!). But yes, not fixing typos and figures is a bad sign. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 14 '13 at 23:15
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@Konrad, I thought i had expressed my disagreement in quite moderate terms! Yes, sometimes reviewers do get things wrong, but the aim of a good reviewer is to help the author to present their work in a way that will maximise the take-up of their idea by the research community. So authors that pay only lip-service to the reviewers comments (or less in this case) show a poor attitude to their own work. I always try and incorporate the reviewers comments as fully as I can. We are getting for free advice from someone whose time we could not afford to buy, and should make the most of it! ;o) –  Dikran Marsupial Jan 15 '13 at 8:25
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@Dikran I totally agree with that. I just wanted to clarify that one point. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 15 '13 at 8:40
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@Konrad, cheers, non-verbal forms of communication often come across as much more aggressive than intended, so I just wanted to be sure. I had this situation recently where a paper was rejected for utterly ridiculous reasons - I implemented the suggestions that made sense and submitted it somewhere else. I am grateful for the good suggestions they made! ;o) –  Dikran Marsupial Jan 15 '13 at 8:48

I'll add here as an answer the course I did follow, so people can comment on it and help me see its pros and cons (obviously, I saw more pros than cons to it, as I did decide on it after some thought).

I went the last option mentioned in my question: I sent a review which consisted of my earlier review, with an added text clearly delimitated at the top explaining that I had already reviewed the paper for another journal (I didn't say which, as it seemed a breach of reviewer ethics). I also insisted that even uncontroversial changes hadn't been made, and I thought this shed bad light on the author's good faith participation in the peer-review process.

Finally, I watched later to see where the paper had been published: after being dropped from journal A to journal B (and maybe others), it ended up being published in a third, obscure journal with very few changes (but at least the typos were removed).

As a side note: given that I was not such a big name in that particular subfield at the time, and the two editors who picked me for review didn't know me personally, I believe I was twice listed by the authors as “potential reviewer” upon submission of their work. Which means, either they didn't really think it through the second time, or they naturally assumed that the review they had received wasn't my type. 😼

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The only situation where this is halfway reasonable from the authors' side is when the main author left the project, and the others didn't have the time to make revisions. But then it deserves being published in an obscure journal only... –  silvado Jan 15 '13 at 14:25
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@silvado I think it funny that the ethicality of an action would be dependent on the visibility of the journal concerned –  F'x Jan 15 '13 at 15:16
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I wouldn't say that the publication venue has anything to do with ethicality, but rather quality. –  silvado Jan 15 '13 at 15:26
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Another possibility is that someone they did list (or someone better known) kept suggesting you when they got requests. I don't know, but have always suspected a lot of my referee traffic comes from one senior person in my field who suggests my name when he is asked. –  Ben Webster Jan 20 '13 at 14:35
    
@F'x I am not sure in this case, but I think in general it is reasonable for the ethicality of some actions to depend on the visibility of the journal. There is the old saying: "if you can put in 20 minutes of work to save readers 1 minute of time then you should do if you expect 20 or more readers", unfortunately different venues still result in different number of readers (even if you submit identical papers), so different amounts of work can be expected. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Dec 6 '13 at 1:32

Since you're being asked to review exactly the same object that you already reviewed, your task is simple: simply respond with exactly the same review. Your review is a function of the content. That function should produce the same value when applied to the same input. Just like when a browser is asked to load the same page twice, it can just fetch it from its cache (subject to expiry checks, which are clearly not applicable in this analogy).

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The statement that the review is a function of the content is overly simplistic. The expiry checks from your browser analogy are in fact very important when reviewing a paper. –  silvado Jan 15 '13 at 14:22
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This is just not true; if nothing else, a review depends on the journal, as well. I've even heard of referee reports that said outright "This paper isn't good enough for this journal, but it would be great for journals X or Y." –  Henry Jan 15 '13 at 15:36
    
Henry is right. Depending on the scope of the journal, some articles are more suitable for particular journals than others. We actually had a paper submitted that was rejected by an editor specifically for the reason that he did not think that the article was of scholarly work but that it belonged elsewhere. We submitted with no changes. Whether or not the editor was right in his opinion that it was not suitable for the original journal is a matter of question. –  nagniemerg Jan 22 at 1:51

This situation has happened to me in both directions. As a reviewer, I always inform the editor first, and then only if they insist do I send them the earlier review. But I prefer to avoid it because otherwise it constitutes double jeopardy for the authors.

As an author, if I resubmit to a new journal, I expect to get a new set of opinions. There's no point in resubmitting if you're just going to get the identical comments. As to whether one should or should not revise a paper before resubmitting, that depends on many factors. Obviously factual errors or typos should be corrected. But I don't necessarily agree that one should go through a huge revision to address concerns raised by one set of reviewers, because a new set of reviewers may have a completely different set of issues, and maybe even object to some suggestions made by the first set of reviewers. Moreover, the second set, not knowing what issues were raised by the first set, won't know why certain things were included. For instance, if one reviewer asks me to add a paragraph favoring a particular interpretation (theirs of course) and I include this, but the paper is still rejected and I then send it to a new journal with a new reviewer, that person might completely disagree and reject the paper based on that interpretation which I only put in for the now-irrelevant reviewer in the first place!

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"interpretation which I only put in for the now-irrelevant reviewer" I am not sure if I would find it ethical to include something in my manuscript which I genuinely believe is only for appeasing a reviewer. I would include that sort of stuff in my response to the reviewer, with an explanation of why I don't think this is relevant to other readers. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Dec 6 '13 at 1:37

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