Suppose I've written a paper which someone else (who I do not know) has built on. The new work is intimately related to mine; it would not have existed without my paper. I'm now asked to review the paper. Should I:

  • Accept because I am an expert on my own work, making me very qualified to review the paper; or
  • Decline because of conflict of interest - the paper cites my work so I could be biased towards accepting it since it boosts my citation metrics, plus I'm obviously flattered someone thinks my ideas are interesting enough to work on and I'd hate to discourage them with rejection?
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    Definitely disclose the fact to the editor. – Oleg Lobachev Jun 21 at 20:50
  • 4
    @AndresMejia I think the OP means "accept/decline to review the paper" and not "recommend acceptance/rejection of the paper". – Dirk Jun 22 at 5:41
  • Yes. Not important. – A Simple Algorithm Jun 23 at 8:18
up vote 108 down vote accepted

You were probably chosen to be reviewer because it is built on your work and therefore have intensive background knowledge on this topic. As long as you have not worked and do not intend to work on something really similar during the review process you do not have a conflict of interest.

You should of course try to be objective. Giving a rejection does not have to discourage the authors if you give constructive feedback and make it clear that you find their direction promising.

If you feel like you might not be able to be unbiased you can talk to the editor about it.

  • 12
    "You should of course try to be objective." This should be bold. You should not be too harsh on them because they're "playing in your sandbox" but you also should not be too light on them because you perhaps want to collaborate with them in the future or you want to justify how important your niche is. – corsiKa Jun 21 at 21:32
  • 2
    I'll just note that when your work is especially esoteric the number of available reviewers is very small. A journal editor or program committee will be hard pressed to find people who aren't referenced in the paper at all. When I completed my doctorate (mathematics) there were only about five people in the world who could easily digest it. Some of them had students working in related areas and so I got asked to review their work fairly often. It isn't a problem. Rejoice that your work inspired someone else. +1. – Buffy Jun 24 at 12:49

As others have said, the editor very likely knows the situation. Review the paper -- you are well-suited to do so. If you feel compelled to mention it, do it in the "confidential to editor" area to maintain the anonymity of the review.

That said, if you've never been in this situation before, be very careful to make your review fair. Lose any hidden agenda. Review the work the author is submitting, and not the work you wish the author had done. Limit your context to information that is available in your field, and not bring up stuff that your favorite colleague is about to include in an abstract for next years Big Conference. If the data presented make a previous paper you've published look a bit questionable, that doesn't make the manuscript bad.

Review it and when you submit your review to the editor - make sure you make your position clear :

1 Paper is fine, and note it refers to a previous publication of mine

2 Paper needs work, and note it refers to a previous publication of mine

3 rejected for X reasons...

  • 5
    And, of course, the “It refers to a previous publication of mine” part goes in the confidential comments to the editor, not the review for the authors! – David Richerby Jun 22 at 14:27

I advise bringing this to the attention of the editor. Let them know that the paper they have asked you to review cites your own publications and that the potential conflict of interest exists. Whether you ultimately accept or reject the paper there could be the appearance that you were not an impartial reviewer - acceptance could be seen as being influenced by the citations and rejection could be seen as being influenced by competition in your field.

It could be that your field is relatively small and the editor has passed the paper to you as a subject matter expert.

  • 2
    As both Mick and Claude said, the editor is probably already aware of the citation and selected you as a reviewer because you're an expert. By informing the editor, you get rid of the "probably". The editor definitely gets an expert review and is definitely aware of the potential conflict of interest. This puts them in the best possible position to make the final decision. – Ray Jun 21 at 19:46

Yes, you should review it (assuming you have time) because your expertise makes you an ideal reviewer. You were almost certainly invited to review the paper because of this, and the editor will be aware of your situation.

For venues I've reviewed for, a disqualifying conflict of interest is typically any of:

  • you have a family relationship with one of the authors;
  • you've worked with one of the authors or been in the same department as them within the last couplefew years;
  • you've been in a student–advisor relationship with one of them, in the last several years;
  • you're in a competing group.

None of those seems to apply in this case.

You are aware that you have some bias with respect to this paper, and this should be enough to keep it under control. Remember that you won't be the only reviewer of the paper, and the other reviewers will provide balance if, e.g., you think the paper is fascinating because of your close connection to the subject but everyone else thinks it's dull.

If you're still worried, you can always discuss it with the editor who invited you.

  • I wonder who is still left that has expertise in the relevant topics if everyone from the same department, and everyone from competing groups is excluded. Or is "competing group" defined in a rather narrow sense there, not as any other group that independently works on the same topics, but specifically as another group that has the explicit intention of outdoing the original author? – O. R. Mapper Jun 24 at 16:28

No need to worry about a conflict of interest simply because your work was cited — as noted earlier, it's almost certain that either the author or the editor identified you as a reviewer because you had published in the field. That's how we find reviewers!

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