This question is related to this one, and is dual to it in some sense.

Assume PIs A and B publish a few key papers in what turns out to be a new mini-area. Their work is well received, and they arrive at similar conclusions using complementary techniques.

Several months later, A notices an in-press paper by C, which claims to significantly improve upon the work of A and B. The paper by C is substandard, however, reflecting an evident lack of understanding.

On alerting B, A discovers that C's paper was not reviewed by either of them. A and B agree that C's paper makes a strong, unsupported claim, and that they would certainly have flagged it as problematic (as reviewers).

What reasons could a handling editor have for choosing neither A nor B as referees, given the high relevance of their work? Replies from people with editorial experience would be especially helpful.

  • 9
    What makes you think they should be compelled to do so? And even if someone had reviewed the paper, review ethics would usually indicate that they not tell other people this. Jun 22, 2018 at 21:14
  • Are you A or B?
    – user68958
    Jun 22, 2018 at 21:35
  • 5
    The field might be wider as A and B think. Jun 22, 2018 at 22:28
  • 4
    It is sometimes acceptable for authors to request that their papers not be reviewed by a specific referee (e.g. if they fear bias or unfair treatment). The request may be granted, or not, at the editor’s discretion. So a possible explanation is that C asked for A and B not to be assigned the review. But I concur with @zibadawatimmy, a much more likely explanation is that the editor had several other, more or less equally qualified, people to consider other than A and B, and simply chose someone else.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 22, 2018 at 22:37
  • @zibadawatimmy It is perfectly possible to accidentally discover in the course of a conversation that someone else did not review a paper. No ethical issues, as the actual referee(s) are still anonymous. The question aims to understand editorial perspectives in referee selection, so the hostile tenor of your comment is quite surprising. Jun 23, 2018 at 9:00

4 Answers 4


Many possible reasons, although there is of course no way of finding out which one applied here (if any at all):

  • Editor E believes that, being big animals in the field, neither A nor B will have time to review.
  • Variation: E is a junior researcher and doesn't think that he has the stature to ask A or B for a review.
  • E is not on good terms with A and B.
  • E believes that A and B have some sort of personal problem with the author and doesn't want to put them into a position of a conflict of interest.
  • E has recently given both A and B difficult papers to review and doesn't want to overload them.
  • The author has asked for neither A nor B to be reviewers.
  • E simply has not paid attention to the previous seminal paper and so asked colleagues he knows are well versed in the general field.
  • E actually knows the field well herself, and so self-assigned herself the paper, plus a couple of grad students who should learn how to review papers.
  • I like the last point. That also crossed my mind while poundering on the mechanism editors have to train early referees. It could also explain why an editor would transfer certain reviews because an early referee would also benefit from the author’s (even angry) respons.
    – user93911
    Jun 23, 2018 at 6:52

As assistant editor, we usually don't know all works or experts related to that field. Most of the time we rely on recommendations. However, usually, if the recommended reviewer is a big name, or if the recommended reviewers are cited, we try not to assign those referees.

Generally, your question sound as there are only 3 people in that field. A,B and C. This is a common misconception that authors believe, how no one is specialized enough in that field as they are! It is common, especially in Western-based academia. As internet presence grow, we noticed that most of the time same thing (phenomena, process, method) is called by a different name/term. There is no standardisation sometimes, so maybe there is the problem of field understanding when scientists think it is their own field.


Often reviewers are selected for expertise in the subject matter, such as the application, rather than the techniques used. If new techniques are used in a relatively new field, it can be difficult to find reviewers familiar with them and the field. This is often observed in fields with computational or statistical techniques where expertise in these techniques is overlooked in reviewers in favour of scientists with more domain knowledge in the field. Bear in mind that interdisciplinary researchers (involved in new fields) are busy people and editors do not always get their first choice of reviewers.


Legitimate question. I like the options proposed by Wolfgang Bangherth. Another option might be a high paper/editor ratio. Maybe an editor is just not able to handle all papers in depth and takes quick decisions.

Or, on the other side of the spectrum: the editor knows A & B viewpoints well and wants to have a different point of view to support his/her decision. Also unsupported claims (your view or evidence-based?) may propel the academic discussion forward and make work worth publishing. There also could be other contributions in the work which legitimate publishing. No research paper is perfect.

If you feel that unsupported claims were made, then take your opportunity to submit a new wonderful piece of work, building on your own work and author’s C work. If the work of C clearly cointains factual flaws and should be withdrawn, you could contact the editor directly, I presume

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