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I am currently collaborating with three researchers on three non-overlapping and independent research projects/papers (i.e. one with each). I have been asked to review a paper for a journal, for which the same three researchers are the authors.

I am tempted to take it and try to do an objective review, but I wonder if this would represent a conflict of interest. Of course, as they are constant collaborators, I am not sure if there would be any unconscious bias.

52

Disclose your possible conflict to the editor and let them decide. "I had no direct role in the submitted work but am currently collaborating with Drs. Moe, Curly, and Larry on separate projects on plumbing, eye protection, and suit integrity."

It may be that your field is narrow enough that the editor will prefer your mostly impartial review, or they may prefer to find another referee.

This suggestion of course assumes that you think you can offer a fair review whether or not you find the work suitable for publishing. If you think for any reason you would be unwilling to reject the work if it is poor because of your collaborations, you should not agree to review at all.

  • 3
    Good answer. I was about to write the same thing. I've contacted editors before with that concern. – Richard Erickson Jul 30 '18 at 22:08
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    Disagree. Current collaboration is a clear conflict. Turn down the review. – Scott Seidman Jul 31 '18 at 19:05
  • @ScottSeidman I think in most cases the editor would agree with you and find a new reviewer, and as other answers have pointed out this can be a specific journal policy as well. Sometimes, though, in a small community there may be simply too much intermixing between researchers who are qualified to review at a high level (MassimoOrtolano supports this with a comment on another answer that makes the same point). At the end of the day, it's the responsibility of the editor to ensure the best peer review possible, not only the referees. – Bryan Krause Aug 1 '18 at 16:15
  • I can sympathize with that, but would argue that there are some real problems with refereeing in a field that small, and then claiming that the work was objectively peer reviewed. The editors need to cast a bigger net for referees, and even less expertise would be more acceptable than referees with clear conflict. It's not the editor's job to protect the field -- it's the members of the field. I'd like to think in that situation, I'd still turn down the review. – Scott Seidman Aug 1 '18 at 16:51
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If they're your current collaborators, you should not review. Not many journals list formal policies on conflict of interest, but here's an example from PNAS (emphasis mine):

When asked to evaluate a manuscript, reviewers and editors must disclose any association that poses a conflict of interest in connection with the manuscript. Recent collaborators, defined as people who have coauthored a paper or were a principal investigator on a grant with any of the authors within the past 48 months, must be excluded as editors and reviewers. Referees and editors are asked to recuse themselves from handling a paper if the conflict makes them unable to make an impartial scientific judgment or evaluation. A referee or editor who has a conflict but believes that it does not preclude his or her making a proper judgment must disclose to the journal the nature of the conflict.

If you still want to review the article, I would contact the editor first, disclose the COI, and ask if they still want you to write a review. If they say no, then just let it go.

9

This is a conflict of interest. Basically, every policy I've found says that a referee has a conflict of interest if they've recently (for various definitions of "recent") co-authored a paper with one of the authors of the paper under review.

You should either decline to review the manuscript (especially if you're busy or otherwise looking for a reason not to review another paper right now) or advise the editor of your conflict of interest and ask if they still want you to review the paper. In a small field, it may be that nearly all potential reviewers have a conflict, so the editor might still want you to review.

  • 3
    Yes, e.g. my field of expertise is so small (impedance metrology) that we all virtually coauthored with one another or have projects in common. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 31 '18 at 13:37

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