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  1. A journal article I submitted to a highly reputable journal has been returned with a number of revisions requested, most of which are useful and helpful and will improve the quality of the article. However, two of the three reviewers have also suggested articles that should be added as references to my paper. These articles are not appropriate to reference in the paper; I have tried at length to find relevance but cannot. I assume that the reviewers are authors of these papers and wish to increase their citations.

  2. The email from the (unnamed) journal editor asking for revisions is pro forma and includes a line asking for any inappropriate requests for citations to be referred to the editor.

  3. Analysis of the authorship of the requested articles suggests that the two reviewers in question are affiliated with the same institution. Two members of the editorial board of the journal are at the same institution, so it is at least possible and perhaps likely that the editor shares an affiliation with the 2 reviewers.

My supervisor (and co-author) suggests I try and find the suggested paper that is least inappropriate and reference it in our article ‒ "throw them a bone."

I feel that we should address the other revision requests comprehensively but decline to reference the articles, giving our reasons.

Ethics vs Pragmatism, yes, but I also want to get the article published and this may not be the hill to die on. Will my approach mean rejection? Do I have any recourse if it does? Should I call this out to the Editor in Chief?

I'm interested in other people's experiences.

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    You could ask the editor to ask the reviewers to clarify the relevance of the suggested references. – Andrés E. Caicedo Mar 28 at 0:43
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    Closely related (especially F'x's answer): academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11923/… – Allure Mar 28 at 7:48
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    Even more closely related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/99745/…? – Allure Mar 28 at 7:49
  • I have voted to close as "strongly depends on individual factors" since you seem to already understand the underlying principles and it really comes down to: what is your personal choice? – user2390246 Mar 28 at 10:38
  • Thanks for those links - interesting, but a different question, in my view, due to the possibility that the editor and 2 reviewers are from the institution. – doctorer Mar 28 at 11:12
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If you think you see this often, imagine how much more often journal editors see it.

So sticking to ethics is fine. Journal editors see this often enough to know when to reject a review because of it. You are not generally under threat of rejection if you decline to cite a reference. The worst that can happen is that the reviewer rejects your article, but since they've already recommended revision the first time, the editor is more equipped to discern if the rejection is unfair. Remember that if the reviewer says "reject because they didn't cite XYZ", the editor (who is able to see the reviewer's identity) is very much able to see if XYZ is also written by the reviewer. In your case you even have an editor who said to refer any inappropriate citation requests to them.

A word of caution: there's no guarantee that the requested citations are articles by the reviewers. There's a lot of diversity in what reviews look like, and it's possible the reviewer did not write those articles. Don't leap to conclusions. Stick to the facts ("we do not think these articles are relevant") and don't allege collusion (such as how the reviewers & editors are from the same institution - you simply don't know).

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    As a matter of fact, it's generally not helping your professionally or mentally to try and figure out who reviewers are. Nothing good can come of having this knowledge. So try and avoid the thought of wanting to figure out. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 28 at 2:27
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    I strongly suspect that citation cartels are significantly more frequent than academic kidnappings, and would be interested to see evidence to the contrary. – doctorer Mar 28 at 3:14
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    @Allure - I also realise I misconstrued your last paragraph, thinking you were saying I shouldn't suggest on this forum that there may be collusion. But clearly you meant that I shouldn't make an accusation to the Editor, which I 100% agree with. – doctorer Mar 28 at 5:50
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    @doctorer because 1) you're likely to be wrong and 2) you have nothing to gain. Again, as Wolfgang Bangerth said in the first comment: "As a matter of fact, it's generally not helping your professionally or mentally to try and figure out who reviewers are. Nothing good can come of having this knowledge. So try and avoid the thought of wanting to figure out." – Allure Mar 28 at 12:12
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    This paper claims a roughly 10% accuracy rate in authors properly identifying their reviewers (although my library doesn't have access so I can't read the whole thing) atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/… – llama Mar 29 at 20:40
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(1) Your co-authors are correct in that you should strive to minimise friction in the review process. (2) Commenters here are correct that you should stick to the facts of the situation and not risk attempting to attribute speculative motivations, or identities, to the reviewers. (3) You are correct that you shouldn't reference papers that have no apparent relevance to your work.

So consequences that arise from the points above are:

(1) Don't even consider referring the issue to the editor. Firstly, you can deal with this solely within the bounds of the normal response to the reviews. Secondly, is it remotely possible that there is actually some relevance to the papers that the reviewers see but you don't? Imagine the small possibility that they are right and you are wrong, and the damage to your reputation and theirs by escalating this.

(2) Make no statements and take no actions other than to respond to the issue that you believe that the papers aren't relevant. Don't get clouded by things that you can't absolutely know, like intentions and identities.

(3) In your response, simply state that you haven't added the references, and DO NOT add any other claims about the reviewers' motivations. You just want this to be as friction-free as possible. To avoid conflict in a subsequent round of review, you can gently put the ball back in the reviewers' court. e.g. state something like this:

We thank the reviewer for the suggested reference. Unfortunately, on close reading we could not determine exactly which part of our argument it supported. Therefore, we have not added it to the manuscript at this stage, but would welcome any specific guidance as to how it could be incorporated.

This avoids you being confrontational, yet without "giving them a bone". If they want to push things, then they now have to jump through a hoop to make the link for you. I suspect the issue will just get dropped. But it also leaves the door open for you in the small chance that the reviewers have actually made an insight or connection that you have failed to see.

Finally, as there are major revisions requested, deal with those fully and constructively and in detail. The couple of sentences devoted to this issue will not seem important to the editor in that context.

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    +1 for We thank the reviewer ... --- That's an especially nice and diplomatic way of handling this! – Dave L Renfro Mar 28 at 14:25
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    Opinions differ - to me, "We thank the reviewer for suggestion X" sounds sarcastic, especially if the authors did not follow suggestion X. – Sander Heinsalu Mar 29 at 14:07
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Unfortunately, I also made the experience that reviewers often try to recommend their articles for citation. Often this allows me actually to identify who the reviewers are based on the suggestions for reviewers I made when submitting the manuscript. Therefore, I think this is no good practice at all, as it undermines the actual review process (but also promotes citation cartels).

The question is then rather to me, would a non-citation of their articles be a reason for a major revision. To my experience, suggested editing of the references is normally not more than a minor revision, so the reviewers are not asked anymore for their agreement and it is up to the editor to publish your article based on the minor revisions you made. If you explain to him/her the suggested references are not related to your article, after checking it thoroughly and you don't know where to cite and how to explain them in the manuscript, it is up to him/her to leave them out.

Ethics vs. pragmatism, well, throw a coin or think about how much harm citing their articles implicates (if you don't have to highlight them with another sentence in the manuscript and can add them to a group citation [1,...,4]) for your article and the scientific community. If they are not linked by any interdiscplinary, theoretical or experimental distant context, then the reviewers will also have a difficult argument to explain, why they should be cited. But don't start to poker with all of them in the review process.

  • Thank you. Although the addition of references is only a minor revision, we have been asked to make major revisions, so it is at least possible that the revised paper will be returned to teh reviewers. Moreover, my concern is that the editor is also part of the "citation cartel".... – doctorer Mar 28 at 2:06
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There is no true motivations to insert inappropriate references in the paper, moreover being the reference system the only mechanism able to make the better works emerge.

Do not do that.

If you have a lot of time before the deadline, write to the reviewers cited asking some help in order to have evidence of the relevance, because you are not able to find it. You should write this in some plain manner, nothing alarmed or worried or whatever. And watch what answer returns to you.

If the deadline is too close, simply omit the references not truly relevant, writing to the reviewer something about that, argumenting that properly and having the organizer in CC.

Do not abandon ethics, because without it the Academia is something unuseful and very similar to mafia or similar organizations.

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