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We have just received reviews on a paper, and in reading through one of the "borderline" reviews, I recognized that the "voice" of the review sounded like a researcher I associated with at a conference a few years ago. In particular, they use a certain terms in parts of their review customary to this researcher's homeland. I checked the review committee, and this individual is indeed listed. Upon reading further, they suggest some past work which may be useful -- one of which I recognized as this researcher's work (we have some overlap in our fields).

I have not reached out to this researcher, nor have I shared my suspicions with any co-authors. This researcher and I socialized in a group setting a few years back, but have had no subsequent contact besides being in the same circles on some social media.

While the paper this researcher authored is tangentially related, it is not one that I would consider particularly relevant in our discussion. However, being quite certain of this reviewer's identity, it is tempting to "play up" the relevance of that paper in the hopes of swaying the reviewer.

My question: Is this ethical? I do not have any concrete evidence of this reviewer's identity (nor will I ever look for it), but the fact that I feel compelled to respond in a way different than I would otherwise has my alarm bells going off.

Reworded bonus question: If I believe I've discerned the identity of a reviewer, should I report that to the PC?

Note: This question is intended to be about my conduct, not the reviewer's. I do not believe the reviewer has done anything unethical.

  • Is the review otherwise so negative that you think it will be rejected if you don't cite that one not really relevant paper? – Karl Jun 12 at 18:37
37

Don't speculate about who the reviewer(s) of your manuscript are. Nothing good can come out of having the knowledge. In fact thinking you know who the reviewers are can cause you quite a bit of grief.

Forget about who authored the review and focus on the facts. You think the paper suggested is tangentially related and not really relevant. Therefore you think you shouldn't cite it. As in similar situations, the next most natural thing to do would be to not cite it, giving your reasons. It would take a pretty unscrupulous reviewer to reject your manuscript because it doesn't cite his paper, and even if the reviewer attempts this, he would also have to convince the editor that he's actually rejecting your manuscript for valid reasons. Remember the editor can see who the reviewer is, and will notice if the reviewer is pushing his paper even if the relevance is tangential. Further, remember that the editor can accept a paper even if the reviewer recommends rejection.

Finally, about whether to report this, there's no point. You won't learn anything about it anyway because the editors can neither confirm nor deny the identity of the reviewer.

  • Thanks! That confirms my suspicions. – deckeresq Jun 12 at 5:01
  • Nice question. I would mention that the editor easily see if the referee is just sponsoring its/her paper. The latter cannot insistt on this point after OP explains why that work is tangential to the manuscript. – Alchimista Jun 12 at 11:36
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[The reviewer suggests] some past work which may be useful --- one of which I recognized as this researcher's work... I have not reached out to this researcher, nor have I shared my suspicions with any co-authors. ... Is this something that should be reported to the PC?

Let's assume that you're right that this recommended paper was written by the reviewer --- so what?

There is nothing unethical about a reviewer recommending citation of his own paper, so long as he believes that work is relevant to the topic. Indeed, reviewers are often selected precisely because they have published papers in the field they are reviewing, so it is common for reviewers to be aware of work they have published that bears on the research they are reviewing. It is therefore quite natural that a reviewer will be aware of some piece of work they have written that bears on the topic they are reviewing. If this is the case then it is quite reasonable for them to recommend citation of that paper.

You say that this paper was just one work embedded within a broader set of past works. By your own description, this work is "tangentially related" to your paper. Whether you decide to cite the recommended paper therefore depends on the desired scope of the literature discussion in your own paper ---i.e., the degree to which you wish to relate your own work to parts of the literature that are only tangential to your work. Whatever your judgment here, there is room for reasonable people to disagree on the proper scope for references to other works, so it is entirely reasonable for the reviewer to recommend the paper in his list of past works.

While the paper this researcher authored is tangentially related, it is not one that I would consider particularly relevant in our discussion. However, being quite certain of this reviewer's identity, it is tempting to "play up" the relevance of that paper in the hopes of swaying the reviewer. ... Is this ethical?

Just write your paper the way you think is best --- if you think the recommended paper is tangentially relevant then you can mention it if you want, and if you think that is too much of a stretch, and you'd prefer not to mention it, then say that in your response. Reviewer recommendations are not mandatory, and if you decide not to follow the recommendation to cite that particular paper, that is up to you. There is no reason to try to pander to the (suspected) reviewer.

Bonus question: Is this something that should be reported to the PC?

Sigh --- this is the kind of question that really makes me despair for academia. Here we have a story of an outside academic acting as an unpaid journal reviewer, who has taken time away from other duties to do work reviewing your paper. Among a list of potentially useful past work he has provided to you, he has mentioned one paper that you think is probably his, which even you concede is "tangentially related" to your own work. Rather than expressing thank for the time this reviewer has taken to provide you with a list of related works, your instinct is to have "suspicions", and you want to know whether to narc on him for the "unethical" conduct of having mentioned potentially relevant research.

  • 2
    It seems my question was worded incorrectly: I do not believe the reviewer did anything wrong, nor was my question ever meant to make it seem that way. In particular, my bonus question clearly was worded incorrectly. I meant should I report my fear that my response would be tainted by being able to figure out who the reviewer was (or, at least, thinking I had figured it out). My concern was with my conduct, not with the reviewer's. – deckeresq Jun 12 at 6:37
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    I once handled a paper where the reviewer (a distinguished professor at a major North American university, no less) said "this paper is significant, but it should cite these five of my papers". That was the entirety of his review too. Meanwhile the other reviewers were unanimous that the paper should be rejected. That was also depressing. – Allure Jun 12 at 6:44
  • @deckeresq: Okay, thanks for clarifying. – Ben Jun 12 at 6:59
  • What @Allure said is possible but it doesn't compare well with the current OP situation. Plus 1 to this answer because I like the ending. – Alchimista Jun 12 at 11:40
  • @Alchimista my comment here was about the last part of Ben's answer, about the unethical conduct. This kind of unethical conduct definitely happens, although even in these situations it's not really useful to alert the editor because they undoubtedly already know. – Allure Jun 12 at 11:53
2

I share the instinct to be a tiny bit wary of the situation. Namely that it is, at the very least, plausible that the motivation for suggesting citing the paper is to increase the citation count of that paper, not because it helps your own. From a step back, it would clearly be better to avoid that from being a factor.

However:

  • It would be very hard to completely remove this possibility (even some kind of meta-review would eventually be subject to the same issues).

  • The question is about your behaviour. It is a failing of the system if following a suggestion to improve your chance of publication is a conflict of interest.

  • Absolute worst case: citation figures change by one, in a borderline case.

I don't think there is any cause to lose sleep over this.

1

I'd like to address two different points here.


Is it ethical?

Nobody can give a definite answer here. One can only try to articulate what one perceives as some sort of consensus among researchers. And this is difficult, because it may depend on the field, on who the author of the other paper is (regardless of whether he is the reviewer!), and most importantly: What the actual contents of the paper is.

For example, there are some papers that are groundbreaking, seminal, visionary, and - although they are only tangentially related (in a technical sense) to more recent works - often cited by saying something like "The work by [Foo] has inspired many other researchers" (and in fact, not much more than that).

On the other hand, I'd like to emphasize what was already mentioned in the excellent answer by Ben: Even if the work is only tangentially related, it could be worth mentioning it, and explaining the differences between their approach and yours. Of course, there is no point in listing a dozen papers and bluntly saying: "They are all doing something else", but a critical discussion and analysis of related work and identifying the differences and commonalities between approaches is something that I'd consider as an essential part of the literature review.


Now, since the first question cannot be answered with a clear "yes" or "no", this raises another question:

Should you do it?

One could argue that if it's unethical, you should not do it. But I wonder how far one can stretch this. The limit is in the question of whether it is "ethical" to do anything that ("only") brings an advantage for yourself. And at that point, one has to say: You can always act ethically if and only if you can afford it.

Or to put it that way: If you think that it helps your progress and career, you should do it.

In the world of mutual citations, mutual reviews (that are only formally but not factually "double-blind"), mutual conference invitations and other forms of "mutual approvals and justifications" of small groups of researchers, a single citation in a single paper is one of the things that you should least be concerned about.

-1

It's not that big a deal. I would just do it (and I am prickly as hell if my text, ideas get affected).

Just attach the questionable reference. But make sure there is a relevant one right next to it. So people see both. Not much harm done.

  • You state an opinion but don't give a reason. – henning Jun 13 at 6:19

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