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It sometimes happens that I receive referee requests for theoretical papers which deals with the same phenomena I do in my research, but from a totally different specific theoretical starting point. I am familiar enough with the "competitors'" theoretical framework that I can read the papers, but they more often than not, it seems that the papers I receive are limited to only basic results of the kind I would not publish myself, but rather leave for my memoirs or a lecture note.

I realize that I am of course a bit biased, since I actively dislike that theoretical framework. For that reason I also have a hard time judging if the papers actually make some kind of incremental contribution, which would warrant publication.

For these reasons, I mostly decline reviewing such papers. But recently I have started to doubt whether I am, in this way, a bit too soft. If everyone, who are not active researchers in that very specific theoretical framework, decline to review their papers, we just end up with a lot of sub-par research being published. On the other hand, I don't want to become one of those petty referees, who will only accept papers that does the kind of theory that I find best.

Are there any good solutions to this dilemma?

  • The time I felt or I was unsure but somehow I've mistakenly accepted to be referee I wrote very clear letter to the editor, saying my opinion could have be considered but recommending one more expert to be contacted. It is not exactly the same situation but somehow similar. Basically I made clear my contribution to the decision to be put at a second level. I think it is still useful and fair not only to the journal but also to the authors – Alchimista Nov 6 at 10:19
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It sometimes happens that I receive referee requests for theoretical papers which deals with the same phenomena I do in my research, but from a totally different specific theoretical starting point...they more often than not seem extremely basic to me.

Given that you deal with the same phenomena from a different basis and achieve more advanced results (i.e., not extremely basic), can we conclude that your basis offers some advantage that is being overlooked (by proponents of the other technique)? If so, you could write a position paper that argues in favour of your starting point and against the other starting point. In parallel, you could ask a competitor to write a position paper that argues against your starting point and in favour of their starting point. Perhaps you could then combine your two papers before submitting for publication. Maybe the resulting paper will surprise you both!

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    Thank you for the suggestion! This is in fact something I have been trying to look into, so far with limited results - but I am learning things, and that can only be a plus. I realize that I may have formulated the "basic" in a clumsy way. The "competing" formalism can of course to very advanced things - this is just not (seemingly) done in the papers I mention receiving for review. I will edit my question a bit. – nabla Nov 5 at 11:18
  • The "competing" formalism can of course do very advanced things - this is just not (seemingly) done in the papers I mention receiving for review I wonder why. There must surely be a reason. Perhaps doing such advanced things is time-consuming. – user2768 Nov 5 at 13:13
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It sounds like you are too soft. If you sincerely believe a paper should be rejected, then declining to review it is just withholding useful information from a scientific community that is sorely in need of precisely that information.

It is good to question yourself and examine if you have any biases, but at the end of the day, evaluating a scientific work is a subjective matter and on such things we are all biased in one direction or another. The journals are asking for your opinion because they think you are the best person to provide it; why hold back?

  • This is an interesting point of view, but referee choice is often driven by more prosaic considerations (e.g. a hassled editor might just settle for the first available person) than something as idealistic as a search for the "best" person to conduct the review. – user_of_math Nov 5 at 15:12
  • @user_of_math “best” refers to a combination of factors, including, importantly, being available. Or to put it differently, you can replace “best” with “best available” if you find that more accurate. – Dan Romik Nov 5 at 15:23
  • @user_of_math: In this particular case, the editor apparently found the exact right person -- knowledgeable in the area, and with a perspective that allows them to point out flaws in the paper. Now nabla just needs to say "yes" to reviewing :-) – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 5 at 22:19
  • Thank you for the comment. I know what you mean, it is basically what I outline myself. To the discussion: Reviewing a paper is more than just pointing out flaws - most papers like this don't have any mistakes, but are simply rather boring. That, you could argue, is also a flaw - but a person viewing a paper a bit from the outside is probably not the best to point that out. – nabla Nov 6 at 18:18

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