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I recently received a decision letter calling for minor revisions prior to acceptance. One anonymous reviewer was extremely knowledgeable and provided many helpful suggestions to better explain and clarify my work which I have implemented. However, the other anonymous reviewer simply listed seven papers to include, suggesting I make a "theoretical comparation" and to "plesea [sic] compare them."

I noticed all seven papers listed had one author in common, and none of them are relevant to my work. Given that their review was two sentences with typos followed by a list of papers, I assume they spent little time on my manuscript and perhaps are trying to get their own papers cited.

How can I best politely reject these suggestions? May I address them all together? Could I email the editor with my concerns? Can I request another reviewer to assess my paper?

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    Did the editor write anything in his decision letter, what he/she expects you to do? If not, a "we do not think that the papers are sufficiently relevant to be discussed in the context of our manuscript" should do. After making sure, they really are not relevant. – Mark Jan 20 at 19:29
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  • The editor said I must carry out the essential revisions and that I must include a detailed response to the reviewers' suggestions. If I have any criticisms with the reviewers' comments, I may submit a rebuttal. Can I call out the reviewer for citation shopping, or must I explain why the papers suggested are irrelevant one-by-one? – LunarLlama Jan 20 at 20:05
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    Don't call them out for citation shopping, but it would be good to give a short explanation why they are not relevant. If one-by-one or general depends heavily on the papers the reviewer wants you to cite. – Mark Jan 20 at 22:11
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    @Mark I agree flat-out accusations are inadvisable, but I think a note to the editor stating the facts is very much in order. Simply state that Reviewer #2 provided low quality review that consisted almost entirely of a request for additional citations of irrelevant papers which all have a single author in common. The editor should be made aware that they should not be using this reviewer in the future. – Nuclear Wang Jan 21 at 16:38
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Think of the review process as a debate between you and the reviewers, with the editor as jury. You would like to convince the reviewers, but ultimately, you want to convince the editor. The editor has called in the reviewers as domain experts so will listen to what they have to say. But ultimately the editor makes up their own mind. It's just that the editor is most likely to give their go-ahead if you and the reviewers come to an agreement. But it's possible that the editor decides to publish even if a reviewer is not positive.

Also, consider that editors are basically the experts on the subject of "reviewers".

I would write three responses. The responses addressed to the reviewers are also passed through the editor (after all, the reviewers are anonymous).

  • One to the first reviewer, thanking them for their good advice and noting how you'll apply that. This helps to show to the editor that you're taking the review process seriously.
  • A second one to the second reviewer where you explain why you don't think those seven papers are relevant to your paper. Don't put any accusations here, just give your considered, good-faith view on the relevance of those seven papers.
  • A third note to the editor only, where you express concern that the second reviewer's review was rather short, that you don't really see the relevance of the papers, and that you noticed that they all have a common author. Ask for the editor's advice on how to proceed.

At that point the editor will probably take a second look at the rather poor quality review, and compare the author list of the proposed seven citations to the name of the reviewer. And advise you on how to proceed.

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    Thank you for such a detailed answer. This is my first paper, so I wanted to clarify: I write my revision letter with three parts, as I do not have direct contacts to the reviewers? My understanding was that reviewers do not see minor revisions again and that only the editor will see my letter? Thank you again. – LunarLlama Jan 21 at 15:40
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    @AnonymousPhysicist It kind of is, in that there is a non-zero amount of subjectivity, as opposed to strictly "correct/incorrect" feedback. If you disagree on a point, it's on you to convince them that you know what you're talking about. It's true that the reviewers don't gain anything tangible, but telling someone how to improve their paper (and having them do so) is a demonstration of mastery, and pushback could be perceived (perhaps indirectly) as challenging that mastery. – John Neuhaus Jan 21 at 21:11
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    This is also a very good answer, and the philosophy is widely applicable. Demonstrating sincerity is typically important when your stance involves less work (e.g. not doing something.) Showing benefit of the doubt (towards the 2nd reviewer) is critical for fostering goodwill and buffering your own misjudgements. And enlisting help like that can soften potentially contentious engagements, also shows sincerity, and flags potential misconduct by others, while positioning yourself as an extension of the helper, in a fashion. – John Neuhaus Jan 21 at 21:18
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    @Prof.SantaClaus that's why the third message is directly addressed to the editor, to point them at something suspicious happening on their watch. But to gain the credibility to do that, you need the first and second messages. – ObscureOwl Jan 21 at 22:32
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    @Prof.SantaClaus I realize that. That's why step 1 and 2 are making it clear you've been doing your homework and not just complaining. Step 3 is (politely) suggesting the editor has a bad reviewer on their hands. Because although editors are busy, they don't want a bad reviewer turning their journal into a citation farm. They probably didn't notice it because they didn't read the review thoroughly, that's why you need to draw their attention to it. – ObscureOwl Jan 21 at 22:40
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The editor said I must carry out the essential revisions.

Citing unrelated work is not an essential revision. Only cite what's relevant and explain in your reply why you choose to cite some papers but not others.

You are not obliged to follow all suggestions from the reviewers, in particular not those instructions that make your paper worse rather than better. When in doubt, discuss with the editor; in many journals the form to submit your review has a field for replying to the editor (sometimes called a cover letter). Raise the issue there.

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I am writing this as a follow-up given the popularity of this post.

Following the recommendations of the top answer and its comments, I wrote to the editor thanking them and the first reviewer for their invaluable feedback. I then mentioned my "confusion" with the second reviewer, pointed out the author in common, and summarized why I felt the papers suggested were irrelevant to my work. I included a point-by-point response for both reviewers' comments where I said specifically why I found the papers suggested to be irrelevant and addressed the other reviewer's apt suggestions.

The editor recently accepted my paper, and I noticed that the final comments from the reviewers only included the first reviewer. I don't know what this indicates, but I am glad it turned out well! Thank you all for your help with this!

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Include any relevant references, and thank the reviewer for them (for the sake of goodwill try to find at least one that's somehow relevant, even if it's a bit tenuous). Explain in your response to the editor that you are reluctant to include the others as they do not appear relevant.

The editor may insist that you include them anyway. In that case, you will have to choose whether to include them or withdraw your paper.

But most likely, the editor will take a look and agree with you. People trying to boost citation counts through reviews is not uncommon, but most editors I know take a fairly dim view of it.

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    It's not clear that the reviewer has earned any goodwill. – arp Jan 21 at 18:09
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Your issue seems to have been resolved satisfactorily, but as a general matter coercive and unreasonable demands for citations should always be flagged and reported. In fact, if these demands occur at an editorial level or have strong editorial support, they suggest a citations / impact factor racket and should be brought to the attention of the publisher or scientometrics firms like Clarivate.

This is not as uncommon as people think: See this somewhat amusing account of an Elsevier editor who was busted recently for his shenanigans.

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  • (+1) not as uncommon as people think: See this --- "Last year, the Amsterdam-based publisher said it was investigating hundreds of researchers whom it suspected of manipulating peer review to boost their own citations." – Dave L Renfro Feb 9 at 9:59
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This answer might not be liked by most, but I would advice against rejecting reviewer's suggestions at this point. It's best to consider benefits and risk of your actions and by setting yourself against the reviewer you may just be making things much harder for yourself.

Instead, do as asked and and add couple of citations to suggested papers and try to get your work approved. After that, if you sill feel like it, you can bring up your concerns as suggested by other answers, but while having a much less to lose because your paper is already approved.

In other words, minimize your own risk and pick a battlefield that is advantageous for you.

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    If you include the irrelevant citations from Reviewer #2, it's entirely possible that Reviewer #1 will come back in the next round with the suggestion to "remove irrelevant citations". What then? Incorporating changes that will unequivocally worsen the manuscript is bad practice, particularly when the suggested revisions can so easily be shown to have no value. A reviewer's suggestions is not a "checklist for publication" - sometimes reviewers are simply wrong, and it's better to clearly state why than to just pretend they're right. – Nuclear Wang Jan 21 at 22:11
  • I have to agree that following this answer is worse for science, but IMHO slightly less risky for the OP, so I don't think it deserves all the downvotes. In particular, I believe the possibility that Reviewer #1 will suggest removing the citations (as hinted by @NuclearWang) highly unlikely. I believe in the OPs ability to make their own call in a conflict of ethics and personal risk (e.g. they know how much they can loose if the paper is not published swiftly). – Martin Modrák Jan 23 at 12:42
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    @NuclearWang It might be bad practise, but you have no way of knowing that the reviewer isn't a friend of the editor. Bring up your concerns yes, but graduate, don't try and fix the irreparably broken peer review system – camelccc Jan 23 at 12:42

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