Before submitting a manuscript to a journal, it is fairly common at least in my field (psychology) to circulate the manuscript in a limited way to a small number of people who are experts in the area and/or who would be willing and able to provide useful comments, for the purpose of soliciting their feedback and suggestions for improving the manuscript before submitting it for formal peer review.

However it seems that this could lead to a tricky situation if the editor of the journal ends up asking some of those same people who provided feedback to serve as reviewers for the paper, since they will have already read the paper and in a sense "reviewed" it one time already.

So I have two questions about this:

  1. From the perspective of a person who has been asked by the authors to provide comments, and then later asked by a journal editor to review that same paper for publication: what is your policy, or your perception of the common policy, for what do to here? Do you decline to review the paper because you've already seen it? Do you agree to review the paper, but perhaps provide many of the same comments verbatim as before (at least for the parts of the paper that were not changed), and perhaps let the editor know that you've read it before? Or do you see your prior reading of the paper as totally irrelevant and just approach the review fresh and as normal?
  2. From the strategic perspective of the authors of the paper, is it better to ask for comments from people who you know are likely to be asked later to review the paper? Or is it better to avoid sending the paper to these people, and instead send it to people who are not as likely to be asked to review the paper but could still provide useful feedback?
  • I feel this question implies authors are planning on not disclosing of contributors (e.g. who provided significant suggestions) in their acknowledgments section. That would sustain a 'strategy' as suggested in point 2 where the authors could invite someone who's likely to be chosen as a reviewer later, so as to have the paper in shape for a positive review by a same person without anyone else realising. That'd sound like gaming the peer review to me, see my answer below. – Scientist Jan 31 at 4:26
up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are two aspects to this question: what should happen and what actually happens. Soliciting comments on a manuscript is of course perfectly fine and a useful endeavour. As you state problems may arise if persons commenting on the manuscript is asked to review it. Such a person should simply decline to review the paper when requested. It is thus possible that such a person reviews the paper anyway but then the problem is between the reviewer and the editor, that is beyond your reach. What you can do to simplify for an editor is to list persons who have commented on the manuscript. It will then be up to the editor to decide what becomes a breach of objectivity.

If your topic is narrow enough that the number of possible reviewers are limited, you need to consider if you "use up" potential reviewers in the process. Again, I think being open about who has commented on the paper in your correspondence should allow the editor to find good reviewers. Just because you avoid soliciting someone's opinion does not mean the editor will ask that person for a review so assessing such effects is difficult and generalized answers of little use. Knowing the field and potential problems is the only way to assess pros and cons.

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    +1 for "being open about who has commented on the paper in your correspondence [with the editor]". Actually, it would be better to write their names directly in the paper, in a final Acknowledgments section. – Federico Poloni Dec 18 '13 at 8:41
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    I am a bit unclear as to why "Such a person should simply decline to review the paper when requested." Could you elaborate? – Stephan Kolassa Sep 8 '15 at 12:47

I see no problem with refereeing a paper after I've commented on it to the author. I would tell the author what (if anything) I think would improve the paper, and I would tell the editor whether I think it's appropriate for the particular journal and if so then what (if anything) would improve the paper. There have been cases where an editor asked me to referee a paper and wrote, in his cover message, that he knew (because of acknowledgements) that I'd already read the paper, so it should be easy for me to referee.

  • Exactly. I interpret from this question as implying that authors who are not acknowledging contributions properly might think of using this as a 'strategy' to receive a positive review. Sounds like a peer review double dip to me. – Scientist Jan 31 at 3:45

In my humble opinion, if there are no conflicts of interest (same university or funding), the referee should inform the editor that is already in contact with the author and let him choose. In any case, consider that many journals require authors to indicate qualified referees and the scientific community is a forum for discussion. In conclusion, be transparent, fair and honest, but do not make choices instead of the publisher.

Why would this necessarily be a concern? If they reviewed your work positively in the past, it's only logical for them to keep that evaluation.

What you should be more worried about is the fact that those individuals who you would probably go to to get a presubmission evaluation might have a bias towards you based on their (presumably somewhat close) relationship to you, which could make it harder to give objective advice.

  • "Good" academics close to you should be able to still give you good feedback, and should probably neither be asked nor accept to peer-review your paper. However, the OP talks about "experts in the area", which I read as "not (necessarily) friends". – Blaisorblade Feb 14 '16 at 1:31
  • "close to you" has the risk they already understands the research, so they don't spot important background that is missing from the paper. – Ian Dec 12 '16 at 15:06
  • I think it will be a concern if neither the author nor reviewer let the editor know they have already discussed the paper before. As an editor I'd take that as misconduct, in case I find out only later. – Scientist Jan 31 at 3:43

I think this is a trivial situation and should involve no conflicts given everyone is being honest, e.g. acknowledging contributions. My answers:

  1. Normally as a reviewer I will decline to review while stating I have already evaluated the manuscript before. While directing the editor to read the acknowledgments section, which should s/he ought to have done prior to choosing reviewers. Depending on the case I may accept but I will disclose of my name and of the fact that I had discussed the paper before with the authors, as ought to had been disclosed of in the acknowledgments section.

  2. As an author I will invite some colleague to give opinions, acknowledge his/her contribution, and will not suggest this person as a reviewer. I assume the editor will actually read the manuscript and heed the acknowledgments section prior to choosing reviewers, and trust whoever takes it up to do their job correctly.

The job of a reviewer is mainly to advise the editor on what to do with a manuscript. From the point of view of an editor, picking someone who has already read the manuscript will shorten turnaround (which is a big thing in some fields) because they need less additional time to read the paper and are likely competent to do so. Since editors rely on this advice, editors should be able to trust referees. They may consider it more likely that people in the acknowledgment section are close to the authors and potentially biased, but this is less of an issue if we talk about renowned people in the field who value their reputation highly and that are not obviously personally connected to the author.

A potentially serious problem is that anonymity is harder to keep, since raising the same points that have been raised before might, if these points are very specific or unique, make it clear who the referee is. This is the only reason why I might decline refereeing a paper I've commented on before.

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