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I sometimes receive review requests that says the authors have recommended me, and I know them in person but I have no COI, so I do my best to objectively evaluate their paper. Also, I do suspect some labs might be recommending me as I always end up reviewing their papers (or maybe the editor thinks I am a good fit, I don't know).

When I submit however, I feel this is not very appropriate. I don't mind reviewing for others who recommended me but I don't recommend anyone because I don't think it is ethical, but I have been having problems with the reviewers simply not having adequate expertise on the field, though they are quite arrogant so in the end I receive reviews that are low-quality (and I mean this, they are not just mean reviews or anything, I mean reviews that are technically dead wrong that they don't get the scope, methodology not even what problem is being solved) How common is it to recommend referees for your paper? Am I missing something?

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    You also may want to have a look at this, this, and this. In particular note that there are many journals who require you to suggest reviewers. Taking this into account, I recommend that you edit your question to narrow it a bit down, e.g., to make it only about the case, when the journal doesn’t explicitly require you to suggest reviewers. – Wrzlprmft Aug 2 '20 at 10:00
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    I think journals should end this practice because it wastes authors' time. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 2 '20 at 10:06
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    I think this depends on the discipline. I don't even think there's an (explicit) option for it for most mathematics journals---at most you're asked to suggest an editor. – Kimball Aug 3 '20 at 17:18
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    Besides the core of your question, treated below by others, when one of us does recommend referees, s/he shouldn't list more than three. In most cases only one will be picked up by the editor, excluding the others that we would like (either because friendly or competent, hopefully both). – Alchimista Aug 6 '20 at 11:32
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A significant number of physics journals require authors to recommend referees. So it is common to recommend referees.

I do not believe that recommending referees is unethical. It is the editor that picks the referees, not the recommending author. If the editor picks the author's recommendations without considering the quality of those referees, the editor is behaving unethically.

Some editors will exclude referees suggested by the authors.

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    I always leave this field blank. Once I received an email from a person I don't know, who said he recommended me because I am from the same country and I am a former student of his adviser (for Bachelors), and he NEEDED this publication to graduate blah blah. I had long ago changed my field of study, completely, I was still a PhD student, I am not sure why the editors still sent it out. I refused to review. – dusa Aug 2 '20 at 10:30
  • Also in my PhD lab, this wasn't a practice, we wouldn't recommend anyone at all, isn't it the editor's job? – dusa Aug 2 '20 at 10:30
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    Some editors want to add to their "stable" of referees and so are just "mining" for names. Sorry about the mixed metaphors. – Buffy Aug 2 '20 at 11:54
  • Do you have an example of a journal where you are required to recommend referees? – user151413 Aug 2 '20 at 15:35
  • -1 for suggesting the editor is behaving unethically if the editor picks the author's recommendations without considering their quality. Firstly one cannot predict how good the reviewer report will be before seeing it, and secondly even if one could, it would be lazy, not unethical. – Allure Aug 3 '20 at 12:58
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It's fairly common for journals to ask for reviewer recommendations. This is to help them get reviewers. Suggested reviewers make the editor's job easier, since they no longer need to work that hard to find people who can review the paper.

The downside isn't that it's unethical - I don't see why it would be - but rather that the authors are going to suggest their friends or even commit peer review fraud by nominating themselves. But that's something for the editor to worry about, not you.

Finally it's worth noting that not all reviewers you recommend will be invited to review your article - it's fairly common for journals to have a "one recommended, one self-invited" policy for example. In fact, it's possible none of the reviewers you recommend are invited.

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    Well I think it is not ethical because it is easily made political, isn't it? If it would be a matter of a good fit, I think the reviewers can access this information easily, otherwise a lot of authors will recommend people they are in good terms with, then it becomes a matter of politics easily. I already feel at a loss as at least having one referee who has common sense could change the fate of my papers :D – dusa Aug 2 '20 at 10:39
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    I don't see why it would be easily made political. Can you explain in detail? Authors are already going to recommend their friends, but again it's something for editors to figure out. – Allure Aug 2 '20 at 11:46
  • If the editors are doing poorly when matching reviewers with keywords, how are they going to figure out the friends and on what grounds they will refuse to do so? – dusa Aug 3 '20 at 8:51
  • @dusa I don't understand what you mean by "if the editors are doing poorly when matching reviewers with keywords". That's a very crude way to find reviewers and many (most?) editors do better than that, e.g. by skimming the article first to get a sense of its approach and results. As for figuring out who's a friend of the author, I suspect most editors would at most only check if they have collaborated before, and if they have worked at the same institution. – Allure Aug 3 '20 at 8:55
  • I would like to think so, and perhaps I didn't even think I needed to recommended referees because I thought the editors handled this, but I have recently had two bad experiences in a row, and if you think I am exaggerating, please take a look here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/152353/… – dusa Aug 3 '20 at 8:59
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A small addendum to @Allure's and @AnonymousPhysicist's answer. The "one recommended, one self-invited" policy is based on two ideas:

  1. the authors have a good idea of the experts in the field, and can do a good job identifying people who will give a knowledgeable review;
  2. ... but reviewers recommended by the authors may be biased toward them.

So making sure that the reviewers are a mix of recommended and non-recommended is wise editorial policy. However, this means that recommending a long list of everyone who you can think of is a bad idea, as it means that at most one of those people will be invited to review.

But yes, if you are asked to recommend reviewers, doing so is (1) ethical, (2) in your interest, and (3) doing the editors a favour (because they don't have to work as hard to identify suitable reviewers). (You can say, "I shouldn't have to do this, it's their job", but why shouldn't they benefit from your knowledge of the field? How hard is it for you to list a couple of researchers in your field who you think are well-informed on the subject?)

Also worth noting that reviewers are usually required to certify that they don't have a conflict of interest (COI: typically includes blood relatives; current or former academic supervisors; and people who have co-authored or worked together on a grant within some time window). This automatically rules out some of the most positively biased reviewers (and don't bother recommending reviewers in these categories, it will just waste everyone's time).

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  • don't bother recommending reviewers in these categories, it will just waste everyone's time – … and some journals strictly instruct you not to. – Wrzlprmft Aug 3 '20 at 5:01
  • Thank you for the answer, one thing is clear though, even though there is no conflict of interest there will be a lot of bias, so if I am recommending someone who is in good terms with me, like you said "it will be in my favor", but this means it might not be in others' favor who don't have a network. – dusa Aug 3 '20 at 8:52
  • "recommending a long list of everyone who you can think of is a bad idea" -- I have actually somewhere heard the opposite argument, i.e. it was advised recommend a lot (10 or more) of reviewers, the argument being that this increases the chance of the editors picking all reviewers from your list. (Note: I have never tried this.) – cheersmate Aug 3 '20 at 15:08
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    @cheersmate, your mileage may certainly vary. The journal I edit for does have a policy of picking two reviewers, one of whom is not author-recommended ... – Ben Bolker Aug 3 '20 at 15:12

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