It's typical in my field that after we post to the arxiv, people from the community reach out to the authors to ask questions about the paper. Every time this has happened to me, I've responded with more explanation to try and address their specific questions. Sometimes it does seem like the person is arguing with the central results of the paper, and frequently the communication extends past what I'm willing to do (asking us to generate more data or wanting additional plots beyond what are in the paper) and I usually decline these requests. I don't really have the time, and I also don't like the idea of sharing plots/data over private communication. I would be happy to show additional plots in a more public forum, like for example in a seminar talk, where it's clear where the work originated, and where I get some credit for the labor I've done in preparing the presentation.

Recently I've been wondering: what if someone participates in such an exchange, and is then tapped to be a reviewer of our work during the journal submission process? Is this ethical? Should they disclose that they had informal previous communication with the authors? Should I factor this possibility in when I think about how accommodating I should be?

  • What do you mean with "is tapped"? – lighthouse keeper Feb 12 at 10:40
  • "is tapped" = "is asked" to be a reviewer – Well... Feb 12 at 10:41

Private communication doesn't benefit the broader research community and I recommend expanding upon your work publicly, e.g., adding more explanation to ... address ... specific questions, defending central results (when someone argues against), adding plots/data.

someone [engages with my research] and is then [asked] to be a reviewer...during the journal submission process...Is this ethical?

Yes, such a reviewer has no obligations to the review process until they accept an invitation to review. Thereafter, they are ethical bound by the rules of peer review. As such, communication during the review period should be via the journal.

Should they disclose that they had informal previous communication with the authors?

No. Although, an invitation to review must be declined if there's a conflict, such a conflict would surely be independent of any communication.

Should I factor this possibility in when I think about how accommodating I should be?

Probably not: Your willingness to communicate should surely not hinge on the possibility that you're accommodating a potential reviewer.

  • I actually was wondering whether I should be MORE accommodating, not less, to a potential reviewer. For example, if I decline to provide an additional plot, would that person hold that against me and let it bias the review process. – Well... Feb 12 at 11:10
  • @Well... I didn't mean to suggest more or less accommodating. I've edited to clarify. – user2768 Feb 12 at 11:14

In general, I would consider it unethical for a reviewer to deliberately communicate with an author outside of the formal review communication channels.

The reason for this is that the person ultimately in charge of the decision is not the reviewer but the editor who is managing the process. The communications in the reviewing system are thus the record that they have available to work with and that form the basis for their judgement not only of the paper but of the quality of each review and the weight that should be given to each reviewer's opinion. Moreover, if there are questions that arise later around the paper, that is what will be used to audit the process that was used to approve the paper.

If a reviewer takes their communications outside of these channels, then they are essentially choosing to hide their communications from the editor and the scientific record (even if it's a normally confidential portion of that record). That can have bad effects in both directions, causing a good paper to appear less supported (because they wrote a weak summary review based on a complex communication) or a bad paper to appear more supported (because information was communicated that weren't actually in the paper).

So what if a reviewer has already been communicating with the authors and then is asked to review? Well, first of all, they should let the editor know; the editor might or might not see this as a conflict of interest and wish to choose another reviewed. If the editor doesn't have an issue, then the reviewer should at that point stop having out-of-band communications and communicate about the paper through the review system---where they might be able to turn around a review extremely quickly if they already have a well-formed opinion of the paper!

But should any of this affect your choices as an author? I don't think so. Ultimately, the reviewers are just some of your first readers, and the impact of your article will be determined by the many more opportunities that people have to read it after that. If people are contacting you to talk about your work, that is already a great sign---even if they don't like it, they were interested enough to engage with it!

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