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I have recently — and prematurely — interrupted a work relationship with a research institution, due to a series of professional/scientific disagreements. Considering that these disagreements were mostly due to a serious lack of organization from my supervisors, I felt righteous to leave with just a 14-day notice and before they could find a replacement for the project.

Of course, this has not reflected well on who hired me, and it surely brought some aversion from my former colleagues and supervisors.

It recently happened that I received a terrible review to one of my submitted papers, which led to rejection even if the other referees were recommending publication.

To put it shortly, this review was casting doubts that I was trying to re-publish old material of mine, selling it as new just by adding small new features. Without going into details, this is completely false on any ground. There is no reference to that research in any of my previous publications, at all.

Moreover, the tone of the reviewer was clearly hostile and aggressive, in total opposition with the positive comments and cordiality that I received from the other two referees.

This is making me think that the reviewer was a former colleague and that his/her review was deliberately in bad faith.

Questions:

  1. Is it possible/acceptable to discourage any reviewer from that research group?

  2. If yes, how? I do not remember all the email addresses and names of the group members so I cannot simply use the submission form. State it in the cover letter? Send a separate note to the editor?

Mind that, although my field is narrow, reviewers can easily be found somewhere else.

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  • 1
    "I do not remember all the email addresses and names of the group members so I cannot simply use the submission form." -- surely you can get this information online though?
    – Andrew
    Oct 25 at 21:51
  • It’s a large group of a national lab. Chances are close to zero.
    – user148554
    Oct 25 at 21:59
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    Just say that owing to recent troubles you would like to avoid referees from that group working at that lab/University. Add this politely to the cover letter,you don't need to give details but provides the editor with the feeling that those problems were of personal and or organisational nature and not a scientific debate.
    – Alchimista
    Oct 26 at 7:55
  • As an aside, you leaving as you did will not reflect poorly on anybody there unless you are the third or fourth person to do so. Should anyone even think about it, they will likely put the blame on you, fair or not. Just the way it is.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 26 at 12:51
  • @JonCuster OP may not have been hired by the PI, so if they were hired by someone junior, and their choice left shortly after being hired, I can see that causing annoyance between people in the group directed at the hirer. It can take a loooong time to get someone hired by a university (like six months from conception to starting) so losing all that would be frustrating. Oct 26 at 17:57
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As you may already be aware, you generally have the option of noting who shouldn't be reached out to be a reviewer when submitting a manuscript for consideration of publication. If the manuscript management service doesn't have an option, then yes, you can mention it in the cover letter or directly to the managing editorial team.

It's generally fine and acceptable to list specific individuals and groups/labs if you anticipate some form of conflict that would jeopardize objectivity. That being said, if you don't know all the email addresses or names of the group members, and can only mention the lab itself, then it would be difficult for the editor to properly skirt around this issue.

Some editors may know the members in the group (assuming they're in the same field) and be able to avoid these people; some editors may go out of their way to look through their reviewer list and pick out those that have no publicly stated affiliation with the lab; or some editors may not bother with the extra effort if you didn't include it during the submission.

The best option, I think, would be to mention this specific lab whenever possible and let the editor handle it from there. If you receive a targeted review of hostile nature (like the one you described) and you suspect that this reviewer has a personal vendetta against you, then you can always follow up with the editor expressing your concerns after the review. Many (not all) editors are aware of the politics in academia and are understanding of situations where reviewers may act unethically.

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  • 2
    Are reviews not double blinded? I would think that hiding the author information would be valuable for objectivity for all kinds of reasons. Oct 26 at 11:40
  • 3
    @StevenGubkin: Double-blind reviewing is not universal across many fields. In my field (physics) double-blind would be unusual. Some discussion of why this is can be found on this question. Oct 26 at 13:31
  • 5
    I think double-blinding is not generally going to stop someone from identifying research done by another person who recently left the same research group.
    – kaya3
    Oct 26 at 15:01
  • @kaya3 is correct, that was my situation.
    – user148554
    Oct 27 at 19:03

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