I'm in mathematics, just in case that matters.

I submitted a manuscript to a journal, and got an extensive referee report from referee X. After sending the revision, the paper got rejected, so I sent it to a second journal where it got accepted.

Later, I got a note from the editor of the first journal saying that referee X found a way to improve my results, and the editor gave me a pdf file from referee X outlining his/her ideas. Unfortunately, since my manuscript had already been accepted for publication I could not change it at this point.

Nevertheless, the improvement that referee X suggested is significant enough to merit another paper. I asked the editor to pass on an invitation to referee X to work on a joint paper with me, but the editor refused, saying that he didn't want to violate referee anonymity.

I think the paper needs to be written, but I feel it would be strange for me to write a single-author paper when the most significant idea does not originate with me. (Referee X only gave me a vague sketch of the idea, there are things that still have to be worked out. I still have to do a lot of work, but the most important insight would be referee X's). I suppose I'm just going to write a few paragraphs in the introduction explaining the situation. I was wondering if there would be another way to handle the issue.

  • 5
    Did the editor not even consider asking the reviewer in question whether or not s/he would like to collaborate with you? (also related, if not possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/8509/…)
    – posdef
    Mar 10, 2014 at 22:02
  • I was told that putting me on contact with the referee would violate referee anonyMity. To clarify, the peer review was not double blind
    – Darren Ong
    Mar 11, 2014 at 0:02
  • Also related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/13765/… Mar 11, 2014 at 1:08
  • 21
    @DarrenOng putting you in contact with a referee would indeed violate the referee's anonymity. However if the editor passes along your contact information to the referee, then the person in question can choose to stay anonymous or not, then it's up to the referee to decide.
    – posdef
    Mar 11, 2014 at 7:19

2 Answers 2


You can state something like "I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer of an earlier paper (give ref) for providing insightful comments and providing directions for additional work which has resulted in this paper. Without the anonymous reviewers supportive work this paper would not have been possible." The exact wording is of course up to you and what you see fits reality best.

I think it is a pity the editor does not want to forward your invite (I assume the review system is not double blind?). Asking is not a breach. I can, however, see that an editor does not necessarily want to become a messenger.

With a clear statement in the acknowledgement you have done what you can and I am sure the reviewer will pick up on it sooner or later and maybe after your new paper get in touch. After all, there is really not much you can do about it.


From my understanding of the details of the situation, the editor is not acting well in refusing to pass along your invitation to the referee. Doing so does not violate anonymity in any way (I am confident that the review process was not "double blind" -- i.e., the referee knows the author's identity -- in my experience, no mathematics papers are reviewed in this way.) Maybe what the editor is thinking is that in order to accept your offer the referee would have to violate anonymity.

However, is this an ethical issue? I have always held it to be the case that a referee can disclose her identity to an author at any time, and I have done this more than once as a referee. I can vaguely see some ethical problems which might arise if this process of referee-self-disclosure were very widespread, but it seems like a bit of a stretch. I would be very interested if someone can explain to me why this is a real concern.

Against the highly nebulous previous paragraph one must balance the ethical issue that academic ideas are not gifts that one person can freely bestow upon another. I wrote the previous sentence in full awareness of the fact that mathematics in practice does have some degree of noblesse oblige: one often encounters very eminent and senior mathematicians giving ideas away to younger / less experienced / less eminent mathematicians without wanting anything in return: in mathematics we are inculcated to have a view that certain contributions are "below our level" and thus not worth taking credit for. That is fine if "not taking credit" means not becoming an author on a paper. But if it means not disclosing your contribution at all -- with the consequence that the begifted junior mathematician gets "too much credit" for work that had a significant component that was not his own -- well, that is hardly a victimless crime in our current highly competitive job-market. In fact it seems to be a form of plagiarism.

[The situation brings to mind Karl Iagnemma's short story "Zilkowski's Theorem". This was anthologized in the Best American Short Stories of 2002. Remarkably, this was only one of two short stories in that anthology in which the main character was a practitioner of the mathematical sciences. The other is Leonard Michaels's "Nachmann from Los Angeles". Both were excellent!]

Perhaps you should write back to the editor to express these ethical concerns. Getting the editor-in-chief of the journal involved (if this is not already the editor you are dealing with) is also a good idea at this point.

If you really don't know the identity of the author, then you need to indicate clearly the circumstances in whatever paper you write. You may also want to make it known in your circles that you would very much like to know the identity of the mathematician who helped you write your next paper. Depending upon how small / tightly knit your particular subcommunity is, you may have more or less luck with that, but it's certainly worth a try.

  • 1
    +1 for "spread the word in your subcommunity". That seems fairly likely to succeed. Especially if, for instance, you mention it when you give a talk on your work in a conference or seminar. Mar 11, 2014 at 1:09
  • On the subject of referee self-disclosure, see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9523/… and academia.stackexchange.com/questions/15739/… Mar 11, 2014 at 1:10
  • @Nate: Thanks for the references. I read through both of them and saw some convincing points against identifying yourself as a referee and/or directly communicating with the author during the processing of the submission. The disclosure that the OP is asking about, and the kind that I am talking about, takes place after the submission has been accepted or rejected. Everything I read on those other questions is supportive of this (except one line allowing that "some people don't approve of this"). Did you see anything more specifically against, or do you have any thoughts on it yourself? Mar 11, 2014 at 2:53
  • I guess from your phrasing and mine, it may have looked like I was providing objections, but I just meant to point to some prior discussion on the matter. I don't know of any specific objections nor have any of my own. One could make the argument that if referees often unblind themselves, it could cause others to feel pressured to do the same, but that doesn't strike me as compelling. Mar 11, 2014 at 3:03
  • Even if the review had been double blind: it is over as the original manuscript was rejected and the paper is now published somewhere else. So the only concern that could still be an issue is whether author or reviewer want to stay anonymous. But the editor knows that the author is willing to give up the anonymity. I don't see anything speaking against forwarding the invitation to the reviewer in this situation (who can decide whether or not to give up anonymity, as has been pointed out already). Mar 11, 2014 at 20:04

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