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I have been invited to review a paper for a good journal. The paper is certainly on my expertise areas. However, I have reviewed papers for the same authors in the past (and accepted some/most of them), and they tend to be quite hostile and rude in their replies. I try to be polite with my comments, even with the major ones, but these authors seem to take simple things such as pointing out typos as a big offense and reply with a very harsh tone. Editors seem to not care at all about this, perhaps because one of the authors is an authority in this area.

I will decline the invitation. My question is: Should I indicate this reason for declining in my reply to the invitation?

This is, in this case, I am a good fit for reviewing the paper but my reason for declining is that I do not want to go through this sort of unpleasant moments again.

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  • 2
    What exactly is the question: Whether you should decline to review, or whether you should indicate your reason to do so while you already made up your mind to decline? Apr 4 at 10:00
  • 23
    @Snijderfrey Whether or not I should indicate the reason. I will definitely decline the invitation.
    – Snoop Dogg
    Apr 4 at 10:03
  • 4
    Why not state the reasons? Apr 4 at 21:47
  • 2
    How come you know the authors of the papers you will review? Aren't these reviews double-blind?
    – Stef
    Apr 5 at 10:03
  • 9
    @Stef This is not a double-blind peer-review journal. This is a single-blind one. Not all journals are double-blind.
    – Snoop Dogg
    Apr 5 at 11:02

5 Answers 5

54

As you feel apprehension over the refereeing process here, and the expected responses of the authors you definitely should decline the referee request. This is both for your own sake, but also because this is likely to bias your report in one way or another.

My suggestion for what to tell the editor would be that you have a conflict of interest, and are thus unable to referee papers by these authors. Do not elaborate further. This conveys the information that it is the author, not the topic or your general willingness. It is factually correct, without maligning (whether justified or not) anyone.

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    You don’t even need to decline because you believe you would be biased. What you’ve described might later give the appearance of bias. Avoiding the appearance of bias would be sufficient reason to decline this, although I agree with Arno that you should say the more neutral “conflict of interest.”
    – Patrick M
    Apr 4 at 21:13
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    ...except OP doesn't have a conflict of interest.
    – henning
    Apr 5 at 8:00
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    @henning They do! The conflict is between their interest in not receiving an angry response to their review and their interest in providing a rigorous critique of the submitted paper. If they have a bit of a vindictive streak, they also might feel a bit of an interest in really showing it to that jerk next time.
    – Arno
    Apr 5 at 8:58
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    @Arno That's not what "conflict of interest" means; it is unwise to Humpty-Dumpty a word when you're intending to be clear in your communications.
    – Xerxes
    Apr 5 at 12:58
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    @Arno Should I declare a conflict of interest to my employer because I'm lazy? The conflict is between my interest in receiving a paycheck for performing the tasks I'm contracted for, and my interest in slacking off. Apr 6 at 6:35
53

Reviewing is a purely voluntary activity that you are providing for free. In particular by reviewing a work, your are doing both the journal and the authors a favour (regardless whether you recommend to accept or reject). As a reviewer you should not have to put up with any abuse from the authors, or for that matter the authors wasting your time by not seriously considering your comments.

If you have had a bad experience reviewing the works of certain author(s), you are perfectly in your right to decline to review any of their future work (I certainly have a growing blacklist of authors reviewing whose work I consider a waste of my time and energy). Also, by all means, let the editor know why you are declining the review. This will help them understand why they are having trouble finding reviewers for certain authors, and maybe encourage them to take more proactive action on abusive behaviour by authors (or reviewers for that matter).

I strongly disagree you should phrase this as having a conflict of interest. This disguises the problem and suggests that the problem resides in your personal relation with the authors, when it is the authors' (unilateral) behaviour that is the issue.

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    @Neinstein I wouldn't necessarily use the word rude. But: "Sorry, I have no interest in reviewing the works of these authors, since past experiences have shown this to be an unproductive use of my time." is a perfectly fine response to somebody asking you to donate your time.
    – TimRias
    Apr 5 at 12:30
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    "Conflict of Interest" is where you are in a position where you might be tempted to act in your own interests rather than the job you are meant to be doing. For example when the paper duplicates work you already have in progress, and you might want to get it rejected so you can publish first. "I think the authors are rude" is not a conflict of interest - it's just a personal relation problem. Apr 5 at 18:04
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    @PasserBy If reviewers recused themselves on CoI grounds whenever they have an opinion on the authors, no papers would ever get reviewed (or at least not by peer specialists). Also it is unclear whether the OP has any strong feelings regarding the authors, other than not liking how they conduct themselves during peer review.
    – TimRias
    Apr 6 at 8:59
  • 1
    @PasserBy Yes that would be conflict of interest. But that's nothing like the case here. Apr 6 at 12:54
  • 2
    @kaya3 I think that's just a bias, not a conflict of interest.
    – chepner
    Apr 7 at 13:09
4

Decline and explicitly give your honest reason. However, don't do so in writing, as written communication is prone to misunderstanding of tone or intent. Write a brief mail requesting a phone conversation with the editor.

This gives you the chance either to open the editor's eyes, or to learn why their view differs from yours.

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1

There are benefits of not declining the review. Especially for the case when the manuscript is from your field, to have participation and a word to say is important. You should remember that you are the one who shapes the field (together with your hostile colleagues).

Pragmatically, imagine a situation that some of your important papers were not cited by the aforementioned people. By reviewing their manuscript you have a chance to point this out. Your expertise can also be beneficial for improving the manuscript.

By declining the review, you will miss these opportunities, and, potentially, the manuscript will be reviewed by less qualified people.

As for the "pointing out typos as a big offense". Simply do not point out typos, it is not the job of referee to do that. Many do that bona fide, but you are not obliged. Focus on the essential things and escalate it quickly to the editor (divisional editor) if responses are not proper (not follow common rules of scientific discus). As it is expected from the authors that a manuscript must be rigorous, so is the review. Sloppy reviews should not be tolerated. If you have nothing to say and point out typos just to write something, it is a bad style.

-1

Nooooooooo.

Make up some excuse that is not likely to backfire.

I believe you when you say they are unpleasant and feel entitled to do so because they consider themselves top dog in the field.

The editor is neutral at best. But the editor may also have a beer with dr top dog at a conference and spill the beans.

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    The best answer is probably still to neutrally declare a conflict of interest and leave it at that. But this response is much more realistic and frank about the potential danger of running afoul the Old Boys' Club. In principle, the OP should be able to be honest, but it could be personally very problematic for them, especially if they're ECR.
    – stck8888
    Apr 6 at 11:34

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