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Occasionally it happens that a referee suggests citing their own papers in a review. This may be a problematic practice, since there is a thin line between appropriate and inappropriate recommendations, and since it could help the authors identify reviewers.

As an editor, what should I do when I see it happening in a paper I am handling? Please base your answers on your own experience or on official recommendations.

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    Why the restriction on who can answer? There are ethical concerns. The restriction on answers makes the question less useful, I think. And every case is different. Judgement is needed.
    – Buffy
    May 30 at 13:25
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    @Buffy I would like to prevent this page from becoming a soapbox where everyone writes their own opinion without any particular experience on whether their solution works or not. See also this piece of advice from SE and this academia.meta discussion on the topic. May 30 at 13:28
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    @Buffy I agree with you that every case is different. But in my opinion what makes this issue particularly thorny is that there is a continuum of different shades of gray between appropriate and inappropriate. If I confront a referee about it, they can argue that their papers are relevant even when they are only tangentially so; and I can easily imagine a discussion getting heated. May 30 at 13:33
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    I don't see a substantive issue here. If the reference is appropriate, then it is a reasonable suggestion (it is up to the editor to decide if it is a requirement). If it isn't, then it should be ignored (by the author and the editor). If the topic is in the reviewers area of expertise, then it is likely that they have written relevant papers. Sometimes issues that crop up repeatedly when reviewing is a good inspiration for a paper. I should add, I have had some experience editing and recommending my own paper as a reviewer ;o) May 30 at 18:12
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5 Answers 5

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This is very simple: You are the editor. This is not a problematic practice but just part and parcel of the review process.

If you are the editor, you get to make the decision. (I assume that there is a way to handle complaints about your decision, as most journals / professional organizations provide that.) A referee is obliged to check whether references are suitable. You as the editor in charge selected the referees because they knew the field, so it should be relatively common that the referee also has published in the field. Objectively, there will be cases where a referee's publication should be cited and maybe discussed into the revised version of the paper. Subjectively, a referee will sometimes err and occasionally sin by demanding that one of their publications be discussed. (Also, there are predatory journals who will ask a paper to cite other papers from the same editorial group, but this is not our topic.) This is where your job as editor comes in. You need to make a decision:

  • You can tell the author that they might want to consider the request but that acceptance will not depend on their decision.

  • You can tell the author that they definitely should include the reference and discuss the connection. You can also invite them to send you a message discussing how they see it.

  • You can tell the author that the paper is rejected because it duplicates results that the referee already published.

And there are of course more possible outcomes.

However, you are the editor and you have to make the final decision. If you feel uncomfortable or need help, there should be other editors or maybe a senior editor to ask for advice. You as editor are the guardian of scientific integrity.

You would be a fool if you invite someone to review a paper and then do not listen to what they say. But you are not the reviewer's peon.

If you feel that the reviewer is revealing their identity, you can redact what they are saying or play this back to the reviewer if the editorial system does not allow for it. However, just because a review says that the results of X and colleagues should be referenced does not mean that X or a colleague of X is a reviewer.

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    The key point is that as an editor, you shouldn't just hide behind reviews. It's your prerogative to communicate with the authors about what you want them to do. May 31 at 0:01
  • Thanks. And what do you suggest I tell the reviewer, if the recommended papers are only tangentially related (case 1)? May 31 at 6:17
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    You usually just thank the reviewers. As a reviewer, I do not think I ever received feed-back from an editor and as an assoc. editor, I certainly never gave feedback. The submission system made me rate the reviews internally. If you want, you can tell them that you read the papers and the feedback from the authors and agree with them that the suggested citation is only tangential. Normally, you just hide behind the process that does not discuss the reviews.
    – tschwarz
    May 31 at 6:21
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    @tschwarz I believe that that is the wrong approach to being an editor. As an editor, you are a leader in your community, and with the prestige comes the responsibility to make decisions and defend them. You are the one who is upholding your community's standards. Just forwarding papers to reviewers and reviews to authors is not leadership; it does also not educate anyone about the criteria you are using, nor about the standards you expect of reviewers and authors. May 31 at 16:17
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    I understand this to be question about academic publishing and answered based on my experience as a reviewer and associate editor. For an academic journal, peer-review is essential.
    – tschwarz
    May 31 at 17:15
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There are already good answers, but let me add a few thoughts on top.

My perspective as an editor for 10+ years and an editor-in-chief for 4 years is that editors are leaders in their community. With that comes the prestige, but also the responsibilities, and that includes communicating your expectations to authors and reviewers, as well as upholding the standards of your community. It isn't just about sending papers to reviewers, reviews back to authors, and hiding behind the reviewer ratings when making the call on a paper. It also includes sending papers back to authors without review when they are clearly not well written or simply not very interesting upon first reading. It also includes sending reviews back to reviewers if they are ethically questionable, or telling reviewers so if a review is just sloppy and unhelpful. In some cases, this may ruffle feathers; in the majority of cases it will earn you a reputation as an ethical person interested in upholding the reputation of science and the publishing process.

In your case, you will have to make a call whether you think that the request to cite a specific paper is justified. If it is, then everything is ok. If you think it isn't, you have the choice to either tell the authors to disregard the reviewer request, or to have a conversation with the reviewer about the request. If you do think that it is ethically questionable, then that is something you should let the reviewer know, and ask them to revise their review accordingly.

At the end of the day, if nobody ever calls out unethical behavior, we will have to become used to it. It is your role as a leader in the community to speak out if you think something is not right. I bet that in the long run, this will earn you more friends than enemies.

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  • Thanks, this seems great advice! May 31 at 21:54
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    This answers is ideal and assumes editors have manageable workload. The editors in my areas have tens of projects running at the same time, and they are also on the editorial board of at least two or three journals -- they are all chasing 'prestige'. Hence, in practice, their job is relegated to clicking a button (recommendation).
    – VitaminE
    Jun 1 at 22:30
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    @VitaminE Then they are not doing their job, and the editor-in-chief should tell them that. Jun 1 at 22:58
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    @WolfgangBangerth I agree. However, the Editor-in-Chief could be chasing prestige too and so everyone understands each other; i.e., they are all in it for 'prestige', and to reviewers and others, they are examples that everyone should aspire to. One reason this happens is because the promotion process of some universities place a huge emphasis on being an editor.
    – VitaminE
    Jun 2 at 19:34
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    @VitaminE We've fired some people from their associate editor roles because they weren't doing their jobs well. I would recommend that others do the same! Jun 2 at 20:52
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If the citation is relevant, it should be included. In this case, the editor need not do anything.

If the citation is not relevant, the editor should direct the authors to ignore the request.

In my experience, editors do not check the reviewers' recommendations.

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    Then these are bad editors. I certainly do with all of the reviews that come across the desk, and I would expect my Associate Editors to do the same. May 31 at 0:02
  • Thanks. And what do you suggest I tell the reviewer, if the recommended papers are only tangentially related? May 31 at 6:18
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    @FedericoPoloni An editor should be able to make a clear-cut decision if the reference is sufficiently relevant. May 31 at 12:55
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    @WolfgangBangerth Right. Every time I mention my observations about editorial inaction to editors I get that reaction. May 31 at 12:56
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    In my experience as editor, I base my decision on the reviewers' and AE's reports, while critically assessing them. In case a reviewer asks for a reference to their work, I immediately check whether or not this is relevant. And keep track of the request in case it repeats in the future (which only happened to me for one particular author, with significant contributions to the field but highly sensitive to not being cited). Jun 1 at 7:13
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I will add to the existing good answers with a heuristic that I use to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate requests for citation.

I always read the reviews before sending to the author, for a number of reasons, and when I see citations recommended, I apply a two-point test:

  1. Is the reviewer recommending only their own papers, or do they recommend a mix of papers? It's often appropriate for a reviewer's papers to be cited: after all they are experts contributing to the field! That same expertise, however, means they should know about others making relevant contributions as well.
  2. Does the reviewer just say something should be cited, or do they explain how the citation relates to the narrative (e.g., "The authors appear unaware that Xing et al. have recently conducted a similar study, albeit with opossums rather than groundhogs: it would be valuable to discuss the similarities of the two results.")?

If a request for citations passes both tests, then it's generally valuable and legitimate feedback. If it fails them both, it's almost certainly not. In between, it's a judgement call.

If it's legitimate, I'll generally say nothing in the editorial comments. If it's dubious, I will try to gently make it clear that the comments are not mandatory, e.g., "The authors may wish to consider whether or not Reviewer 2's suggested citations are appropriate to include."

Finally, note that in some journals an editor can rate a reviewer, so if you find a person is giving poor reviews, you can convey that information to the other associate editors of a journal and make them think twice about asking the person to help.

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It depends on the appropriateness but also on the phrasing. Is the inclusion of the reference stated as a condition for acceptance? Or is the reference more of a suggestion like "Hey, you miss this area of research - this reference is an example, but there are others and possible better ones!" Demanding to cite a paper (of a reviewer) is less often ok and I would carefully check this demand of a reviewer. I consider it more acceptable to politely point to a paper, but even that practice is debatable.

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