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A year ago we submitted a manuscript to a high-profile journal. I was a co-author. The review process for this journal is single-blind—that is, the authors do not know who the referees are, while the referees know who the authors are—and we got two referee reports, one positive and one negative. The latter seemed to have been written by someone who hadn't had time or energy to do the job properly. Using some arguments that we found rather shallow, he argued that our research findings were not significant enough to warrant publication in that journal.

Reading the negative report carefully, I noticed there a few non-standard expressions, typed them into Google, and found two of them in articles by one and the same guy, including a single-authored article, and nowhere else on the entire Internet. The guy is a prominent scientist in our field of research.

Knowing he would never want to alienate our research group, we submitted a rebuttal letter abounding in references to his articles so as to make him realize we knew who he is. To strengthen the effect, the list of references added to the revised manuscript consisted almost exclusively of papers authored or co-authored by that guy and was explicitly provided in the rebuttal letter.

We wrote our rebuttal letter politely and respectfully in order to make it look like we wanted to pay respect to him and his research achievements by citing his articles. We addressed all his criticisms in a friendly and factual way.

Our idea was that he would think, "The authors seem to know who I am, and they as a large research group are going to referee papers by my group in the future, so it's a good idea to be friendly and reasonable towards them just in case."

His second report was very short and said we had fully dispelled his concerns and properly revised the manuscript. It got accepted and published.

As time goes on, I wonder more and more about the ethical aspect of what we did. On the one hand, we used open source information to figure out who the referee is. No one told us his identity. On the other hand, we were not supposed to know.

How ethical is what we did?


P.S. I don't know whether I deserve harsh comments, but I was an undergraduate student at that time and have posted my question here in order to learn what is ethical and what isn't. I don't want to do anything unethical in the future.

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  • 47
    I think you are vastly overestimating the fine grain of your "communication" to the reviewer. It's just as likely that the blizzard of references to his own work flattered him, and he was happy to see all these new cites go into the revised paper.
    – tbrookside
    Jul 5 at 11:30
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    I'm having difficulties to follow the logic here: if the reviewer is a prominent scientist, why would he be afraid to stand by his recommendation to reject of the paper, even if he was aware that the authors knew his identity? Jul 5 at 16:01
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    Comments are not for extended discussion (nor for answers); this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Jul 7 at 13:44
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    People are tending to continue to use comments here to provide their opinions on the situation, or state their view perhaps without realizing it's already been repeated in maybe 10 or 12 of the existing 13 answers. Please don't do this; you can use the chat or otherwise just upvote the answers you find useful.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 7 at 22:22

14 Answers 14

186

Given your description it sounds like your group actively tried to intimidate the referee with veiled threats of retribution.

If this is indeed the case, then, yes, this is extremely unethical behavior.

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  • 47
    And also - even if one's intent isn't intimidation - excessively citing works by the not-so-secret reviewer (just so that one's paper is reviewed positively through the second round) is tantamount to bribery. Jul 5 at 17:22
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    Based on the way the OP worded their 'explanation' (e.g. "you know that we as a large group are going to referee many papers from your group in the future" & "Knowing he would never want to alienate our research group against him...", you know, because in science we should only give positive reviews so we don't alienate people), it's frankly clear that they explicitly intended their response as 'we would hate to see something bad happen to your little research team if you didn't see our paper in the positive light we do. That would be a real shame...". I can't see how it's not intimidation. Jul 5 at 20:37
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    "If this is indeed the case, then, yes, this is extremely unethical behavior." - that part is, and so is the (apparently intended) decision to base future reviews of the reviewer's manuscripts at least in part on the goal of retribution rather than the merits of the manuscripts themselves. Jul 5 at 21:18
107

Since in a comment you state

the message we wanted to send him with such a rebuttal letter was like, "Hey, we know who you are, and you know that we as a large group are going to referee many papers from your group in the future. Let's be friendly and reasonable towards each other."

I second the answer from @TimRias, you and your group have been extremely unethical. Implicitly threatening someone by suggesting "we know who you are" is reminiscent of criminal gang behavior rather than scientific collaboration.

Though you are not solely personally responsible in this case because you're acting as part of a group, you can still change your thinking in the future.

Though this behavior may make you short term gains, it may make others unwilling to collaborate with you if they perceive your behavior as "dirty" or unethical.

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    I've tried to preserve the very strong admonition in this answer while redirecting some of the language towards the behavior rather than the person/group.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 5 at 14:13
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    @Bryan thanks, got it
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 5 at 14:59
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    @BryanKrause - why would you do that? It's the people who acted in an unethical manner, it's not some corporate process that failed. This was a conscious decision to act in a certain way, and your edit becaislly destroys the original answer and the seriousness with which it paints the OP and their group.
    – Davor
    Jul 6 at 11:20
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    "this behavior may make you short term gains, it may make others unwilling to collaborate with you if they perceive your behavior as "dirty" or unethical." the real issue is the short term gains are present, this behavior is not perceived as "dirty" or unethical (see OP's question, an entire group not realizing that) => there are long term gains to be obtained. I stand by my original wording, if such a behavior (threatening a lesser powerful reviewer) is not perceived as unethical, it shows a total lack of empathy towards a peer and therefore a trait defining psycopathic behavior.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 6 at 12:39
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    @Davor The original was flagged by several people as against SE's Code of Conduct. It's possible to admonish without insulting, and I would argue far more productive that way. If you want to actually encourage someone to alter their behavior I wouldn't start with insults - that might be more popular with a third party but it doesn't get the message through to the target audience.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 6 at 12:56
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Even though you state that the cited papers were not irrelevant to the contents of your paper, citing them just to let a reviewer know you found out their identity (and implicitly nudging them towards voting "accept" by doing so) is the unethical thing here. Not the fact that you made them aware that you know their identity.

You should only cite papers that are relevant to your publication, and the only reason for chosing papers to cite should be that they are as relevant as possible and never who the author is.

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    I think some of the responses here missed the fact that it was only their rebuttal to the review that cited the sources. I don't think those sources were then added to the actual submitted paper, unless I am reading the OP's post incorrectly.
    – Aurelius
    Jul 6 at 17:49
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    @Aurelius "To strengthen the effect, the list of references added to the revised manuscript... " doesn't seem like the references were (only) added to the letter to me. Jul 6 at 18:19
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I thought that some answers were very harsh, until I read one of your comments about the rationale for the form of your rebuttal: to tell between the lines to the reviewer

Hey, we know who you are, and you know that we as a large group are going to referee many papers from your group in the future. Let's be friendly and reasonable towards each other.

This looks very much like the beginning of a cartel and it is not pretty.

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    Yes, I am a bit disturbed to read comments like this.
    – Tom
    Jul 5 at 17:27
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    Should the reviewer expect to receive a horse's head? Jul 6 at 3:23
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    @DawoodibnKareem - that's pretty much what already happened, is it not?
    – Davor
    Jul 6 at 11:21
  • @Davor It's well short of that.
    – Trunk
    Jul 7 at 15:35
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It is always better to keep up the pretence that you do not know who the referee is and argue strictly on the basis of sound arguments and objective facts, as best you can.

The "we are a large group and you will need us as friends in the future" argument, can be regarded as a veiled threat. Gangsters tend to say this sort of thing, too. As a reviewer, and when dealing with this sort of author group, I always leave a few breadcrumbs(*) that identify me as... someone else!

And sure enough, these someone else's subsequently received overt threats from the authors, justifying my camouflage.

(*) Turns of phrase, references to previous work, etc.

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    Ah, well, maybe not so good to leave false trails that are clear. A "clear" trail that leads nowhere would be better. Jul 6 at 23:13
  • "And sure enough, these someone else's subsequently received overt threats from the authors, justifying my camouflage." Well, it was justified if you ignore the effect on those "someone else's".
    – Alan
    Jul 7 at 15:10
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Our group leader says that referees usually don't drop criticisms of [the "research findings were not significant enough" kind] like that.

Speaking from experience (having seen hundreds of reviewer reports before), this is actually not that uncommon. Yes, sometimes the reviewer will maintain that the paper is not significant enough, but quite a few reviewers change their mind. It's possible your response was convincing, or it was simply a peer pressure effect (they saw that the second reviewer was happy with the paper, in which case they felt they shouldn't hold it up). You cite a third possibility, which is that the reviewer saw that your paper now cites lots of their articles so they are happy to accept it. It's possible, but from the outside, there's no way to tell.

I think the more important questions are: was the reviewer's criticism correct (viewed another way, they are saying that you did not link your work to the literature at large adequately)? Can you truthfully say you addressed that concern? Would you have cited the reviewer's articles if you had been aware of them, to address this concern? If you can answer all these questions with 'yes', then I don't think there's an ethical issue. After all, the reviewer is always going to be most familiar with their own work, and if their work can have an impact on yours, it's normal to ask you to look at their work - and that will necessarily involve citing their papers.

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Edit: A moderator changed the question.

Reading our rebuttal letter, the referee must have realized we knew who he is.

I am skeptical that you know who the reviewer is, but if you do, it is not a problem to know it or to inform the referee that you know.

It is a problem if you incentivize the reviewer to write a positive review, either explicitly or implicitly. For example, do not cite irrelevant papers written by the reviewer.

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    @Mitsuko Why did you want to make clear to him you knew it was him?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 5 at 3:31
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    @Mitsuko "The papers we cited were not irrelevant, but we deliberately chose his papers to cite. By doing so, we wanted to make it very clear to him we knew it was him." Frankly, this sounds like a bizarre goal and a strange and ineffective means to achieve that goal. At least looking at the situation from the outside, a much more plausible explanation for this behavior is that your colleagues wanted to increase their chances of getting the paper accepted by flattering/bribing the (presumed) referee with many references to their work. Jul 5 at 12:16
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    @Mitsuko Do not incentivize the reviewer. That includes reminding them that you might review their papers. Jul 5 at 17:16
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    Your edit was excessive, assuming the asker did not request it, but I do not care. Moderators should do less. Jul 6 at 1:12
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Excuse me? I edited in OP's own comment text. Other changes were merely circumstantial to make those sentences flow with the existing question. This is pretty standard editing behavior and OP commented that they were happy with it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 6 at 1:20
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Let's put this in another context:

My daughter was failing a high school math class. I found out that the teacher's son is going to my university, majoring in a department I co-chair so I made numerous references to his son so that he knew if looked out for my daughter, I would look out for his son. Was this unethical?

YES. Yes, it is unethical to subvert the anonymous ref system and do exactly what it was designed to prevent.

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  • True as far as it goes. But you've given scant consideration to OP's point of view and delicate circumstances - nor the crass egomania of the reviewer. It is surely unethical to put the burden of ethics maintenance upon the shoulders of one person in a dispute - least of all when others are happy to trade their unease with editorial decisions for smooth publication of their work.
    – Trunk
    Jul 7 at 15:42
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You submitted your manuscript to a journal with single-blind reviews. This means that the reviewer is ensured by the journal that their review will remain anonymous, even if they know who the authors of the manuscript are. While this creates an imbalance of anonymity between authors and reviewers, this is the mode of operation that the editors have decided to be in the best interest for the journal. By submitting to this journal, you accept these terms.

You (=the OP) tried to learn the identity of the reviewer by googling for revealing passages. This means that you didn't accept the terms that the journal editors set for journal submissions, i.e. that authors of a submission will not know who the reviewers were. It's unethical to violate the terms of a journal as an author without good reason and without informing the editor.

If you only googled for the revealing passages to satiate your curiosity, I'd consider this a rather minor violation after all. It's not unheard of that authors have a good idea who the reviewers are in single-blind reviews, and it's not unheard of that reviewers may suspect the author's identity in a double-blind review. Sometimes, the group of people working on a specific topic is just small. For as long as this doesn't affect the process (i.e. for as long as the review is not biased because the reviewer suspects that they know who the authors are, and for as long as the authors don't react differently to the comments because they know who the reviewers are), I don't think it's a huge deal.

But your (=the group of authors) reaction to the reviewer comments did change based on the breach of anonymity that you (=the OP) deliberately committed. Not only did you tailor your response based on the information that you obtained about the identity of the reviewer so that they would be satisfied by your response, you also constructed your response in order to manipulate the reviewer's response in a certain way. This manipulation not only affected the handling of your manuscript, you intended your manipulation to be understood to have a potential effect that extends into the future, as it may impact future manuscripts submitted by the reviewer.

It's somewhat unethical to break the anonymity of the reviewer. It's even more unethical to use the this information to increase the chance of having your manuscript accepted. And it's immensely unethical to use the this information as a threat to future submissions by the reviewer.

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    Sorry, but this definitely isn't what the word "doxx" means. It means to publicly reveal identifying information about the actual identity of some internet persona. No-one publicly revealed anything here. Jul 6 at 17:37
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    @AdamPřenosil: I thought for a moment whether I should use "doxx". And given that the OP revealed the identifying information about the reviewer to the other authors, I decided to be fine with that. YMMV.
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 6 at 18:09
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    I'd support the use of "doxx" (sp.?) here, although it's not as immediately dangerous as getting the SWAT team called. It has the same (inappropriate) function. Jul 6 at 23:14
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    @AdamPřenosil: The high number of upvotes that your comment received shows that there are several readers who didn't like my choice of words here. I've changed the last paragraph accordingly.
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 7 at 5:37
  • @paul garrett I think you're confusing doxxing with swatting. The latter is not a subset of the former. Jul 7 at 11:57
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First of all I commend your desire to learn from your mistakes. That takes courage and shows the right attitude. I agree with others that the behavior you described on your part was highly unethical regardless of whether it was ultimately the reason your paper was accepted. A good test for this sort of question is to put yourself in the reviewer’s place: how would you have felt if you had been trying to give an honest review, confident in the fact that you had the freedom to be honest because your review was anonymous, only to receive a rebuttal that passive-aggressively outed you in a way bordering on creepy, appearing to send a very strong “you’d better accept this if you know what’s good for you” message? I’m guessing you would feel wronged. I’m not saying this to beat you up, just to suggest a helpful tool to use in situations like this, preferably before taking the action. The tool only applies in one direction of course—just because you’d be ok with someone doing something unethical to you doesn’t make it ok for you to do it, but it can help you see the negative impact of your own actions on someone else and better understand that it is wrong.

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As pointed out in the other answers, what happened was unethical. Whenever you feel that sticking to the rules would put you at an unfair disadvantage because the referee is not sticking to the rules, you should address this problem to the editor instead of trying to get even by violating rules yourself.

Your response to the referee report is sent to the editor, there is room there to make comments that will not be sent to the referees. If you instead act in a way that amounts to manipulating the referee process, the editor may see what is going on and then intervene by rejecting your article. The referee may also contact the editor to attend the editor about what is going on.

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  • Astute amoral analysis.
    – Trunk
    Jul 7 at 15:46
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Making any effort to find out the identity of a referee is unethical. Sometimes you may already have a good guess or know who a referee is without doing anything; this is unavoidable. Otherwise, you should avoid knowing who the referee is.

Typing non-standard expressions from the report into Google was already unethical. There is no way to recover from that.

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To reiterate other good answers, for clarity:

NO

N O

Don't do this kind of thing. Whether or not you mean to make a threat, it can easily be interpreted as a threat.

What you say is certainly true, that other people need to cultivate your good-will, or at least be confident that you will behave reasonably toward them... that is more to the point. But, wait, shouldn't you behave ethically regardless of how others behave?

Although I am indeed aware of a degree of gangsterism in academe, I'd not recommend people allowing themselves to be sucked into thinking in those terms. Even if there is much visible evidence of gangsterism, if one thinks in those terms, and makes choices based on that, it'll be bad.

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  • Your answer is as right as it gets, but are you sure that compromising with gangsterism within academe can always be avoided? Would you rule out that, in certain realms of scientific research, murky arguments and selective data-processing have become foundational, so that's practically impossible to have a a career without compromising one's scientific integrity? Jul 12 at 8:40
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    @AndreaAlciato, I've mostly been surprised ... over and over ... that some things are even more corrupt than I'd already thought. Dunno... sigh... Jul 12 at 16:01
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It's hard for us to gauge the ethicality of this situation which you have really only half-sketched out.

Personally, putting myself into the shoes of someone who - unlike you - was a freshly completed PhD, I would find the action you describe as not ethical in general but maybe good enough in the circumstances, i.e.

  • PhD researcher having expended > 100% of their physical, neurological and financial resources plus a lot of goodwill from family and friends

  • Doctoral research work that may be worthy of publication in a top-rank journal

  • A career and life plan that may not allow for much delay due to a perception by employers' of being left behind

  • Possible implications for visa/work permit if the PhD was a foreign national

  • Possible sense of failing parents' and old teachers' time investment by PhD

  • A resentment by PhD of unfair rank-pulling by a senior colleague

  • Resentment of editor's almost sublime sense of a 'right to be wrong' and get away with it

  • A clear sense that those to whom one should be able to turn to for matters like this were evidently indolent or corrupt towards such matters

But of course your own circumstances were not that far advanced. You did this work in your final (?) undergraduate year and most primary degree students do not get published - not unless they are like Turing anyway.

Using some arguments that we found rather shallow, he argued that our research findings were not significant enough to warrant publication in that journal.

This might merely mean that this editor thought your work would be more suited to another journal, probably one of lower regard but nonetheless publishable.

You will have to judge the ethicality yourself from honestly examining the full circumstances yourself.

But I sense that you now realize that you cannot always rely on a combination of smartness, group support and - I have to hand it to you - pure balls in dealing with academic challenges like this in the future.

You do.

Because, whether you stay in academia or go into industry or wherever, you will soon be dealing with this sort of activity yourself - whether it's justified by your managerial behavior or not. You have to be able to say that this needn't be done as we have a process for resolving disagreements like this, a process that is tested and proven to have adequate robustness and integrity.

And you will have to work hard to establish such a process - not just sit back, shrug and groan that it isn't already there.

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  • In this answer there is a mixture of good points and moot points, I would go as far that they are representative of the unethical behaviors so common in the academia. 1 "Doctoral research work that may be worthy of publication in a top-rank journal" you have to fight to publish in top-rank journal, strong results must be supported by strong proofs, you do not take shortcuts because you feel you deserve them. 2 "Possible implications for visa/work permit if the PhD was a foreign national" if a visa costs 5'000 $/€/£, would you support stealing to reach for the required amount?
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 8 at 7:44

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