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There seems to be a notion that, when reviewing a paper, you are not supposed to use the knowledge acquired from that paper in your own research. In particular, you shouldn't build upon the paper's result, contact the authors to start a collaboration, etc. As spelled out in this answer, for instance: "once I finish reviewing a paper, I'm supposed to pretend that I don't know the paper exists".

I understand the justification for this when the work under review is not publicly available. But nowadays, in my community (theoretical CS), it is more and more common that authors will post their work as a publicly available preprint when submitting it to a conference. So the work that you review is publicly available -- in fact you may already know about it beforehand, or you can easily find this out.

In this case, the reviewer's "advance knowledge" of the paper is simply what anyone could get by reading the public preprint. Still, it seems that you are not supposed, for instance, to get in touch with the authors to start a collaboration with them on an improved result. So what is the remaining moral imperative for reviewers (if any) when reviewing papers that are publicly available? For instance, I would definitely cite the preprint if the work I'm doing happens to be connected to it. But I'm not sure, for instance, if it is a good idea to contact the authors to discuss possible improvements -- possibly without telling them explicitly that I know of their paper because I reviewed it.

(Note that this question is not about the importance of being impartial in your review, which is a different topic. For instance, it would still be an ethical violation to reject a paper because you are working on the same problem and want your own work to be accepted first.)

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    "There seems to be a notion that, when reviewing a paper, you are not supposed to use the knowledge acquired from that paper in your own research. In particular, you shouldn't build upon the paper's result, contact the authors to start a collaboration, etc. " I'm violating all these principles every time I review. We are advancing knowledge, not playing the childish games of etiquette. So far no one complained and some authors were very happy. Of course, one shouldn't be a pig and use some common sense in how to contact authors, etc But the fear of ethical violation is totally misplaced here
    – fedja
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 19:49
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    The situation is very complex in CS these days, I tried to find a few articles available as preprints and it seems like some (many?) of them were never properly published, all while preprints have already accumulated dozens if not hundreds of citations. Then there is important work never making it into the scientific playfield in the first place, so that a lot of people (scientists included) use it, but it was never formally peer-reviewed. This practice has always existed, but now it is almost the norm in some fields.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 20:53

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Your first paragraph is too strong. While it is improper to use private or early versions to "scoop" the original authors (plagiarism), it isn't improper to extend their work with proper citation. Immediately offering collaboration is possibly also improper and if done frequently could destroy trust in the review system.

Reviewers should maintain a higher standard, but if a reviewer is working on something and gets an overlapping paper to review their proper action is to refuse the review since they have a conflict of interest. But they don't need to stop their own work and may need to revise any current writings in light of the "in-process" paper.

But if authors publish their work, the ideas in it are free to be discussed, criticized, extended, etc. Just not "poached". Give due credit to avoid plagiarism.

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    "it isn't improper to extend their work with proper citation": if the original submitted work is not publicly available, I think it would be unethical, for instance, to start working on an improvement, and release it with citation immediately when the submitted work is published. There is something similar discussed there: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/186571/…
    – a3nm
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 16:23
  • In general, but it's still tricky for me to understand what is the logic. For instance, immediately offering collaboration is improper, but I'm not sure why? How long should one wait? Which trust is being destroyed if authors get contacted by someone who read their paper, and that person happens to have done so because they were reviewing it? Still, thanks for the answer!
    – a3nm
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 16:25
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    @RegressForward, actually, you probably already have a conflict of interest if you review the article intending to offer collaboration afterwards. It would be hard to suggest you had a neutral attitude. No editor should accept such a review.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 17:04
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    @A3nm I think one reason is to avoid a situation when the reviewer requests collaboration, gets denied, and then rejects the paper for ill reasons.
    – Yanko
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 1:56
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    @Yanko: Another reason is to avoid a situation where the reviewer requests collaboration, gets accepted, and then recommends acceptance of the paper for ill reasons. Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 3:12

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