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I left academia years ago and am self-employed, but haven't stopped refereeing papers for one of the journals I published a few papers in. Now I've been informed by the editors that I've been selected as a distinguished referee. They are going to send me a certificate and publish a note honoring me and the other distinguished referees.

Here's the catch: I haven't updated my institutional affiliation on their referee portal since I left academia, so they believe I am still employed by the last institution I worked at. And they are going to include that institution in the honoring note as my affiliation.

I'm afraid that if I notify them that I am actually not employed by any institution, they will change their mind and withdraw the award from me, for it would look super weird if they published a note honoring someone outside academia as their distinguished referee. To inform me about their decision to withdraw the award, they might just refer to some allegedly existing internal rules so that I couldn't really complain.

But if I don't inform them about that, it will create a potentially troubling situation both for me and for them, for the institution might react, "Hey, this guy left us ages ago, so would you please publish a correction."

I really want this award, so I want to avoid any risk of getting it withdrawn. After all, I've been selected on the merits of my reports and have done great service to the journal. And the award would look really nice in my CV as a recognition of my expertise.

What should I do? Is there indeed a risk of getting the award withdrawn if I play it straight and tell them I am not employed by any institution? Should I rather ask my last institution whether they don't mind if I use them as my affiliation to get the award? Or should I try to arrange some affiliation with some institution asap, e.g., as a self-funded visiting scholar?


UPDATE: I feel I have failed to bring my point across, so I'd like to explain why exactly I think the editors may withdraw the award. Of course, the editors have no doubts about the quality of my reviews. It was the main criterion. The real problem is this: how will it look if the editors, in effect, publicly admit to sending manuscripts for review to an individual who is outside academia and not affiliated with any institution or even a business company? It raises questions and thereby somewhat undermines the reputation of the journal. To make things worse, I haven't published anything since I left academia years ago. The editors know about my expertise from my reviews, but how can the scientific community know? So, I'm afraid the editors may get simply unwilling to trigger unnecessary questions or rumors in the community by giving me the award.

More broadly, I think the honoring note is not only a thank you to referees, but also a way for the journal to show off, "Hey, look who is refereeing for us - Great People from Great Institutions." It's supposed to add to the reputation to the journal. And giving the award to someone outside academia does just the opposite, no matter their actual expertise. It's simply a move against the reputation of the journal. My last institution, where the editors believe I still work, has a big name, and I'm afraid this may have been a hidden factor. Also, I went through the list of all past recipients of this award and found no one unaffiliated with any institution.

So, despite the three answers suggesting I should play it straight, I am still not really convinced it's the wisest move. There are relatively ethical workarounds mentioned in my question. I even think that telling nothing might actually be not a bad idea. Even if the institution asks to publish a correction - which is not very likely - the award will have already be given to me, and I will have no problem admitting to having left the institution and having failed to update my affiliation data. After all, I did work there.

I hope my point makes better sense now, and I'd appreciate more insights, especially from people who worked on editorial boards.


UPDATE 2: Thanks for all of your answers. I am going to play it straight. And it has occurred to me there's one strong reason for the editors not to withdraw the award: if they do, this will put them in bad light if I spread information about it.

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    Maybe I'm a bit naive about how the world works, but I would have thought they (and others) would be even more impressed by your accomplishments upon learning that you left academics several years ago. Maybe the award is as much for their image/prestige as it is for yours? Dec 19, 2022 at 15:08
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    Does your self-employment have a name? Being "President of Sci152Consulting" might read differently than "Self-Employed", even if they are functionally the same.
    – cag51
    Dec 19, 2022 at 15:27
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    Honestly, in the professional society I am a part of (which chooses our awardees), we would not care about affiliation. However, we do value non-academic (professional) contribution to our society.
    – Dawn
    Dec 19, 2022 at 15:31
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    I understand your concern, but I think you should inform them because not doing so is clearly -- at least it seems to me -- not a correct course of action. If they wind up doing something silly (what it seems to me) as you are worried about, then hopefully realizing that they are acting silly will help ease your loss. Dec 19, 2022 at 15:33
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    My vote to close is due to the fact that only they can say what they would do. I doubt it would be a problem, but you have to accept that it could be. But telling them is the right course of action.
    – Buffy
    Dec 19, 2022 at 16:06

5 Answers 5

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I worked on editorial boards of 3 journals (for the record, my journals do not give referee awards). Academic/business affiliation is completely irrelevant for us when choosing a referee; what matters is the relevance of person's prior work (typically in the form of publications) to the paper. That's all.

Regarding specific questions:

  1. "How will it look if the editors, in effect, publicly admit to sending manuscripts for review to an individual who is outside academia and not affiliated with any institution or even a business company?" - it will look just fine. A journal is judged by the quality of its publications. The community knows all too well that sometimes referees/editors make mistakes and accept faulty papers that have to be subsequently withdrawn. As long as your journal does not have this problem, everything is OK.

  2. "It raises questions and thereby somewhat undermines the reputation of the journal." - no, it does not in the slightest.

  3. "To make things worse, I haven't published anything since I left academia years ago." - this is irrelevant.

  4. "The editors know about my expertise from my reviews, but how can the scientific community know?" - scientific community judges the quality of journals by other parameters. Typically, the community trusts editors to do the right thing. This trust is undermined by faulty publications, but that's a separate issue.

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    Thanks a lot! Finally I have an answer by someone who has worked in editorial boards, and it sounds very relieving
    – sci152
    Dec 20, 2022 at 5:13
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You overestimate the impact of your institution or being an academic. People invite you to review articles because you are an expert in the field, not because you are a professor or work at Big Name Institution. Conversely, being a professor or working at Big Name Institution does not automatically make you a good reviewer.

The chance of your award being withdrawn is effectively zero, and the only thing that is likely to change is that they will update your affiliation in their honoring note (the name of your current company should work).

Edit:

Of course, the editors have no doubts about the quality of my reviews. It was the main criterion. The real problem is this: how will it look if the editors, in effect, publicly admit to sending manuscripts for review to an individual who is outside academia and not affiliated with any institution or even a business company? It raises questions and thereby somewhat undermines the reputation of the journal. To make things worse, I haven't published anything since I left academia years ago. The editors know about my expertise from my reviews, but how can the scientific community know?

These things really do not matter. Nobel prizes have been awarded for research that was undertaken outside of academia (example). Currently we are also seeing cutting-edge research coming out of e.g. Google DeepMind. The fact that these researchers work outside of academia does not affect their ability to conduct peer review in the slightest.

If you left academia years ago and have not published since, then that is a problem, because it indicates you will eventually cease to be an expert in the field. However, that has evidently not come to pass (or you are still working in the field even though you are not publishing), since the editors still find your reviews valuable.

So yeah - don't worry, the only thing that's likely to happen when you tell the journal is that they will update your affiliation in the honoring note.

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  • "the name of your current company should work" There's no company. I am self-employed and haven't registered a business name, for it's not mandatory where I live.
    – sci152
    Dec 20, 2022 at 1:32
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    You're still over-thinking it. They know how to deal with it.
    – Nelson
    Dec 20, 2022 at 2:04
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    I have seen self-employed or retired people write "Independent" or "Unaffiliated" when asked to list an institution. Perhaps that would work for you.
    – Ozob
    Dec 20, 2022 at 2:04
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    Another example of someone publishing out of academia and getting a Nobel prize would be this guy who wrote 4 groundbreaking papers while working in a patent office. He was called Einstein or something. Dec 21, 2022 at 10:28
  • @sci152 Where I live, registering a business with a fancy name costs you £40 and a £14 renewal fee every year. And I can call myself “Company director, Xyz Company Ltd.” Which is actually true.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 23, 2022 at 22:46
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For whatever it’s worth, I did a brief investigation of the APS’s list of outstanding referees. This list is long and it doesn’t surprise that most people are from universities and similar, but it’s also not so difficult to filter out lines containing Universi…, Institu…, College, etc. You then end up with a list that is small enough to manually search. The remaining affiliations contain amongst others:

  • Daimler
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Unilever
  • General Atomics
  • Raytheon BBN
  • OEwaves Inc.

Thus, at least one publisher did grant referee awards to people in industry.

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Clearly you need to tell the journal that you have left academia and no longer have that affiliation. And I think you should apologize for leaving it on their referee portal.

I think the chance of them withdrawing the award is low, as you did the work for which it is being awarded.

I don't think you should ask your former institution whether they mind, or try to arrange a visiting scholar affiliation. These things would not be honest.

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I even think that telling nothing might actually be not a bad idea. Even if the institution asks to publish a correction - which is not very likely - the award will have already be given to me, and I will have no problem admitting to having left the institution and having forgotten to update my affiliation data. After all, I did work there.

Sure, you did work there, and you forgot to update your affiliation. But now you admit it here, and you admit it to yourself, so you honestly cannot say anymore "I forgot about ...".

First point: why a distinguished referee is so important for you? It seems it is more important for them, to show they have referees from BigName Universitites.

Second point: the saying "I forgot to update my details for the past X years" it is an extremely poor excuse, it will reflect extremely badly on you (a reliable referee one that is withholding such informations?) and on the journal (no due diligence checks).

If you really have a strong need in having the reviews you peformed publicly recognized, join Publons and try to be the best in the metrics there ...

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    I don't think it's that big of a deal. It's hard enough to get people to actually review papers at all, much less keep the referee portal up to date. Dec 21, 2022 at 16:56
  • @user3067860 you are mixing up cause and effects. It is hard to find reviewer because it is a task so lowly valued that no one really cares about the referees, the editorials are just ready to offload all the work and all the responsibility to them. Keeping the referee portal up to date is just one of the example. They do not care about it, but you can be sure that if you did not update it, they will be ready to jump at you and use you as a scape-goat for whatever problematic publication you reviewed.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 22, 2022 at 9:01

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