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I have encountered another weird situation as a referee. A couple of months ago, I submitted a referee report for an article, asking for major revisions. (This is theoretical physics, in which getting only a single referee report for published paper is not uncommon, even in top journals.) Last week, I was contacted by the journal again, with the news that the authors had submitted a substantially revised version, and the editor wanted me to review it again. (The journal involved here is not a particularly prestigious one, but it is generally a respectable one and has been published by World Scientific for several decades.)

So I went to the journal's online platform and started looking at the referee reports, the authors' replies, and the updated manuscript. However, I quickly realized that both referee reports were by me! More precisely, an editor had split my lengthy report into two, so that it looked like the journal had gotten opinions from two scientists. My comments were chopped up and parceled out between the two separate reports, with a little bit of added rewriting so that each one made sense on its own, more or less. (I was also annoyed that the editor added to one of "my" reports a suggestion that the authors check their English using the free version of Grammarly—something I would never in a million years suggest!)

So what should I do? The paper is actually greatly improved and can probably be published with little or no further editing needed. I don't really want to penalize the authors. On the other hand, I am pretty angry at the editor(s). A colleague suggested that I should just write to the editors, calling them out on their dishonesty and announcing that I will not be refereeing for them in the future. I suppose that's a reasonable approach to take, but it seems harsh. Is there an easier tack I can take, perhaps?

Or—on the off chance—does anyone think that what the editor did was actually fine, and that I am overreacting?

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    I agree with your colleague, though you can wait for a couple weeks until the paper has actually been accepted. Incidentally, in my field, a journal at a similar level of prestige usually only solicits one referee report, so they wouldn't be doing this sort of thing. Feb 6, 2023 at 4:04
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    The editor gave the authors the impression that there were two referees, while in fact there was one. That's a material difference - one referee is sometimes not enough, and some authors might have decided not to submit papers to a journal that relies on one referee. If the editor throught that your review was too lengthy, they should have contacted you and tried to do something, rather than mislead the authors. What the editor did was not fine at all. You don't know whether they did this once or do it routinely. However, rather than walking away, you should try to fix their practices: + Feb 6, 2023 at 4:17
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    This story reminds of MDPI whereby my colleague's call for papers (CFP) was used to create a nearly identical CFP but managed by a different guest editor. Feb 6, 2023 at 5:38
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    @user21820 if the OP just tells the journal that he won't referee for them anymore, then they are likely to do it again with other referees. The editor absosolutly must not modify review comments. But it's one thing, for example, for th editor to redact out some immaterial phrase to protect anonymity, although it would be better to ask referee to do it; creating a second fake reviewer in order to mislead the authors and the community about the number of reviewers is much worse. IMHO, the OP should do more than just stop being a referee. Feb 7, 2023 at 2:00
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    Name and shame the journal, and make sure you report the editor to their higher ups. Feb 7, 2023 at 21:25

2 Answers 2

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This is pretty clearly unethical. One of the recent training videos I've seen (at another publisher) actually threatened employees with termination if they modified reviewer comments, illustrating the seriousness of what happened. For this reason (& because it's rather unfair to the authors) I would not suggest declining to review the resubmission - whoever did it needs to know that what they did was unethical.

I cannot tell if it's the publisher who did it or an editorial board member who did it, but it's probable that what happened was intentional and not your report being too long (since Editorial Manager ought to be able to handle long reports). On the other hand, it is a rather weird thing for an editor to do, since they'd have to register a second reviewer (which requires a profile, email addresses, etc), split your review in two, and then submit it. It's not a simple process in Editorial Manager and requires significant effort. Furthermore, the benefit is unclear. Many of the best physics journals are happy to accept papers based on only one review, so it's not clear what is the point of making it seem like there are two reviewers. It could conceivably be a way to bypass a strict journal policy of requiring two reviews per paper, but even then it seems pretty weird to invite you to review the revision, since you are sure to notice.

Two ways to approach this:

  1. You could file a complaint with the journal. Since there's a real chance it's the publisher that is at fault here, I would avoid complaining to the journal office and instead contact the editor-in-chief / some other senior editorial board member to ask them to investigate.

  2. Alternatively, I happen to know some editorial consultants at this publisher personally. They would be well-placed to investigate this - they oversee the editorial processes & are not directly involved with managing journals. I could ask them to investigate for you. If you choose this option, I'll need some identifying information for the paper (which journal it is, the article ID, etc). If you choose option #1 and the editor-in-chief or board member complains to the publisher, chances are these editorial consultants will be involved as well.

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    I hope the asker chooses (2). Thank you for offering such a good option.
    – user21820
    Feb 7, 2023 at 0:35
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I recommend turning down the review, telling them why, asking your name to be taken off their referee list until they clean up their act, and sending an email along with your original review document to the Editor in Chief, suggesting they fix their section editor.

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    Turning down the review seems unfair to the author. At a minimum it is likely to lengthen their time in the queue. Yes, complain to the editor and refuse future assignments, but don't disadvantage the author.
    – Buffy
    Feb 6, 2023 at 14:04
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    @Buffy -- I can see that, and would still turn it down, personally, to avoid participating in a less than honest process. Participation infers acceptance, at some level. Feb 6, 2023 at 15:54
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    @ScottSeidman participation implies. An outside observer would infer.
    – jayce
    Feb 7, 2023 at 15:33

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