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I was invited to review a paper for a well-known SAGE Journal in my field. The editor of the journal invited me specifying that “I was highly recommended as a reviewer” by the authors. The review is single-blinded; I can see the authors’ names. I do not know the authors and I have never worked with them. Their article is of average quality.

It quickly becomes apparent that they cite a high amount of my publications in the field (twelve publications), although other authors demonstrated comparable findings. The article has fifty references and nine come from the journal under discussion.

Can this be seen as an intrinsic conflict in a way that I should not review this piece? I have the feeling that the authors want to charm the journal and me by adding many references from both of us – although many of them are just marginally related to the manuscript itself.

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    I can second the feeling you have. Seems suspicious. If you choose to review, point out the other relevant literature (even if rejecting the paper).
    – quantacad
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 10:14
  • @quantacad I accepted the invitation initially and then saw the reference list.
    – Dr.M
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 10:20
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    I don't think this is intrinsically suspicious... Although it does depend on what field you're in. If you happen to have the best quality papers in this area, and most papers in this area are published in one journal then of course you'd have a large number of citations; as would the journal Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 9:47
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    “I was highly recommended as a reviewer” by the authors." a reputable journal really shouldn't do that - the editors should be able to identify reviewers for themselves. At worst it is a recipe for pal-review and has caused editorial failures numerous times in the past (resulting in changes of editorial policy and/or terminating the journal). See e.g. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818117306586 (I was tangentially involved in this case). Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 12:22
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    @DikranMarsupial If I read the link correctly, in the case you mention, no reviewer other than those recommended was invited. I agree with you that that's not OK. Also of course if specialist Associate Editors exist, they should be used. The Editor can't be specialist for everything in principle covered by the journal. Your case study is interesting but the problem there wasn't in my view just that authors could recommend reviewers. Commented May 10, 2023 at 17:29

2 Answers 2

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Every reviewer has some conflict of interest. For example, when the manuscript cites the reviewer, this biases them towards accepting it, as they benefit from being cited. If the reviewer is not cited, this biases them against it, as they like to be cited. There are no completely unbiased reviewers, but most reviewers are not relevantly influenced by such minor biases.

The more crucial question is whether there are any hidden biases, which should be declared (e.g., if the reviewer collaborated with the authors long ago), or even totally prevent the review (e.g., if the reviewer is currently collaborating with the authors).

Your case is only slightly above the baseline bias that almost every reviewer has. Furthermore it’s completely transparent to the editor that this extra bias exists and they have chosen you nonetheless. Therefore you do not need to declare a conflict of interest or decline to review.

On the contrary, if you are critical of some of the citations of your own publications (as you appear to be), you are probably better suited than many other reviewers and can demonstrate that you can act against your potential extra bias. The same applies to the citations to the same journal. (Also, it appears that if you are able to make these statements, you have already done half of the work for the review.)

Also see: Is it OK to review a paper which builds on my work?

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  • "you do not need to declare a conflict of interest or decline to review" But still can do it, if you have strong feelings about it. Technically, you are under no obligation either to review or not to review and free to make any choice you want.
    – fedja
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 13:03
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There could be a less nefarious explanation for what's going on. Of course, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

When learning about or getting up to speed in some topic X, there are usually many "pathways" one can take. There may be hundreds of research papers and dozens of review papers about topic X, and one doesn't need to read all of them to get an understanding of X (indeed, one would not have time to read all the papers).

It's a normal course of action to read a particular paper, and then to continue to other papers cited by that paper, or search for other papers by the same authors, etc. So when an author (or group) embarks on a research project about X, during the background research phase, they may well unintentionally end up reading lots papers by a particular author or authors, papers from particular institutions, papers about a particular sub-field of X, etc. And then, when they write their paper, this bias will carry over to their citation choices.

It's entirely possible that this is what happened here. Maybe the authors of this paper you are reviewing read a paper of yours, and then through the natural course of conducting background research, ended up reading many papers of yours. And then they suggested you as a referee, because by now they were well aware of your name, from reading so many of your papers! It's entirely possible that all this happened subconsciously (at least to some degree).

The bias towards a particular journal is harder to explain, especially since nowadays literature searching is done via inter-journal means (e.g google, arxiv), but this may be field-dependent. (In my research area, nobody ever searches for articles on the website of a particular journal, but maybe that is the norm in some fields)

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