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I recently reviewed an article submitted to an academic journal and recommended that the editor reject the submission (which he did). There were no errors or problems with the submitted article, but I felt that it represented a marginal advancement that did not justify a whole article in a high-impact journal.

Now I've been invited to review the exact same article for a different journal, which is slightly lower-impact but still quite high. Both journals request that submitters suggest reviewers (which is common in my field), and I suspect that the paper authors probably suggested me both times. I don't know the authors personally, but I'm the lead author of one of the main references that they drew on, so I'm a natural candidate reviewer. (And it's a fairly obscure topic, so there aren't many other experts who would be natural alternatives.) Moreover, it's standard in my field for reviewers to remain anonymous, so the authors have no way to know that I already recommended that the first journal reject the submission.

If I accept this new offer to review, then I would be inclined to recommend rejection for the same reason as last time. But I'm concerned that this scenario could play out identically many more times. I don't think this paper is appropriate for publication in any of the top, say, five journals in my field (if not more). I could imagine a scenario where the authors keep resubmitting to more journals, recommending me as a reviewer every time, and never having any way to know that the same reviewer keeps rejecting them every time. It doesn't seem either (a) fair to the paper authors or (b) a good use of my time to keep playing out that same scenario over and over again.

What should I do? Accept the invitation to review and recommend rejection again? Decline this and any future invitations to review this particular paper? Contact the authors directly and recommend that they no longer nominate me as a candidate reviewer in future submissions (if in fact they did)? Would the best course of action change on the third, fourth, or fifth go-around?

(ETA: I'm one of a small number of natural candidate reviewers, but not the only one. If the authors receive an identical review from an anonymous reviewer, then they'll know that they got the same reviewer twice, but they probably won't be able to figure out exactly who that reviewer was and stop recommending me as a candidate reviewer.)

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6 Answers 6

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You should accept the invitation. That's because you've already read the paper before, so you can do the review much faster than anyone else can. In fact, you can just attach your previous review and say "I reviewed this manuscript for X, the authors have not addressed my previous review, so I still recommend rejection". This would also make it clear to the authors that it's the same reviewer recommending rejection.

If the manuscript is rejected again, could you be invited to review it again for yet another journal? You could, but you can once again send the new journal your old review. It's 10 minutes of your time vs. several hours of someone else's time, so it's still worth it.

If you're concerned your review might not be fair to the authors, you could add in the confidential comments to editor box that they might want to get another reviewer.

Finally, about the possibility that you are nominated as a reviewer by the authors, my (admittedly biased) experience is that it's significantly more probable that you were selected as a reviewer because you're the lead author of one of the main references the authors drew on, than because you were suggested by the authors. Contacting the authors will do no good, unless you tell them to exclude you as a reviewer for future submissions - but then you also reveal that you are one of the reviewers, and are you sure you want to do that?

Edit: Given that there are no errors in the paper and the only issue is that it's not a very significant result, the best course of action is probably to outright tell the authors (in the review) what journal you think is appropriate. Then if you receive more invitations from journals that are higher-ranked that the journal you suggested, you can keep sending the journal the review you've already written.

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    Couldn't the authors argue that they have addressed my previous review, by resubmitting their paper to a less prestigious journal? At that point, it becomes a numbers game of how much less prestigious the journal needs to be before the paper becomes a good fit. But thanks, I take your larger point.
    – tparker
    Jun 14, 2023 at 2:15
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    @tparker was your reject review based solely on how the paper is not impactful enough and the author should submit to a less-prestigious journal? If so, I'd say that's important information that should be included in the OP.
    – Allure
    Jun 14, 2023 at 2:30
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    Yes, and it was: "There were no errors or problems with the submitted article, but I felt that it represented a marginal advancement that did not justify a whole article in a high-impact journal."
    – tparker
    Jun 14, 2023 at 3:09
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    You could also recommend specific journal that you would find appropriate for that paper. (Of course, there is no guarantee, that the paper will be accepted there and also no guarantee, that you will review the paper again, but still…)
    – Dirk
    Jun 14, 2023 at 7:42
  • @tparker They did but iny our view not enough. So ideally the authors could receive this second rejection, aim for an even lower journal and when you get the paper a third time you can say for this journal the article would be fine to accept. If you think they don't move the journal rankings down fast or far enough you may need to reword your rejection to make it stronger.
    – quarague
    Jun 14, 2023 at 12:35
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There is no need to decline to review a manuscript that you have already reviewed. It is not unusual that manuscripts will trickle down the perceived ladder of impact journals since authors commonly try for the highest possible impact journal to begin with. Sadly sometimes rejection at some level does not lead to improvements before submitting to a percieved lower tier journals. Hence the value of reviewers following up on reviews can be of large value of editors of any second target journals for the manuscript.

The fact that a specfific journal rejects a a manuscript does not neessarily mean the manuscipt is not worthy of publication. Clearly the evaluation has to be made at the reviewer-editor level. Rejection can occur for several reasons which is commonly up to the journal editor based on a couple of reviews. Just because one reviewer disagrees with some notion does not mean a manuscipt will be deemed pointless. Hence continued review feedback will be useful to make sure a manuscript will continute to be be improved to the point of potentially arrive at a point of being acceptable fo publication.

So, as a reviewer it is always useful to pursue reviewing a manuscript through several journal pipelines if it is needed.

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Your points a and b are quite fair, both to you, to the authors and to the research community at large.

You confirm your recommendation every time you review, and you are the best possible reviewer because you already went through the paper one time, so you spare some collective research time. Admittedly you lose some of yours, but you lose ten minutes while any other peer would spend hours or days (as noted in the comments, this depends on paper and field). If you think that even this is unfair, I recommend you to reflect on research work as a global effort (yes, with all the traps and disclaimers that apply).

The best way would be to reject and explicitly suggest a venue where to publish the same paper. Maybe the authors of the paper are a bit naive and they do not know the difference (or they do not care; who knows?). It seems you can provide a meaningful suggestion, so do it.

Just find a venue from the same publisher and include it in this second review. Then write personally to the editor telling them the hard facts you told us.

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Now I've been invited to review the exact same article for a different journal, which is slightly lower-impact but still quite high.

Before accepting, one normally see the abstract but not the whole manuscript. On that premise, you can accept, check what has been addressed; marginally or extensively.

If barely addressed or not addressed at all (same or 'repackaged'), you simply go ahead and reject again with note to the editor outlining your concerns in your question here.

If the authors have addressed, you (factually) review based on their amendments. You'll also address your concerns to the editor and EarlGrey suggestion also comes in (recommendation for alternate venues).
Whether explicit or generic, alternate venue recommendations might ginger the authors to reconsider their manuscript and up their game or redirect their venue shopping game.

Contact the authors directly and recommend that they no longer nominate me as a candidate reviewer in future submissions ...

For a double-blind or single-blind, that to me will be a no-no. Irrespective, I'll not recommend direct contact with authors on ethical/etiquette basis.

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    This journal allows me to preview the whole paper before deciding whether I want to review it. The new submission is word-for-word identical to the previous one. Which is fine, because I didn't recommend any changes last time - I just said that I didn't think the paper was appropriate for the original high-impact journal.
    – tparker
    Jun 14, 2023 at 14:21
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You should review, note that you reviewed a previous submission at another journal and of course the advances (if any) over the previous submission and your thoughts on the advance.

You should, though, have a look at the journals review guidelines, if not done already. Most journals do not require a "reject" or whatever recommendation from the reviewer. That decision is in the end made by the editor, who knows the journals bar and requirements much better than the reviewer. In the end it could well be that the manuscript is rejected again, but not sure, since it depends on a lot of things, also on the other reviews. Be happy that not that much work is required also for a potential review at another journal.

As a reviewer, I would refrain from suggesting a journal for this manuscript, this seems patronizing to me and that's a decision of author(s). Also it could be biased by any relationship to the journal.

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Relax! You don't have the burden of the whole academic world on your shoulders!

If it is a top journal, the paper got through some quick opinions (and top journals in my field tend to get 4-6 like these). Probably you are one of maybe several referees and afterwards, it would go for a vote (and in really top journals, sometimes you want a vast majority/unanimous voting).

So you are one piece of the machine. You should also consider the wider community - you are a top expert, probably can understand and digest their paper in X time. Maybe publishing that paper would help the whole community digest new techniques and findings?

I was in a similar boat once. Even worse, I was given a draft of the paper, gave comments and was acknowledged in the paper itself as the author used some of my techniques. I even had a prior acquaintance with the author from before. The paper was sent to a medium tier (but on the lower end) journal, it was also a general journal and not a specialized one. I had serious doubts (the paper combined two fields, it seems it would be of low interest for people from both fields and the techniques were limited in terms of future development).

I was on the verge. Discussed matters with the editor (who is also in the field and knows me personally). He told me he had two quick opinions that supported the paper. I asked him to ask for one more, of someone more senior than me that I trusted. He got the quick opinion and got back to me. I thought the quick opinion was a bit hasty and too positive, but also understood that maybe my prejudice as an expert who is fluent in my techniques and related ones in the field clouded my judgements. I ended up doing the referee and the paper was published (also done the referee really fast).

I think maybe a similar way of action can help in your case as well. As you said - your concerns about the paper are purely subjective and not about the correctness of the paper. Sure my case wasn't a top 5 (not even top 10).

Another point - which might have to do with how senior you are and your judgements - assuming you kick the can further and decline the review, what would the next person in line think? Would they hold the article in high merit? In my experience with top 5 journals, the referees are more important for verifying the paper, as the quick opinions already screened it for merit.

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