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I am a referee for two papers by the same author: can I acknowledge in the second report (the first was almost ready when I was invited to referee the second one) my report to the first paper?

To give more details: I am suggesting acceptance to both papers, but I think the second one reexplains too much of what is developed in the first paper (with proper citation, but to a slightly different version in preprint), and I want to be able to tell the author they should simply cite the other work and move on to the new results. Furthermore, both papers make some odd choices about presentation, and it would be easier for me to simply point to the other report than to explain again in great detail why e.g. an alternative definition of some concept would make the work much easier to follow.

This is a single-blind peer review, so I know who the author is, but they don't know who I am. I don't see how doing this could be a problem (both in terms of ethics and etiquette), as they won't be able to tell who I am just from knowing I am a referee for both papers, but it seemed wiser to me to ask, rather than assume it is perfectly OK.

Edit: the papers were subjected to different journals, and are being handled by different editors. So it was just by coincidence that both ended up with me as a referee; but not a big coincidence because the field is rather small...

Edit 2: I have accepted Buffy's answer because of the general advice on how to proceed: contact the editors, and keep in mind that the first paper may not get accepted and that the author may get confused. But, in my specific case, I am following more or less quarague's suggestions: I am writing the two reports more or less independently, and referencing the preprint when talking about the first paper on the second report, but I will not make great efforts to hide that the two reports have been written by the same person (I will not explicitly mention it, but it will be clear from the similarities between the comments on both reports).

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    At the point of submitting the authors couldn't know which papers would be accepted and what they would be asked to change in each of them. As chances are there are also other reviewers, and anyway the editor has the last word, you don't know that either, despite your recommendations. So you can't assume when making recommendations on one paper whether (and when) the other paper will be published as you have seen it. I think they can't rely in one paper on explanations in the other one that is not yet accepted Jun 25, 2023 at 17:12
  • Are the papers publicly available at ArXiv or similar? Then you could refer to these.
    – usr1234567
    Jun 26, 2023 at 4:39
  • @ChristianHennig But the first paper is available as a preprint: I just don't think it is reasonable to spend most of a new paper copying a previous paper just because you are not sure if the old one is getting published... I mean, that is why preprint repositories exist. Jun 26, 2023 at 9:39
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    @usr1234567 Yes, it is available on arXiv: I think the best way forward is probably to just refer to the preprint, but not make any explicit mentions to the other report in the new one. Jun 26, 2023 at 9:41

3 Answers 3

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I suggest that you let the editor(s) know of your concerns before you put such things into the report itself. Take their advice.

Indicating you have seen the other paper might confuse the authors about the standards of the review process.

I've assumed this is for the same journal and likely the same editor. It is a little trickier if they are different journals. If the journals are different then you can ask both editors, assuming you are comfortable with that. Otherwise, I wouldn't include such things in either report. You can, of course, suggest changes.

Note that it is possible that one or the other of the papers won't be published, in spite of your recommendation.

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    They are actually for different journals, and different editors... Jun 25, 2023 at 13:26
  • I think I will probably follow the part of this advice pertaining to the case where I do not contact the editors: meaning I will write both reports without explicitly mentioning each other (but I will also not go out of my way to pretend the two reports have been written by the same referee), and if I have to refer to the older paper, I will cite its preprint. I will probably accept this answer later today or tomorrow... Jun 26, 2023 at 9:47
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My short advice would be to make the reviews independent, as far as feasible. While you say:

I don't see how doing this could be a problem (both in terms of ethics and etiquette)

I think this is an extremely unusual situation (as you yourself acknowledge). An author who recognizes the situation might feel that both papers' acceptances or rejections are riding in tandem on them getting both papers "right", especially if they are inexperienced.

While that stress is probably not too harmful, I can't see how it would be helpful or would result in better papers, so I would lean towards "first do no harm" in this situation and avoid unnecessarily stressing out the authors.

In terms of the situational specifics:

I want to be able to tell the author they should simply cite the other work and move on to the new results

Then you should just say that, based on the content of the preprint. If this issue arises in the final version of paper A but not the preprint, then as a reviewer I personally would just let it slide, since (1) under almost all circumstances these papers would be independently reviewed, and (2) it doesn't do significant harm to science to have two extremely closely written papers happen to repeat significant parts of each others' content.

both papers make some odd choices about presentation, and it would be easier for me to simply point to the other report

You could just cut and paste from one report to the other. If the presentations are a problem then they're a problem in each paper independent of the other paper's content -- so just comment on the problematic presentation as if that's the one paper you've read.

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  • I agree with almost everything written in this answer, with one exception: "(2) it doesn't do significant harm to science to have two extremely closely written papers happen to repeat significant parts of each others' content." I think the papers become much less clear in this case... Jun 26, 2023 at 9:52
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    If you mean copy and paste rather than cut and paste: that would clearly reveal that it's the same reviewer, contradicting the "tandem" argument above. So if feasible, write those thoughts in different words in the other review; this makes sense particularly if those parts of the papers are not identical and thus optimal reviews are not identical. Instead of "explain again in great detail why e.g. an alternative definition of some concept would make the work much easier to follow" in both reviews, explain it understandably for the editor but in less detail in the review that you'll send later.
    – root
    Jun 26, 2023 at 10:28
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I see two issues you want to address here. First, the second paper rehashes a lot of what is already written in the first paper. As the first paper is available as a preprint and referenced in the second paper this issue is not related to you also reviewing the first paper. Your review for the second paper can simply critisize that aspect.

The other issue is that you want to suggest using slightly different definitions or naming conventions. This issue is present in both papers. I think the best solution here is to just copy a version of your argument into both reviews and adjust them as needed. That way each review can completely stand on its own but an astute reader would notice they are probably written by the same person. That is fine, there is no reason to hide that.

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