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Say in a face-to-face conversation, if a researcher says "You must be reviewer #X of my paper!", which is true, how should one respond?

(I doubt this would be field-dependent, but I'm mainly interested in the norm of the mathematical community)

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  • 29
    I think it actually is field dependent. From various comment threads on this site I remember that people in some fields hold the strict opinion that a reviewer should never disclose their identity to the authors, even after the paper has been published. From personal experience I can say that this opinion is not universally held among (pure) mathematicians, though. Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 21:42
  • 42
    You could take a page from intelligence agencies and say "I will neither confirm nor deny that". Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 0:51
  • 25
    Even more brief, "I can't comment on that". Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 2:52
  • 6
    I'm rather relaxed about this. What harm can be done? Not much, I think. Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 10:35
  • 13
    @ChristianHennig Sounds like you're assuming either a mostly positive review or a reasonable author. Under these assumptions, I would agree. Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 15:53

10 Answers 10

46

"You must be reviewer #X of my paper!"

"Maybe. Maybe not!"

Then move on with the conversation about science or other topics. It's not your role to teach your peers that they shouldn't think too hard about who were the reviewers.

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  • 12
    I like this answer the most because it seems the least hostile against people who might not be aware that this is an invalid question.
    – user111388
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 21:59
  • 2
    My favorite, the least negative and least confrontational.
    – usul
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 2:25
  • 1
    I agree this is a good answer. But if they persist, perhaps it could be your role to explain to them why they shouldn't ask, and you could explain it gently and helpfully.
    – toby544
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 7:15
42

My answer would probably what I really believe to be true:

Nothing good can generally come by thinking too hard who a specific reviewer might have been.

That's true, and it's also a deflection. Anyone with social skills will drop the topic. If they insist, I'd just repeat the statement until the point sinks in.

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  • 9
    What if they say "Why? It would be interesting to talk to you about the paper." Are you just going to repeat it?
    – toby544
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 7:53
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    @toby544 It doesn't matter if someone was the reviewer if you want to discuss a paper.
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 7:55
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    @Roland If they were the reviewer, you can be sure that they have read it thoroughly. If you don't know if they were the reviewer, they might not have read it at all.
    – toby544
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 7:57
  • 14
    @toby544 So, you would need to ask if they have read the paper (which is appropriate), not if they were a reviewer of the paper (which is not appropriate).
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 7:58
  • 8
    @WolfgangBangerth and others, I think it is usually possible to be considerate and helpful towards a person who asks an inappropriate question. They probably don't understand why it is inappropriate, and it would be helpful to them in the future if we could gently explain to them. (But I agree with user111388 that it would be different and harder with a much more senior or famous person.)
    – toby544
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 7:22
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I'd probably respond along the lines of "If I was your reviewer, and wanted you to know that, I would have told you".

The exception is if the question came from a young investigator, in which case I'd be less snarky and probably explain that many consider the question improper.

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    ... though my policy on reviewing papers is to not write anything I wouldn't say face to face with an author. Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 11:33
  • This is good life advice in general for all anonymous feedback. If not what you wouldn't say face to face, at least keep an empathetic tone as if they might somehow read it some day. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 12:14
  • @russellpierce, actually, it's probably not great advice for grant reviews. The NIH agrees. The applicants know with certainty who's in the room, but individuals need to know that they have complete freedom to say what's on their mind confidentially. I still try to live by that "would say it to their face" standard, but if I need to dump it during grant review I won't hesitate. Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 16:15
8

Related anecdote (not an answer).

Years ago I submitted a paper to journal X. Nearly a year passed with no referee report. I bothered the editor periodically, and they told me they prompted the reviewer.

At a conference I attended I struck up a casual mathematical conversation with someone I knew only from his work. He was very interested in what I was doing, so we spent a long evening together where I explained the results in my paper.

Very shortly thereafter the paper was accepted. The inference is obvious. Neither of us ever talked about this matter, but we went on to do some joint work.

7

Actually, since the question is a bit improper, you can answer any way that you like. But answering such a question with

Why would you even think that I was?

seems to be a good start, answering a question with another question.

The only really bad answer would be one that results in a fight, short or long term.

But even

That isn't really a proper question.

is valid.

Even a lie in response to an invalid question is only a minor infraction of social norms (IMO). Especially so if it avoids a fight.

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    Best not to lie. Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 19:35
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    If they treat "Why would you even think that I was" as a serious question, they may detail their reasons why they think that, and that may land you in a worse position.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 15:06
6

"Why would you even ask such a thing?"

Tone of voice should convey that, no, you don't actually want an answer, you want them to recognize the impropriety of the question and move along smartly.

"I can neither confirm nor deny."

This is from the defense community, and is a standard way to tell, e.g., vendors and sales representatives (among many others) to back off and stop asking unanswerable questions, because it's really rude.

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    These are quite hostile answers. Perhaps the person doesn't understand why you would dislike the question, or perhaps they were asking in a naive and friendly way.
    – toby544
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 7:56
  • 3
    I don't intend, and wouldn't deliver them as "hostile." But I would intend and deliver them as "pointed", because the situation is already a faux pas.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 13:27
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    I think "I can neither confirm nor deny" has a bit of a memetic meaning of "yes", so I think I'd avoid that one in favor of more neutral language like in Wolfgang's answer if you're intending to actually be neutral.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 15:38
  • Asking questions is really rude? If asked in a rude way, yes. If asked in a polite way, no. And whether a question is "unanswerable", that opinion will vary depending on who you ask. I do agree that refusing to confirm/deny is effective in many situations.
    – Mentalist
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 0:44
  • For a more complete comment I should have included: Sometimes the content of a question can be rude because it's too personal or intrusive, but that's another matter.
    – Mentalist
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 0:50
5

As a response different from the norm: I have had reviewers of my papers not only tell me that they reviewed my papers (confirming my suspicions, but unsolicited!), but also collaborate with me or recommend other collaborators.

I think this would generalize to smaller communities, where maybe only a dozen people in the world will review studies on a particular technique or subject. In my case, my mentor pointed out that the reviews in question raised valid criticisms, and responding to them strengthened the final paper.

If the review itself is professional and helpful, then knowing the reviewer wouldn't do that much harm, especially in a small community if the risk of no review or an unexpert review is far greater than the risk of an unconsciously biased review.

3

Another possible deflection is "Oh, I surely don't remember, since I look at sooo many things. In any case, what was your paper about? I might be interested in it." ? :)

-1

Obviously this person is just really happy to have 'found' you!

Writing math paper is a strange experience. The person has probably spent a long time in a very intensive relationship with mathematical objects that no-one else around them can see or hear or has even heard of. Writing things down in theory makes it possible that other people will learn about this world where they spent so much of their time, sorrow and joy over the last few months, but hey, let's not kid ourselves, almost nobody reads math papers for fun and those who do have a pile of 100s of papers they hope to get to someday.

So after spending all this blood, sweat and tears there is only a small handful of people that even know the characters and places that made up such a large part of your life, and as they are anonymous and scattered around the globe there is no hope of ever meeting them.

Now running into one, by chance, in real life, is a magical experience!

I think the cold reactions advertised in the other answers are undeserved and do no-one a favor. The best action is to reveal yourself and have a nice chat about the content of the paper.

Simply by having carefully read the paper and being a person of flesh and blood you can make this researcher's day in a way no one else can. Who would pass up such an opportunity?

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  • Why the downvote? More generally: what is wrong with being nice to people? Or honest? (These are serious questions, not rhetorical)
    – Vincent
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 19:40
-2

"Why? Was it rejected?"

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  • It's something the researcher would say. Not the reviewer Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 14:39
  • 1
    @SnackExchange you need to pause between the two sentences
    – lalala
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 19:28

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