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At the end of last week, a paper I wrote (PhD, second year) got a Minor Revision (IEEE Transaction, TAFFC), receiving good comments from all three reviewers involved. Two unknown reviewers plus an admitted psychologist were involved in the review, with the latter sharing very positive feedback and deep interest in the topic. Therefore, I thought it would be useful after the work was published to get in contact with this reviewer to collect more feedback and understand how to extend the work further, with the possible aim of collaborating.

I expressed this desire in written communication with all co-authors without deeply thinking about it. However, the last author (last author, FP, senior, former supervisor) appeared quite disappointed about my email, saying that this behaviour is highly unethical and never should any author try to contact the reviewers after publication. None of the other co-authors took part in the conversation.

I read here and there that it is possible to contact the editor to know the reviewers' identity and to have further conversations about the topic. Therefore, I completely do not understand their position. I was quite shocked at the beginning even though the conversation stopped there. Do you have any input about this situation? I am afraid of speaking with my former supervisor about it in person because I want neither to receive similar treatment again nor to annoy him.

EDIT: I want to thank everyone who spent time answering my request and allowed me to view this experience from a different viewpoint, especially from the one of the reviewers!

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    Did the reviewer sign their review? If they made their identity known it probably changes the answer quite a bit.
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Jan 17 at 9:00
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    Please, do not overthink. Your supervisor disagrees with you on this point. It does not mean that he is disappointed. Being disappointed is more of a personal feeling. There is nothing personal here, you made some suggestions and got a feedback that your suggestion is not Ok. No one should be sad about it.
    – yarchik
    Commented Jan 17 at 13:08
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    If it will be published, the reviewer has the necessary information to contact you if they have an interest in collaboration or advisement. I think it's possible that if you somehow identified them and reached out, they'd be happy to hear from you and want to talk further. But just as likely if not moreso, they will feel some mixture of annoyance, obligation, or anxiety about it. In general, I think you're probably slightly misreading both the reviewer and your advisor.
    – commscho
    Commented Jan 17 at 17:49
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    "admittedly psychologist" ?!? What is "TAFC"? ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7417290 ?
    – Karl
    Commented Jan 18 at 21:12
  • @N.Virgo: no, the reviewer has not signed the review but specifically stated that was a psychologist
    – thor9669
    Commented Jan 23 at 12:47

11 Answers 11

77

The request is not unethical, but it's certainly annoying. When I review a paper from someone who is new in the field, I do my best to soften criticism with a praise sandwich, and just generally set a tone that says "this is a good start and it's an interesting topic, you are not yet there, but keep at it." Twenty years later I can still remember the exact words of encouragement from reviewers of my early work, and they did make a difference, and I am still thankful.

However, it is also true that when I write a review, I want the task to end when I click the 'send' button. It's not an open offer to coach the author, nor am I volunteering to become an informal advisor.

Only knowing the details you mentioned, I'd listen to the former supervisor.

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    +1 for "I want the task to end..." Commented Jan 16 at 23:10
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    Yeah, peer review can be tedious enough as it is without receiving unsolicited requests for even more advice
    – Sursula
    Commented Jan 17 at 6:54
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    Theres a big difference between "you're misinterpreting the tone" and "this behaviour is highly unethical". This answer doesn't explain why the former supervisor's words are the latter if the situation is the former.
    – Vaelus
    Commented Jan 17 at 12:43
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    If the follow-up email is to simply ask for more feedback, I agree. But I think it's perfectly reasonable to say something along the lines of "Thank you for your thoughtful review. I plan to follow up on your suggestion to do X and would like to extend authorship to you if you are interested."
    – Jeff
    Commented Jan 18 at 0:48
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    I think you're answering a different question.
    – Nik
    Commented Jan 18 at 1:29
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I hate to be crude, but this is a similar situation to when I was a young man, and my similarly aged male friends thought that every friendly waitress was interested romantically. Sure it doesn't hurt to ask, but mostly you are being a nuisance and making it awkward.

I write encouraging reviews to people all the time, it does not mean I have any shred of interest in collaborating. If I did, I would reach out to them (edit: only after the manuscript has been published, not mention the fact that I was a reviewer)

If this became the norm, I would likely agree to review fewer papers from early career researchers if every platitude was considered an overture to collaboration. Our interaction as impersonal as it may be ends when I submit that review.

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    Not a great analogy, actually. I doubt that scientific review is hormone driven. ;-)
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 16 at 21:00
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    @Buffy Actually, a great analogy. Not every approach is welcome. It's a different story if the reviewer offers to open up and likes the work so much that they offer to collaborate with author (after the paper is published, and with enough cooling period, of course!). Commented Jan 16 at 23:10
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    Then again there is the youthful impression that everyone else's father/mother seems so much more reasonable and "nice" compared to our own . . . Just spend a short "holiday" with one of them and we are so much the wiser. Responsibility <=> control, etc.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jan 17 at 12:24
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    @Buffy any scientific activity is, in fact, hormone driven.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jan 18 at 9:22
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    "If I did, I would reach out to them.": might be field-dependent, but in my field (theoretical CS) it would be perceived as strange to reach out to someone saying "I reviewed your paper and...". Reviewers are supposed to stay anonymous. In such cases reviewers sometimes try to start collaborating once they "discover" the result through a different route, but sometimes the fact of having been a reviewer is sufficient to discourage the reviewers from reaching out. In such cases it can be useful if authors go through the editor to express interest in reaching out to the reviewer.
    – a3nm
    Commented Jan 19 at 8:46
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There are very specialized circumstances in which it might be appropriate to contact a referee. [And then you wouldn't ask the editor for the identity of the referee, you'd ask the editor to forward a message to the referee containing an invitation to contact you.] The situation you describe is nowhere near any of them. Your coauthor was right to shut that idea down.

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    Actually, I think that the possibility of future collaboration is one of those circumstances. Yes, the first contact would be from the reviewer if it is to happen, not directly revealing the identity of the reviewer. But an editor can suggest that to the reviewer if they wish.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 16 at 20:30
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    @Buffy I disagree. A case where the referee has also made the contribution meriting coauthorship in their report qualifies for me, because there isn't any decent alternative. But if the referee is merely someone very much interested in the topic, it should be possible to find equally well qualified future collaborators elsewhere (who might of course be that referee, but noone has to know).
    – Arno
    Commented Jan 16 at 20:44
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    The post can be improved by including an explanation for why it would not be appropriate. The fact that there might be alternatives does not implicate that contacting the reviewer through the editor, leaving to both the chance to either accept or reject the suggestion, is inappropriate. Commented Jan 16 at 20:59
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    The OP wants to engage with a reviewer after publication. This protects against bias on the current paper. Naturally if in due course OP and the good reviewer do engage (along the schedule and lines suggested by Buffy) then the latter should be excluded from subsequent reviews of future papers from OP. What would make this inadvisable is where OP remains in his supervisor's research group after getting the PhD, e.g. on a fellowship. In that scenario contacting the reviewer would risk the ire of the supervisor. It's tricky if OP has a desire to migrate to the reviewer's group !
    – Trunk
    Commented Jan 17 at 12:15
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Consider a world in which it is common for authors to contact reviewers who provide positive reviews for collaboration.

In this world, let's say you are reviewing a paper by A Famous Researcher. If you provide a critical review, you'll miss out on the opportunity to woo them with a more positive review and boost your career by collaborating with this famous person. On the other hand, there is no such pressure when reviewing a paper by An Unknown Researcher.

This creates a clear conflict of interest: a reviewer is conflicted between their duty to provide an honest review and the opportunity that providing a positive review may create. That's bad, and this is likely why your supervisor thinks this is unethical (and why I agree with them). As others point out, there may be occasional cases where circumstances outweigh the problematic conflict of interest, but keeping those cases special and occasional is important to preserving the integrity of peer review overall.

I don't think you should take their statement about this personally; part of their job as a supervisor is to educate you in the standards of academia, including what is and isn't considered unethical. They would be failing in their supervisory role if they did not explain this to you. Perhaps they could have done a better job explaining the reasoning as well as the rule, but maybe they were busy and found it most important to simply give clear direction. You should not fear discussing this with them further individually, you've not committed any foul by learning something new.

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  • Not sure I follow the logic. If you provide a critical review and the author wishes to contact you through the editor, you simply refuse. So no problem there. Similarly, if you write a 'positive' review, this in itself does not in any way create a probability of being contacted. So if anything, the directionality in the ethical dilemma only exists if the reviewer makes the first move, which is not the case here. In this case, the reviewer wasn't simply positive, they also showed insight and deep interest. I don't think an author extending a collaboration offer in this case is unethical per se. Commented Jan 18 at 16:58
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    @TasosPapastylianou "if you write a 'positive' review, this in itself does not in any way create a probability of being contacted" - It doesn't only because people do not do what OP is suggesting. Note the first sentence of this answer: we're thinking about a different world here as a thought experiment. I don't think ethics are always that black and white or so isolated; while an individual contact in a situation like this isn't causing a problem, it's important for the field as a whole to avoid it as a common practice otherwise these problems occur.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 18 at 17:01
  • @BryanKrause I got your point and your example was a clear one. Just want to comment on the last part. I would not have taken it personally if they had explained my "unethical behaviour" to me but that wasn't the case and that's why I posted here. They should have taken the time to answer appropriately instead of simply shutting me down. Anyway, thanks for your time
    – thor9669
    Commented Jan 23 at 13:14
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Trying to contact an anonymous reviewer might be considered unethical because it is an attempt to deanonymise someone who has provided a report under the assumption they are anonymous. While this is especially true if the report is critical, it remains theoretically the case irrespective of whether the report is positive or negative.

There may be particular special circumstances where breaking that anonymity may be appropriate, usually with the reviewer's permission.

This obviously doesn't apply to a reviewer that identifies themselves. Although I'd assume that they had given all the feedback they had to give in their review.

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Opinions can differ but I find nothing wrong with communication after publication. There is no conflict of interest and there is no attempt to influence decisions. It doesn't conflict with blind or even double blind review - after publication.

If you don't know the identity, an editor might (or not) put you in contact, perhaps by letting the reviewer know you'd like them to contact you if they wish. So, both editor and reviewer would need to first agree.

OTOH, it is not a good idea to fight with your advisor while they still have influence in your career. So, at minimum, it might be worth waiting to try to initiate contact.

I think the advisor is overly cautious and not sufficiently regarding the value of collaboration in a field. But that is an opinion. Just don't jeopardize your career over something that can wait.

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It is rather uncommon to attempt to contact a reviewer post-review. Naturally, there are numerous ethical concerns to be considered (including, but not limited to, anonymity). What would be the point of anonymity if this were common practice? The fact that you are also working with co-authors only further compounds the situation. You simply cannot unilaterally make decisions like this witout their approval. That said, move on from this experience and remember the important lessons you have learned.

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    Good point on co-author consultation. OP seems only trying to connect with a kindred spirit in that field of study. But could it be that OP would likely run into this reviewer anyhow via publications, conferences and so on - so is there any need to pursue him/her directly ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Jan 17 at 18:04
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    "What would be the point of anonymity if this were common practice?" I was always under the impression that the chief purpose of reviewer anonymity was for double-blinding during the review process: the reviewers are unaware of the author (in theory) and the author is unaware of the reviewers, thus minimizing bias in both directions. Given that, the anonymity would only be relevant up until the full peer review process was completed, or at the latest, up until publication.
    – Idran
    Commented Jan 17 at 19:48
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    @JustinHilyard also minimising the potential for reprisals or sycophantic reviews.
    – Flyto
    Commented Jan 18 at 9:41
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Some reviewers like to remain anonymous and others put their names to their reviews. I'm in the later camp as I'm always prepared to stand by my work. I have received emails from authors thanking me for my input and I don't think this is unethical. In my mind it's part of being a community of scholarship member. However, if I received an email asking for additional feedback I would likely find that onerous. My role as a reviewer is done. My advice, what you propose isn't unethical but reflect upon the reason why you want to contact the reviewer. I wish you all the best 🙂

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    A blind review is less about you feeling uncomfortable with revealing your identity. Others might feel pressured to return good reviews to you. Remaining anonymous (even with some degree of confidence, you might have a clue who is the reviewer) reduces this risk.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jan 19 at 10:35
  • Hi I can see your point.
    – Doc Moo
    Commented Jan 24 at 4:59
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As opposed to several answers here, I believe you should attempt to indirectly contact the reviewer.

Indirectly means that you write to the editor, explain that the reviewer has interesting points and you would be glad to discuss further. And ask for your missive to be simply forwarded to them.

The editor may follow-up or not.

The reviewer may follow-up or not. They may be happy or pissed off. You never know but if you do not ask you may miss an opportunity.

The thing to absolutely not do is to creepily try to identify them and email-jump with a TADA! foundyoudoyouwanttoworkwithmeandwriteariclesplease!

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  • Why is it creepy to email someone and be like "I liked your paper on X and I also work on X. Do you have any advice for me? Would you ever be interested in collaborating on X?" Commented Jan 19 at 21:38
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    @Jeffrey Emailing someone like that is not creepy (though it is overstepping to just out of the blue ask a stranger for advice). But Internet-sleuthing or -stalking to try to identify someone who is deliberately anonymous is. Commented Jan 20 at 2:32
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Why is the reviewer identified? Did they self identify in the review? Although I agree with everyone who doesn't expect the relationship to continue after a review, I also don't self identify. It's possible the reviewer is seeking contact. You might want to thank them graciously and see whether they offer to do more with you.

Or you may have entirely the wrong end of the stick here. Your supervisor may think that the reviewer self identified and helped so much to ingratiate with the famous supervisor. Your supervisor might be saying the reviewer is being unethical, and may even know them. I would talk to your supervisor in person before doing anything else. That's always the best move after getting an email you don't understand.

-3

An informal way to go about this might be to check the editorial board and/or list of reviewers for that journal and look for psychologists. Then see if any of them have written papers on your topic. If so, you might email them about those papers (e.g., asking questions or praising aspects of them) and start up a conversation without mentioning the review. Even if you don't find the right person, it might lead to some good conversations and potential collaborators.

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    I would not like to be reached by such a method. Talk to me on a conference, that is less fishy.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jan 19 at 10:35
  • @usr1234567, you don't like people to email you asking about or praising your work? Commented Jan 19 at 21:33
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    @JeffreyGirard It’s the intent to underhandedly circumvent reviewer anonymity that is the problem. Commented Jan 20 at 6:23

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