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I've been assigned as an anonymous referee to review a paper submitted to a prestigious journal by coworkers of a friend of mine and have told him about it without mentioning the authors' names. My friend's reaction was "wow," and he is now pushing me to reveal to him whose paper I am refereeing. The department at which he works is large, so he can't really make a good guess on his own. He says that he knows all his coworkers at the department personally and would really love to use this unique opportunity to help establish a connection between me and them.

Of course, I'd love to chat with them about their research and expand my connections, especially as one of the authors is a well-known professor, but I'm unsure whether it's okay to let the authors know, through my friend, that I am a referee of their paper. I've seen no policy against this, but I'm afraid it might be just not okay.

As an early-career researcher I'd really appreciate any input from users of this SE as to how to navigate this situation.


Additional info: While I like the paper, it is clearly not acceptable to this high-profile journal, and I have to write that in my review. The first author is a young postdoc, and he obviously just tried his luck with this journal. So, there is no way that the relationship with my friend or any possible contact with the authors can affect my recommendation regarding this paper.


Update 2: The answers strongly suggest that revealing my identity as a reviewer is a terrible idea. What about doing this after the editor makes a final decision about the paper? Would it be okay at that point?


Update 3: After reading the answers and the comments, I told my friend I can't reveal any further information or get engaged in any contact with the authors in the context of refereeing the paper. Thanks everyone for helping me choose the right thing to do.

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    Related, you might be interested: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/122461/…
    – Allure
    Jan 21 at 15:26
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    Interestingly you asked a somewhat related question a while ago about "letting an anonymous referee know we know who they are". The answers there might have guided you: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/186660/…
    – kodlu
    Jan 21 at 16:27
  • 3
    Please don't use edits to add additional questions. Instead, ask a new question (using the 'Ask Question' button) for any follow-up questions that might arise. We request that you ask only one question per post.
    – D.W.
    Jan 22 at 6:03
  • Your questions need a bit of background, which country are you in? the perception of peer review ethics is too different from the median of Aca:SE to be so only by chance in your group.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 22 at 23:53
  • @EarlGrey My country of origin is Japan but I am currently in Europe
    – Mitsuko
    Jan 23 at 9:40

7 Answers 7

58

You should absolutely not do this. It is a violation of the confidential peer review process.

Wait until after the paper is published to contact them. I would suggest not revealing your role as a reviewer.

See also:

Also, carefully consider if you have a real or apparent conflict of interest as a reviewer? Is your relationship with your friend clouding your judgement with regards to the paper? Ask yourself the tough questions. It's not too late to tell the editor that you have a conflict.

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    Agreed. Don't reveal yourself except after the reviews are finished and only through the editor. Otherwise your review is questioned for its validity.
    – Buffy
    Jan 19 at 22:22
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    @Mitsuko With the proliferation of pre-prints, if there is one, after the current submission is adjudicated, you could contact them using that as an excuse. But again, I would recommend not revealing your identity as a reviewer.
    – Ian
    Jan 19 at 22:28
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    I never thought about this before, but why would it be bad to reveal after the review that you were the reviewer? If anything one could argue that that information should be public, because then the impartiality of the reviewers could be checked and judged. Only reason for not sharing that is that a culture could develop where reviewers would socially get 'rewarded' for accepting papers (although that would get balanced out by the judgement of other peers). Jan 20 at 15:27
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    @DavidMulder Because some people are unreasonable to say the least, and unhinged to say the most. Maybe not now, but what about later? Do you really want to put your name to some perceived "slight" (again: some people are unreasonable). Just a big no-no. There is plenty enough pressure in academia that whatever you may think you know about a person now may not apply anymore a decade or two later. Jan 20 at 20:38
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    (+1) but I'd have worded the "do not reveal even after publication" more strongly. It is not a suggestion, but (at least for the journals I'm familiar with) a requirement. The "non-dislosure-agreement" one agrees to at the start of the reviewing process does not end with publication (or final rejection). Jan 23 at 12:28
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So, there is no way that the relationship with my friend or any possible contact with the authors can affect my recommendation regarding this paper.

In academic ethics, we frequently talk about conflicts of interest. If you dissect that phrase a bit, it means exactly what it literally states: interests that conflict. It is not necessary for the other interest to affect your decision for there to be a conflict. Said another way, we don't typically let people decide for themselves that their conflicted interests don't matter: even appearance of impropriety is damaging to the trust in the system. Here you have a conflict between your interest as an impartial reviewer of peer research and your interest as a friend and someone trying to network.

By revealing your identity as a reviewer you may create an even more problematic situation for everyone else involved as well. The authors might think that they need to do you (or your friend) favors to get their paper accepted, and revealing your identity is a hint that they should do this. When their paper is rejected, they may think that they didn't do enough favors. Is that a position you want to put them in? Is that a way you want to be perceived in your community?

I'll add that while it's not clear what exactly you said about this paper to your friend, if you've divulged any of its content you have also already breached the ethics of confidentiality; for the friend to be "wowed" by it I'm assuming that you did. I would expect these authors to be very offended (even if they would not say so to you directly) that you shared their submission and broke that confidentiality.

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  • I didn't tell my friend what the paper is about. Otherwise he would have already figured out who the authors are. I only told him that I got a paper by his coworkers from his department to referee for that particular journal.
    – Mitsuko
    Jan 19 at 22:59
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    @Mitsuko That's good. It still seems like you may have outed yourself; even though the department is large, if anyone has recently submitted a paper to that specific journal then they could be easily guessed; your area of expertise probably narrows it down a bit already. You should not talk so much about the papers you are reviewing.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 19 at 23:05
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I think it's better to never reveal that you were a reviewer, regardless of the benefits that do exist.

Namely, if/when people start expecting reviewers to contact them (even if only through the editor), this starts skewing the review process, in the sense that reviewers may start feeling some pressure to review in a way that will be happier to present semi-publicly later. That kind of thing.

Wait till you see a preprint, at least, to communicate with the authors.

I know, this may seem strained, but it's one of these "(potential) unexpected consequences" situations.

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Suppose A submits a paper and B is referee.

If B reveals that they are the referee, it is possible that A feels they must "reciprocate". (I said possible, not definite.) That is:

If B's review is negative, then A may want to "retaliate" in the future, giving a negative review to a paper of B.

If B's review is positive, then A may--out of "gratitude"--want to give B a positive review in the future.

Remaining anonymous helps minimize such improper influence.

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The answers are: no, no, no and no. Very bad idea. Basically, in the ideal world, a paper you review does not exist, except in the knowledge of the authors and in the Platonic heaven of the abstract "editor" and "reviewer".

I agree with most responses which elucidate the practical consequences, but my response is almost abstract: the peer review process, in its purest form, should be about the authors submitting their paper to a maximally competent, impartial, disinterested judgement.

The world of your reviews should ideally be completely separate from the netherworlds of real interests. This is, of course, hard to achieve, but you should nevertheless try.

In this view, the reviewer-OP is a separate person from OP in normal life. In the ideal world, reviewer-OP will never reveal anything to anybody (except the people involved in the review process) about the review and never let anything external (except their expertise) influence the review process.

If arguing via such an abstract obligation does not convince you, many other responses make clear why violating it is bad idea, even in the real world.

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Being a reviewer put you in some kind of power position, so it is not anymore a balanced relationship. It is not as imbalanced as a professor getting in love with a student they have to judge at their exam, but it is going in that direction.

There are various conflicts of interest, and the emotional conflict of interest is one of them. On one hand, you are now under psychological pressure, you put yourself in this weird situation and you do not know what to do, even going to ask random strangers on the internet about "what is best". On the other hand, would you like to have people from your department reviewing your paper? Would you like people from your department rejecting your paper after 2 round of reviews, when you see them going out enjoiyng beers with your friends while you are spending time reviewing the n-th time that paper?

Of course, I'd love to chat with them about their research and expand my connections,

On one hand, this is a good thing to be do done, independently of you being a reviewer of the paper. If, on the other hand, you would love to chat with them about their research because you are reading a paper under review, I suggest you to spend more time reading papers and blogs and going to as much conferences and workshops as possible: this way you can read peer-reviewed papers (so at least the macroscopic errors should have been filtered out) and talk with other people and expand your connections.

My 2 cents: contact the editor, make clear that you are unfortunately unavailable to review this paper. By saying that the issue you have is conflict of interest is the reason, that you did not fully notice it before is a good way to save your face and be kept in the reviewer lists of this editor/prestigious journal.

If you want to know another efficient and interesting way to expand your connections, this another way is applying for fundings and being the responsible person of writing the proposals.

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Others have pointed out already that the point of anonymous reviews is to get independent opinions on the manuscript. Independent meaning no conflict of interest.

I find it helpful to see this as (or like) an anti-corruption strategy:

  • It is necessary to be objective and unbiased. But that alone is not sufficient: in addition, others must trust in your objectivity. Thus, you need to avoid anything that may be perceived by others as endangering your objectivity.

  • Revealing your identity as reviewer even after the paper is published* has the potential to still create a conflict of interest since it may help to create an atmosphere where "gifts" are exchanged (e.g. they may reciprocate with a nice review of your paper, and so on) with everyone knowing but noone necessarily speaking about this. That is a classic working scheme of corruption.

    * if the paper was rejected, or your review was perceived as a bad one (e.g. not constructively criticizing), you may suffer retaliation. Knowing this creates a conflict of interest for your, and one that referee anonymity is meant to protect you from.

    For comparison, where I am, e.g. the rules for public officials not accepting gifts nor doing anything that could be perceived as being open to receive gifts spell out that this still holds not only till after an administrative decision/the interaction in question is finished (e.g. final exam taken for school/university examiners) but even after they leave that job/are pensioned. It would be too easy to create an expectation that thank-you gifts will be delivered in accordance to any legally imposed "waiting period".

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