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What to do if somebody is suspicious after reading the review report of a research paper that one of the reviewers may be his ex-coworker, who is not an expert in the subject of the paper?

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The question seems to be predicated on two assumptions:

1) If the review was not blind and the OP knew that the reviewer was his Former Coworker, he could make a convincing case to the editor that FC was not qualified to review the paper.

2) Thus, because he suspects that the reviewer was FC, he wants to contact the editor to find out if this was the case.

The second assumption is really a mistaken one, I think: according to the principles of blind review, you shouldn't know the identity of the reviewer. If you think you do, you should nevertheless act as if you don't, and if you have partial information, you should definitely not go around sleuthing to see if you can solve the case. This is one of the basic cultural assumptions of peer review. I think that if the author goes down this road, it is very likely that he will be told that his actions are inappropriate and will burn bridges with the editor and the journal.

I find the first assumption problematic too, in a more subtle way. The reason that reviews are anonymous is that you should not be engaging in an ad hominem discussion of the reviewer. Just because you know someone's identity doesn't mean that you are an authority on their academic and intellectual qualifications. Maybe FC didn't know your subject well back when you knew him, in your opinion. How do you know what he knows now?

Choosing a suitable person to be the referee is the editor's call, not the author's. Calling attention to someone's identity -- even hypothetically, as in "I don't know who the reviewer was, but if it was FC..." -- as a strike against the referee report will be regarded by many as obnoxious. If you have anything to say to the editor, it is about the referee report itself. If the referee report contains a comment that through its specific brand of inexpertise suggests to you that it was made by FC, forget about the FC part and explain why the comment is definitively incorrect. If you can point out clear errors in the referee report that are in the serious to egregious range -- i.e., a reasonable person would worry that they compromise the integrity of the verdict -- then you have a case for getting the report thrown out and/or getting an additional independent report. More likely the situation is not so clearcut, and in my opinion you should still compose a polite response to the editor if you feel that a lack of expertise played a factor in the report, but you fully expect to resubmit your paper elsewhere.

Getting a bad (as in, less than skilled) referee report and having to resubmit elsewhere is quite a common feature of peer review. Luckily there is a lot more than one journal, so you can just start fresh elsewhere, and doing so is usually a much better idea than trying to extract reparations from the editor and/or the referee.

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    I would be interested to hear about the logic behind the downvote. Dec 14, 2014 at 3:24
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First, I doubt any editor would appoint a reviewer by "mistake". Editors look for persons who are deemed to provide in-depth reviews on the manuscript or in some cases part of it. As editor it is of course difficult to keep track of co-workers so it is probably not uncommon that co-workers become assigned. If a reviewers feels they cannot provide a fair review, and one such instance can be if they feel to close to the author, they have a responsibility to decline the review. It is possible an editor appoints somebody relatively familiar with your work in the belief that they have insights that may be useful. This would be a poor assumption on the part of the editor and one I would deem as slightly lazy.

Despite these and other safety-measures reviewers that for one or another reason are unsuitable become appointed. Many journals therefore have opportunities for authors to signal non-preferred reviewers. It is also possible to add names of non-wanted reviewers in the submission letters. Such persons usually are ones with whom a personal conflict exists.

With all that in mind, it is not clear that the editor has made any mistake despite the fact that you look unfavourable on the choice and suspect that you know one of the reviewers. If you feel a review is off in some respect, you are free to signal this to the editor when you return a revised manuscript (assuming you received a revisions "verdict"). If your manuscript is rejected and the rejection is due to the reviewer you would see as non-preferable, you should contact the editor to see if you can discuss a "second chance". The problem here is that you need to have sound arguments for the problem arising from the reviewer. The fact that no indication of the non-preferred status of the reviewer is, form the view of the editor, a complicating factor; how is the editor to know? Suspecting you know the reviewer is not a very solid ground for changing the opinion.

So, the best you can do is to work with the reviews to improve the manuscript and provide good arguments for not following points where you believe reviewers do not have a strong point. So take the reviews in stride and simply argue for what you think are reasonable constructive changes to your manuscript.

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    "First, I doubt any editor would appoint a reviewer by "mistake"." I have been appointed as a reviewer by mistake at least once, and depending upon what that means, maybe more. Once I got a referee request that was such a non sequitur that I immediately inquired about it, and was told that sorry, they had sent that paper to me by mistake and actually had wanted me to referee a different paper. I could go on...Mistakes do happen. Dec 13, 2014 at 22:56
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    (I agree that as an author, trying to explain to the editor that you think you know who the referee was and that they were not an appropriate choice is not the way to go.) Dec 13, 2014 at 22:57
  • Regarding the comments of Peter Jackson, authors give some name of preferable reviewer. From the recommendation of one of the reviewers, editor may select a reviewer without through checking his field of expertization and recent past affiliation. Dec 14, 2014 at 0:05
  • Regarding the comments of Rafael Max Wayld, how can I get a confirmation that my suspect is correct? Reviewer's name is always hided in peer-review process. Dec 14, 2014 at 0:38
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    @PrabhatKoner: you can't. Reviewers are anonymous.
    – Jim Conant
    Dec 14, 2014 at 21:44
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First of all, it is perfectly alright to review a coworker's article, unless they were involved in the research or provided assistance of some sort - in other words, they shouldn't be biased. If, as your question's title suggests, the reviewer is not an expert in the field, and the editor made the mistake of appointing him with this task, you could contact the editor asking why he did so. Mention that he is just your coworker and not an expert in this area. Instead of making quick judgments, wait for the review and go through it to see if it is acceptable by your own standards. It is very unlikely, I believe, that it would be worthless to a point were you might want to ask your editor to reject it, nevertheless you could always make a request to exclude that review from being published.

NOTE: Contact your editor and ask for advice.

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    " If, as your question's title suggests, the reviewer is not an expert in the field, and the editor made the mistake of appointing him with this task, you could contact the editor asking why he did so." This does not seem like useful advice, as the OP has no way of knowing whether the hypotheses are satisfied, and trying to find out violates the principle of blind review. If after reflection the OP feels strongly that the review evinces a lack of expertise, he should send a letter expressing that politely to the editor and expect to resubmit to another journal. Dec 14, 2014 at 2:04
  • Regarding the Pete L Clark comments: I have worked with him in a group for four years. He is expert in X field and I am expert in Y field. I know his set of opinions in my work when we worked in common project. I put his name in acknowledgement due to the fact that his contribution is not enough to be a coauthor for this paper. My suspect is started when I notice the set of questions, language and tone are same in my review report. Most of his questions/comments are out of the context. Dec 14, 2014 at 3:25
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    @Prabhat: I suggest that you edit your question to add information and context. E.g.: "coworker" normally means someone who has the same employer as you. If you were actually doing research alongside him, you should say a bit about that. (If you were working in the same research group then I don't understand how you could be in different fields; maybe you could explain...) If he contributed to the work and is clearly acknowledged so, then he is an inappropriate choice of a referee for the paper, and the editor should have known better. Still I think the remedy is to submit elsewhere. Dec 14, 2014 at 3:55
  • "Most of his questions/comments are out of the context." If that's the case you should bring that to the editor's attention, as I mention in my answer. The issue of the identity of the reviewer is really secondary, unless you think there is a conflict of interest. Do you feel that his report was not done in good faith? Dec 14, 2014 at 4:00
  • Of course, it is conflict of interest. Dec 14, 2014 at 4:24

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