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I am reviewing a paper that quite heavily builds upon work that has only been published in Russian and Romanian, which are languages I (unfortunately) do no speak. Therefore it is quite difficult for me to assess how this new work builds upon this previous work.

This work was submitted for an English-speaking venue in which normally all papers only reference papers in English. At first glance, the venue only request the actual paper to be in English, but makes no mention about related work.

How to proceed?

  • Can you not get an english written version of the paper(s) that have been references? – Phorce Mar 26 '15 at 9:45
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    @Phorce: "work that has only been published in Russian and Romanian" seems to imply there is no such English written version. – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 '15 at 10:57
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    @O.R.Mapper Google Translate (laughs) – Phorce Mar 26 '15 at 10:58
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    This question may provide some insight, especially @aeismail's statement: "You should cite the most appropriate references for your work, regardless of the language of the source." – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 '15 at 11:05
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Evaluate the correctness and significance of the results as best you can. On the topic of novelty, include in your referee report exactly what you wrote here:

[This paper] quite heavily builds upon work that has only been published in Russian and Romanian, which are languages I (unfortunately) do not speak. Therefore it is quite difficult for me to assess how this new work builds upon this previous work.

Then let the editors decide.

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    You might want to tell the editor about the problem right away, rather than including it in your report. That way, the editor has the opportunity to find another referee who can read the relevant references and can do the job in parallel with your work rather than sequentially. – Andreas Blass Mar 26 '15 at 15:05
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    I did this as well. I also let the editor know early like Andraes suggested because there were several references to PhD theses from Central European universities that were unavailable even if I could read the language. The editor contacted the authors and I was provided with English copies of the theses a few days later which made the review possible. – tpg2114 Mar 26 '15 at 21:18
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If the manuscripts relies "quite heavily" on references that you cannot read, you cannot meaningfully assess its contributions. I would suggest you decline to review it.

You could propose that the authors either identify possible reviewers that do speak Russian and/or Romanian, or that they submit to a more localized journal.


I diverge from JeffE's answer. I would agree with him if this were only a question of one or two (non-key) references. But this particular case really appears to me to be parallel to reviewing a paper in my field but not my specialty: if I personally get a paper on econometric forecasting but work in supply chain forecasting, then I will not have a good idea of the state of the art in this particular special subfield. So I can't assess whether the manuscript expands on this state of the art. In such a situation, I do not think it would be helpful to review the parts of the manuscript that I can assess and add a caveat - instead, as in the present question, I would decline reviewing.

After all, in either case it sounds like additional reviewers will be required. It would be better to bring this to the editor's attention as soon as possible, and not only after reviewing the paper myself.

(This suggests a third alternative: explain the situation to the editor and ask him what he would prefer.)

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    "or that they submit to a more localized journal" - it may be the easy and "practical" way to go, but at least with a global view on research, this does not sound like a very useful approach. In the extreme case, it could lead to certain findings being "trapped" in non-English publications rather than gradually being made more visible to a wider audience by being cited across languages. Likewise, the same findings might at some point be rediscovered by an author who writes in English, who might then get undeserved attribution for seemingly being the first one ever to publish such findings. – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 '15 at 12:58

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