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More than once, I have found myself with a curious ethical dilemma. Due to the nature of the dilemma, however, I have waited quite some time to ask this question, in order to increase the anonymity of those involved.

Here is the dilemma: a colleague of mine sent me a copy of a paper currently under review, saying they thought it would be of interest and wanted to get my feedback, since it is a subject on which I am known to have expertise. The only problem was that I was one of the reviewers for the journal (and indeed had already turned in my review before my colleague approached me).

There was no ethical conflict for me performing the review, and no impropriety on the part of my colleague for sharing the manuscript either: we have similar research interests but have never collaborated closely, and the circumstances of the sharing mean there is no reason to think this could be an attempt to influence a possible reviewer. Still, I found it challenging to interact in such a way that it would not breach my anonymity as a reviewer.

What do you think is the best way to handle such a situation?

  • You didn't say so explicitly, but I'm inferring that your colleague is an author of the paper in question? – Nate Eldredge Jun 9 '16 at 2:48
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    @NateEldredge Yes, nothing strange or inappropriate, just an ordinary private sharing of their own unpublished manuscript to get comments to strengthen it. – jakebeal Jun 9 '16 at 2:55
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    While I can understand sending the paper to a colleague who might be interested, it seems odd to ask for feedback at this stage, where it is too late to incorporate it into the paper. – Tobias Kildetoft Jun 9 '16 at 4:31
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    @TobiasKildetoft It doesn't seem odd at all to me: one would only be without a chance to incorporate feedback if you assume your paper will be accepted as-is, without even minor revisions, which is very rare indeed. Moreover, if your project isn't a dead-end one-shot, technical feedback is always useful. – jakebeal Jun 9 '16 at 11:24
  • What do you mean by "colleague"? In the standards of my field, being in the same institution as one of the authors is viewed as a serious enough conflict of interest to disqualify a potential reviewer. – David Richerby Sep 1 '17 at 13:29
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Have you considered writing a fresh answer to the colleague without caring that you wrote (or are writing) a review? What I mean is, just write the answer on your knowledge of the paper without caring that you are also writing a review. I think this is a natural approach and does not really have a downside.

You know the paper quite in depth, and you can provide valuable feedback. You will do so (or already have done so) in a formal way through the peer-review system, but now you have the opportunity for formulate the feedback in a more casual way (compare it with writing down results for a formal publication in a journal or at a conference and a discussion of the results on your personal blog - you describe the same things in a different way of communication). The only downside I see is, that the person will get some more clues that you may be a reviewer but I am not sure if this really is a downside at all.

Another downside may be that it costs you more time and that you don't want to allocate time to provide feedback twice. In this case, you can politely answer something like "Thanks for the paper - I try to find time to read it soon and come back to you in case I have any feedback." I guess most people understand that this can also mean that they won't hear anything more from you on that matter…

4

It seems to me that there are several options:

  1. You don't admit having reviewed the paper and say that you don't have time to read the paper at the moment (or make up some other excuse). It appears to me that this is unlikely to be a good option because you can expect him/her asking you about your opinion again at some point.
  2. You don't admit having reviewed the paper, but nevertheless provide feedback to your colleague. To protect anonymity, your feedback should not be too similar to your review, especially as far as details are concerned.
  3. You admit having reviewed the paper. Technically, you/we shouldn't do this, but I don't think much or any harm is done to the system of anonymous peer review provided this is done after the editor has made a final decision on the acceptance or rejection of the paper. Of course, you need to consider (a) whether you can stand behind your comments without the shield of anonymity, (b) how your colleague might react, and (c) how this might impact your relationship (which is likely to see a reversal of the author/reviewer roles). It might be that your colleague is open-minded and well-adjusted and can therefore take constructive criticism from a positive review well. On the other hand, it might be that even minor points in your positive review will cause him/her to become annoyed or enraged at you. Of course, if the review was mostly negative, even an open-minded and well-adjusted colleague is unlikely to be pleased.

If I were in your position, I would go for option 2 or 3 depending on how you think your colleague will react to your review.

I have been in the position that a colleague came up to me admitting that they had reviewed a paper of mine (after a final decision had been made). The review was detailed and positive, but also made some critical comments that improved the paper. Thus the peer review process worked and was not impacted by the reviewer revealing his identity. The critical comments by the reviewer were entirely reasonable and have not changed my personal opinion of him. Actually, to the contrary: My opinion of him has increased because he demonstrated excellent understanding of the subject matter and took the time to write a detailed and constructive review. I have also heard of several other cases in which anonymity was breached after a decision by the editor.

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You could simply go for the half-measure: tell the colleague you are one of the reviewers, but not which one. If they are reasonable, they will be able to understand your position, and will not dig into the issue anymore. If they're not reasonable, well...why would you care then, i suppose.

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"Still, I found it challenging to interact in such a way that it would not breach my anonymity as a reviewer."

Either:

  1. Breach your anonymity as a journal reviewer (if doing so would not help deanonymize the review of the remaining journal reviewers and the journal has no policy preventing you from doing so) and share your honest opinion with your colleague
  2. Tell you colleague that as a journal reviewer that you cannot ethically share your opinion because by doing so you would weaken the anonymity between the remaining journal reviews and their reviewers.
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    No, please do not breach confidentiality. It is not only is intended to protect the reviewer, but the process. (One assumes the reviewer and the author are not communicating or making deals behind the editors or the communities back ) Sure, you say you aren't asking for special favor from the author for now or later. But it smells. If the peer review process is open (reviewer name is public) then the community can notice if some smelly tit-for-tat happens based on who reviewed whom. But in confidential peer review we have to rely on separation beween the author and reviewer. – Carol Jun 9 '16 at 16:53

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