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I have a simple question about a math paper, since I don't have a lot of experience in reviewing papers. I have currently received a request for reviewing a paper for publication. I would normally have no problem in doing so.

The thing is that I am currently about to start a collaboration with one of the authors of this paper. This collaboration even appears mentioned at some point in the paper that I was asked to review (in the lines of "the author ... and ... are planning to ...", where one of the ... is me).

I wonder whether there is an ethical dilemma. Perhaps it's completely normal and standard and I'm just making a big deal out of it. I'm sure it depends on the discipline, so I wanted to hear about this from people in the math world. Thanks!

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    I'm not in mathematics, but in other fields, it's pretty standard that you decline to review papers written by your collaborators. – ff524 Jun 9 '16 at 21:08
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If one author is too close to you, you should decline. I do not review for recent co-authors and current collaborators of mine but I start collaborations with people I reviewed.

  • Well I am not extremely close. In fact we haven't really started yet but we are planning to do so within the next couple of months. Also, we don't have any previous collaboration. Perhaps it's a good idea to raise this issue with the editor and see what he thinks? – dbluesk Jun 9 '16 at 22:02
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    If you've started discussions for potential collaboration, then declining mitigates any potential conflict of interest that might arise during the review process. There are other reviewers in the world, after all. However, if you feel that you can in good faith be impartial in review, discuss issue with editor. He can decide to still ask for your review but then can 'weight' it as he decides. – Carol Jun 9 '16 at 22:13
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    And since you say that your future collaboration is already mentioned in the paper, you should call the editors attention and really should decline to review the paper. If the editor had noticed that line buried in the paper, I'm sure he would not have contacted you for a review. – Carol Jun 9 '16 at 22:16
  • Thanks. I will contact the editor and see what he suggest. Perhaps I should also mention here that in the request I received, the editor actually acknowledged that I am acquainted with the author and the work. – dbluesk Jun 9 '16 at 22:18
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Recent (5 years) co-authorship would constitute an official conflict of interest for reviewing their NSF proposal. I'd decline.

  • -1 want to speak up? – Bill Barth Jun 11 '16 at 14:06
  • That was my downvote. I think that the NSF issue is a separate one from the one in the question, and if you feel that there is a link then your answer would be improved by elaborating on that link. (For extra context: I upvoted Andreas Blass's answer.) – Yemon Choi Jun 11 '16 at 22:15
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    @YemonChoi, it's clearly separate, but I think it's a good standard to apply to oneself in absence of a standard from the journal or venue itself. If the editor can point OP to the venue's standards for conflicts of interest, that'd be preferable. – Bill Barth Jun 12 '16 at 17:21
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Bill Barth is absolutely right concerning the rules for reviewing NSF proposals, but I don't see that the same rules need to apply to reviewing papers, especially if the editor is already aware of your acquaintance with the author and work. I'd suggest that you make sure the editor is aware of your planned collaboration with the author; if the editor still wants you to review the paper, then go ahead and review it.

  • So, if the editor's misconduct is deliberate, they should be encouraged? :-) Note that such situations can only arise when editors are too lazy to look for other reviewers than the one or two they first thought about (or in the extreme case of a subject with only two experts in the world, a feature to meditate upon, if you ask me). – Did Jun 10 '16 at 5:16
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    I want to add to this answer that you should feel free to decline if you don't think you could be objective or you don't think you could maintain anonymity. While you should normally feel a slight sense of obligation to referee papers, you should not in this case. – Alexander Woo Jun 10 '16 at 6:15
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    @Did - While I don't think an editor should rely on the OP being the sole referee, in many ways (especially if the collaboration has not yet started and so OP hasn't learned to think the same way as the author(s)), the OP is perfectly suited for the role of the referee who actually goes into the paper carefully and spends two weeks of work checking every detail is correct. The OP actually has a reason to want to spend the 30 hours it takes to do the job properly. (Yes - refereeing an average math paper properly takes 30 hours; important long papers can take hundreds of person-hours.) – Alexander Woo Jun 10 '16 at 6:23
  • @AlexanderWoo Sorry but I fail to see how your comment addresses my point (but thanks for lecturing me about the refereeing process of math papers, suddenly I felt younger...). – Did Jun 10 '16 at 8:14
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I am not that strict as other answerers; some fields are too narrow to provide reviewer without any relation to the authors. Inform the editor of the possible conflict of interest as soon as possible and suggest looking for another reviewer. Then they are aware that there is a chance of your opinion being biased and they are responsible to take into account.

On the other hand, the purpose of review is to rate, verify and improve the paper. The conflict of interest take place only in the first case; the other cases shall ignore author - reviewer relatioship at all. If the editor insists on you reviewing the paper I'd refuse to rate the paper, but verify and comment the paper to the authors.

In that case you can turn it to your advantage; you will se how your possible collaborators handle critics and you can decide whether "the collaboration is about to start" will turn to "will start" or "will be refused".


Rhetorical question: Who would review new Pál Erdős' articles if he was alive?

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Decline the review request: the fact that you will shortly be working with one of the authors of the paper is a clear conflict of interest. In particular, you say in a comment you're planning to start working with the author in a couple of months; my experience of mathematics papers is that they typically take more than a couple of months to review so this will put you in the situation of reviewing a paper written by an active collaborator. Even ignoring the conflict of interest, that would not be a comfortable situation.

Unless the editor explicitly mentioned it, don't assume that they're OK with you reviewing a paper that talks about you as a planned future collaborator. There's a good chance that the editor didn't notice that, since they don't have time to read in full every paper that's submitted. To underscore this point, I know two different people who have been asked to review one of their own papers: editors make mistakes, too.

By the way, when you decline, don't mention that the paper says that the author plans on working with you. That looks too much like you're saying, "Duuuuh!" Just say that you're about to start collaborating with the author so you have a conflict of interest. If you can, suggest somebody else who might be able to review the paper.

  • It might be a limiting case, but I'm currently working on a relatively narrow topic where almost everyone collaborates with all the other people around the world in one way or another, whether papers, projects or committees. Declining to review because of an ongoing collaboration would probably leave the editors without reviewers... – Massimo Ortolano Jun 10 '16 at 9:52
  • @MassimoOrtolano That's a special case and, even there, I'd at least advise the editor that you're collaborating with the author so they're explicitly aware of it. It also sounds like a rather dangerous situation. I hope editors try to get reviews from people outside the clique as well: even though they won't have as much expertise, an outside perspective is valuable. – David Richerby Jun 10 '16 at 10:01
  • The editors typically already know this, but it's definitely not a dangerous situation, and people from the outside would have zero expertise rather not much. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 10 '16 at 10:10
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I once received a paper to review where I was a coauthor. No kidding. I obviously declined, and maybe you should do the same. In my opinion this is largely your choice: if you feel that there is a conflict of interest or that you are unable to provide an impartial assessment you should decline.

Having said this, the scientific community in a specific domain is not always very large, there are not too many experts able to provide a solid review, and it therefore becomes inevitable after a few years to be confronted with the evaluation of a project or a manuscript of a former or present coworker. It may also be a disservice to the community if the manuscripts are evaluated exclusively by the competition, who might not be very impartial either but could be less inclined to admit it.

If you feel that you can evaluate the manuscript in an impartial way, you might add a confidential communication to the editor, some kind of "full disclosure", stating that you provide this review in spite of a planned collaboration with the authors, and that you are convinced that this situation does not affect your judgment of the work.

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Declining the request is the easy way out. However, once you have some experience, you will have personal relations with most active people in your field, so this attitude would leave the reviewing to incompetent outsiders, which would be really bad.

As Crowley mentioned, the job of a reviewer is to rate, verify and improve the paper, and verification and improvement are no problems. Unless you are not asked by a pretty good journal (say, Journal of the LMS and better), rating essentially means "Dou you think this article should be published at all?". So you have to check whether the authors do something genuinely new, or use standard methods to solve a standard problem. To judge this you have to have a good understanding of what is going on in your field, which is why outsiders make poor reviewers. In the end one has to rely on ones gut feelings. Do you think that within a few months you could have come up with the same result, or are you envious of their ideas? Or, in your concrete situation, makes reading this paper you looking forward to work together with such great people?

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