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If I were asked to review a paper, under what circumstances would I be expected to decline out of a conflict of interest? Could I review a paper for someone...

  • I have collaborated with N years ago?
  • Who I am currently collaborating with, but we have not yet published a paper together?
  • Who is currently or was once in the same institution as I?
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    My rule of thumb: when in doubt, I likely have a conflict of interest. – Gerhard Jun 28 '16 at 12:51
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The answer to your question depends on context. I find three key elements to the decision of whether or not to declare conflict of interest:

  1. Formal rules: some venues have an explicit conflict of interest policy; if so, abide by it.
  2. Size of reviewer pool: sometimes, you have an extremely specialized subject, in which the number of people qualified to review a paper at all are quite small. In such a case, one should generally be more permissive.
  3. Formality of venue: conflict of interest for a journal or top conference is generally more strict than for less formal venues like workshops, especially for ones intended to discuss early-stage work where all you're really looking for is a sanity check.

Now, to address some specifics:

  • I generally hold that it's a bad idea to review one's current or recent collaborators except in the most informal of venues.
  • Co-authors is often the same as one's collaborators, but not always --- one might be collaborating but not yet be published together, or might be a very distant co-author (for example, I'm not going to worry about conflict of interest with most of the co-authors on my 600+ author paper).
  • I also don't generally count co-organization as collaboration, since that's often a fairly narrow relationship.
  • Being at the same institution (currently or in the recent past) may or may not be a conflict depending on how close the organization is: in some places different departments might as well be different institutions; in others, it's one tight family.
  • Being funded by an organization is almost certainly a conflict of interest.
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Barring a policy at the venue asking for the review, I tend to use the US NSF Rules which basically come down to:

  • Family
  • In the last five years:
    • Co-author or co-editor
    • Co-PI on a grant
  • PhD Supervisor or supervisee
  • Direct financial conflict (such as an industrial funder, etc.)

And I ignore the same institution requirement (at the NSF people at the same university or other institution cannot review each others' grant proposal, but I think that's too much for paper review).

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    I find NSF rules a bit too restrictive for reviewing because of one additional bullet that you left out: "Co-editing of a journal, compendium, or conference proceedings within the last 24 months." Because the size of editorial boards and conference organizations are often quite large, that can disqualify a lot of people with whom one actually has fairly minimal contact. – jakebeal Jun 28 '16 at 21:40
  • I think the same institution requirement is useful. It benefits me when my colleagues are publishing well so there is at least room for a perceived conflict. At large institutions, this may be mitigated but I would certainly turn down any offers to review work by students or colleagues in my department. – Benjamin Mako Hill Jun 29 '16 at 8:45
  • @BenjaminMakoHill, sure, but unless the venue you are reviewing for has a requirement on this, I think that it's up to your personal ethics to make that call. I'm at a huge university (~50k students and a ton of PhDs), so I usually don't sweat it. – Bill Barth Jun 29 '16 at 13:57
  • @jakebeal, that's your personal call unless your venue has a hard requirement on that. I've been turning down all TPC requests lately due to health issues, so that makes it easier for me. – Bill Barth Jun 29 '16 at 13:59

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