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I was recently asked to referee a paper for a "moderate" but perfectly acceptable Elsevier journal, with an impact factor of around 1. The article in question was very poorly written, had several significant misconceptions in the introduction, but looked potentially quite interesting: I submitted a recommendation of major revisions, and included a list of fifty points ranging from the essentially (mathematical) grammatical to several significant scientific points. Frankly, I felt I was, if anything, quite generous -- rather than submitting a 2500 word review with a large number of salient criticisms, I would probably have been justified in recommendation rejection on the grounds that it was difficult to discern what had actually been undertaken.

Recently, Elsevier made me aware that the other reviewer had submitted their comments on the paper. I was interested to see if they had agreed with my judgement -- and on which side of the accept/reject fence they had fallen. Much to my surprise, they had suggested outright acceptance, had written a very terse review which included details that were not originally in the paper, but could only be known to one of the authors [or their friends].

What should I do about this? I feel like having a badly-written one paragraph review recommending acceptance of a flawed article makes a whole mockery of the whole of peer review -- and additionally potentially means that Elsevier can't select reviewers appropriately.

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    Generally Elsevier journals are run with honest editors and an honest editor would never allow an author to be one of the referees. However, it's not unreasonable that "friend" is a referee, given the smallness of fields. So it's not so unusual that a referee is aware of the work in a paper beyond the actual paper (e.g., seminars or private discussions). – Kimball Jul 20 '16 at 9:43
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    Also take this as a lesson or two: always make your referee reports as clear to the editor as possible, and know that the final decision lies with the editor(s), not you. – Kimball Jul 20 '16 at 9:45
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    More clear: "There seems to be a novel algorithm here, but due to the extremely deficient exposition, this paper is not publishable without major revisions." – Kimball Jul 20 '16 at 10:08
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    "I feel like having a badly-written one paragraph review recommending acceptance of a flawed article makes a whole mockery of the whole of peer review -- and additionally potentially means that Elsevier can't select reviewers appropriately." I think this is pretty common, even at reputable journals. I see quite a few incomprehensible reviews (too short, off topic, not gramatical...) Elsevier does not set uniform editorial standards for its journals. The (typically volunteer) editors do that. Elsevier has been caught with corrupt editors before. Can't tell who is at fault here. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 20 '16 at 11:12
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    this method] is currently in use in [a site not mentioned in the paper] -- This is perfectly innocent if you work in a field where preprints or conferences or workshops are the norm (like computer science). Referees are not required to be ignorant of the results in any paper they agree to review. – JeffE Jul 20 '16 at 12:59
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My perspective as an Elsevier editor: This happens sometimes and is easy to see through. An outright "accept" on a first submission is so rare as to raise eyebrows in any case (at least, in my field). The editor has probably noticed the lack of thorough review by this referee and will give the review the appropriate weight (i.e. none). That said, I would not see any harm in emailing the editor if you are concerned, so long as you keep it polite and to the point.

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    I agree with the first part (+1), but I'm not sure that most editors want to get a bunch of emails from referees critiquing alternative referee reports. – Kimball Jul 21 '16 at 0:47
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    Most papers I've reviewed for have a field in the online submission form for confidential comments to the editor. – gerrit Jul 21 '16 at 10:13
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    @Kimball As an editor I'd much rather receive an email alerting me to a potential problem with the review process than put my name as editor on a paper that turns out to have serious flaws. – Corvus Jul 23 '16 at 5:50
  • @gerrit yes, but you don't usually see the other reviewers' comments until after you have submitted your review on that form, so if you need to get in touch with the editor after seeing the other review, that won't work. – Significance Jul 24 '16 at 23:29
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Transparency is key. If you suspect some kind of fraud, be open with the editor, and send an email to prove you acted proactively. If your suspicion is strong and you do not act clearly, you risk later appearing as an accomplice.

Probably the other reviewer is a friend and is also superficial (because he is riskying highly if discovered). This is a typical proof that the peer review system is, somewhat quoting Churchill's definition of democracy, the worst system to disseminate research findings but all the others which have been tried before.

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    I agree with the advice to notify the editor (but that should be done as factually as possible: do not accuse the editor of incompetence of manipulation, mention your doubt honestly) but I do not agree with the risk mentioned in the answer. I very much doubt the editor himself would be in much trouble if he did pick a referee too close to the authors, unless he does that repeatedly, and the other referee would certainly not be taken accountable for not going beyond what is asked in any part of academia I remotely know of. – Benoît Kloeckner Jul 20 '16 at 12:53
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Ultimately this is up to the action editor. The reviewer you speak of hasn't hidden his/her obvious affiliation with the authors, so hopefully that will be noticed. A good action editor has sole discretion, with the peer reviews as supporting evidence. A terse 'accept' review may carry no weight, but tough to say. Most likely, if you made great points, they will be passed along.

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If your suspicions are true, you're describing peer review fraud. I think that this question is highly relevant, since it deals with the same core issues: Is it okay to report classmates cheating on exams?

Many editors have been on the lookout for this kind of fraud because of incidents such as this one. Still, it's easy to dismiss these incidents as happening to "someone else", and that "my/our journal" has no problems. As an editor, I would absolutely want to be told of this so I can investigate, as well as possibly blacklist the authors if fraud is confirmed.

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