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I submitted a paper to a journal and got the referee report. In the first referee report the same surname has been repeated 10 times, and since then the referee has insisted on a discussion about that paper.

I've read the paper, and the paper is dealing with a different subject. It can seldom be considered as relevant. The demand for commenting on that particular work was declined by us and the paper was eventually rejected. Apart from the editors, should there be a way to control this excessive use of the refereeing power?

After putting the paper on the arXiv, the lead author of that paper already contacted me to cite some the related works (of course mostly his works). Interestingly, the citation in question is not even regarded as relevant by the leading author.

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    "A simple text search". When you get a referee report that suggests certain bibliography, you should at least get the suggested papers and at least skim through them. Everything else is just sloppy. – Alexandros Jul 29 '16 at 8:35
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    As @Alexandros says, at least if it's in broadly the same field. The same analysis can, after all, be applied in very different situations. If they want you to cite a paper on chicken evolution and you're writing about black-hole physics, you probably don't need to read the paper. A courteous referee would use a few words to indicate why it's relevant. Referees are not required to be courteous. – Chris H Jul 29 '16 at 8:39
  • After putting the paper on the arXiv, the lead author of that paper already contacted me to cite some related works (of course mostly his work). Interestingly, that citation in question is not even regard as relevant by the leading authors. So I am very confident that it unrelated. – gastro Jul 29 '16 at 9:19
  • What else can one do to prove that it is irrelevant? – gastro Jul 29 '16 at 9:24
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    @gastro. Read the paper(s) proposed to you. Similar to RTFM. All people here say the same thing. You should listen. When you disagree with the suggested proposed paper, you should reply that the "in our paper we do .... and ..." but "paper B does .... on Section3" or "does ... in Section 4" and hence the results of Paper B are not really relevant to our work. Hence, we decided not to include it in our related work. – Alexandros Jul 29 '16 at 9:59
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Apart from the editors, should there be a way to control this excessive use of the refereeing power?

Straight-forward answer: no. This is what an editor should check for. If (s)he does not care or does not agree with you, your only option is to go for a different journal, with consequently a different editor.

I should also add that, in my experience, few reviewers request their papers to be added willy-nilly. If this reviewer thinks her or his work is missing, you should at least do a thorough check of why (s)he would think so, and then accurately report in your response letter. It seems unsurprising to me that your paper was rejected if your response to "important related work from XYZ is missing" was "we did some high-level searching and it seemed kinda unrelated, so we skipped it". I as an editor would also consider this at least a substantial nudge into "reject" territory.

  • Thanks, as just edited, the reviewer is probably not the lead author of the paper in question. Supposed that it is unrelated, what is the right way to address this? – gastro Jul 29 '16 at 9:32
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    In my experience, one of the reviewers could also be the editor! I've encountered this where the editor insists of me citing his/her work. Yes, this is for a reputable journal. – Prof. Santa Claus Jul 29 '16 at 23:46
  • these can be expected, because (a) scientists are rewarded based on citation. (b) one can put pressures onto the authors through the review process. – gastro Aug 3 '16 at 13:48
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Refusing to discuss the references suggested by the referee is not a wise move. There are two cases to be considered:

  1. Either it is in fact highly related work, and then your dismissal of the suggestion appears unprofessional, even if the referee is the author of the said papers, or
  2. The papers are in fact unrelated. But then there should be a reason for that. For example in the response you could write something like:

    Thanks for the suggestion. We read paper X and found it to be about topic Y, whereas our paper is about topic X. Techniques from topic Y cannot be used for X because of (TechnicalDifficulty). We also checked the technical contributions of the paper and found that none of the ideas can be adapted to the problem that we are solving.

You need to ensure as an author that you make the impression that you thoughtfully considered adding the related work and that there is a good scientific reason for not including it. Skimming through the paper is not sufficient. As an example, I once needed to tell a paper author after a scientific talk that his main idea was already in the literature: it was a lemma in a paper on an only marginally related topic, but since the technique applied there was exactly the same as in his new work, this still counts as a duplicate. In the other paper, the result was never mentioned in abstract and introduction, because for its authors, it was only a lemma.

As to the actual question: If you make a proper response and the referee still insists on the inclusion in the second reviewing round without giving good reasons, then the editor should see that the request for reference inclusion is unreasonable - so the editor should then just ignore the referee's comment. This is the mechanism by which this unfair power difference is balanced, and hence there is no need for a change in the process (at least not for this reason).

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Apart from the editors, should there be a way to control this excessive use of the refereeing power?

What do you mean by "apart from the editors"? That's like saying, "Apart from gravity, is there anything that makes apples fall from trees?"

Referees do not accept or reject papers. They make recommendations. Editors accept or reject papers based on their opinions of those recommendations. If the referees recommend spurious changes, your response to the referees comments should explain why those changes are spurious. If your paper is rejected after that, either it was rejected for other reasons or the editors believed that the requested changes were not spurious. In the latter case, your only option is to find a different editor, i.e., resubmit the paper to another journal.

Referees do not have the power you think they have. For example, as a referee, I've had an editor accept a paper after I gave what I believe to be good technical reasons for rejecting it. Why? Because the decision is theirs to make and they obviously valued the other referee's opinion more than mine.

  • I think they have. There was another instance, where the referee demanded some additional simulations, which is not necessary. I wrote a 1-page justification why this is not necessary, without responding to my 1-page justification, the referee simply suggested rejection afterwards, which was agreed upon by the editor. I think, minimally, one should demand the rdifferent eferee reports from the same referee consistent. – gastro Jul 29 '16 at 9:59
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    No, that's not an example of referee power; that's an example of the editor accepting the referee's recommendation. The editor rejected the paper, not the referee. (As others have pointed out, the referee and the editor might have been the same person.) – JeffE Aug 7 '16 at 16:27
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One suggestion not mentioned in other answers so far: ask for clarification! That is, send a short email to the editor, something like:

Subject: Request for clarification from referee A

Dear [editor’s name],

We are currently revising our submission based on the referee reports, and there’s one point on which we would be grateful for further clarification. Referee A suggested we should mention the connections with (Jones et al, 2005); however, it’s not clear to us which points of (Jones et al) they had in mind as particularly relevant to our submission. (Briefly, (Jones et al) studies the weights of birds, while we study the heights of trees.) Could you ask Referee A if they can elaborate on this suggestion, please?

Do make clear that you have read (Jones et al) — not necessarily a totally thorough reading, but you should at least read the introduction and skim-read the whole paper, say. Provided you’ve done that, a quick request for clarification is completely reasonable (at least based in my experience refereeing in pure mathematics — I’ve received a couple of such questions passed on from editors).

Possibilities for what you might get in response include:

  • Referee A points out a genuine connection that you had overlooked. “The object of study is different, but they use a closely related novel statistical method (though with different notation)…” Then you can follow their suggestion and mention the connection.

  • Referee A takes back their suggestion: “I was thinking of the similar statistical methods, but I notice now that Jones was drawing on (Wilson, 2002), which you already discuss in Section 3. So there is no need to cite Jones as well.”

  • Referee A doesn’t say anything particularly helpful. Then the editor can see this (as they pass the response back to you), so you are on firmer ground to ignore this particular suggestion.

  • I have made this clear to the editor in our cover letter during the resubmission, but the editor never commented on it. – gastro Jul 29 '16 at 20:15
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    Requesting clarification before fully reading the paper suggested by the reviewer is not good practice, in my view. A skim-read is not sufficient. – D.W. Jul 29 '16 at 23:02
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Apart from the editors, should there be a way to control this excessive use of the refereeing power?

As of today, there is no such way. But you are asking "should". Many researchers do agree that some weak form of control or feedback should eventually emerge to discourage reviews of the form "Minor/major reject. The papers of Joanne Sixpack '42 shades of green' and 'The importance of being truthnest' are relevant".

If after reading the suggested papers you do think that they are irrelevant, and if the referee and the editor insist, then you MAY cite the papers, get your paper accepted, and remove the citations from the final version. However, warning: this would be considered a BAD practice. A GOOD practice would be to choose another journal or do something groundbreaking or complain to the editor-in-chief.

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