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I reviewed an article for a journal, suggesting some revisions. The authors made revisions and now the journal has asked me to do a second round of reviewing. As well as the revised manuscript, the journal also sent me the report written about the original submission by the other referee of the paper.

I'm not a very experienced reviewer. This is the first time I've got to see someone else's report on a paper I've reviewed. When writing my report about the revised paper, am I allowed to discuss or respond to the other reviewer's comments? (When I've received referee reports on my own revised manuscripts, I've never seen referees discussing each other's opinions.)

In this case, reviewer 2 and myself wrote very similar reports, with reviewer 2 being a bit harsher. There is however one point in reviewer 2's report that I'd like to reply to directly. He/she criticises the authors' results X because they don't also show Y. Showing Y at the same time as X has been a long-standing goal in our field. But nobody has ever succeeded, and recent studies suggest that probably X doesn't imply Y after all. The authors do a poor job of defending themselves. There was no mention of Y in the original submission and I didn't mention it in my report either.

In general, is it okay to write in a referee report "The other referee says... but actually...". Or should it be in a separate comment to the editor? Or should I try to rephrase so that I'm responding to the authors instead of the other referee (not easy in this case).

Maybe I'm overthinking this, but it seems to me (i) I'm supposed to be reviewing the paper, not reviewing the other referee, and (ii) if this should go to yet another round of revision, it shouldn't develop into an argument between the referees!

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    For what reason and purpose would the editor provide you with the other reviewer's report if not to take it into consideration? The usual assumption is that if your boss/supervisor asks you to do a job, and hands you materials for that job, then it is within reason, if not entirely expected, that you utilize those materials to complete your task. If you think this material may have been provided in error, why not clarify the issue with the editor? – zibadawa timmy Sep 2 '16 at 12:45
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Review are not an appropriate location for a direct argument between the referees.

There are, however, appropriate ways to respond to what you see as a mistake by the other referee.

  • First, you can make a clear statement of the positive value in the paper, implicitly contrasting with the other referee. For example, in this case, you can simply talk about how significant and publishable the authors work on X is. If they now mention Y in their paper, you can note that you are not concerned about it, for the reasons that you stated above. In your open review, keep it purely about the paper.

  • Second, however, every review form comes with a place for confidential comments to the editor. This is the appropriate place for you to respond directly to the comments of the other referee, saying things like "I think Reviewer #2 was too harsh, because...", since it is the editor's job to synthesize the disagreements of reviewers into a decision on the paper.

Finally, you probably don't have to sweat it too hard: since the paper wasn't rejected after the first round, that usually means the editor thinks it has the potential for publication, with appropriate revision.

  • Yes confidential comments to the editor is the way to go. Both bullets are excellent. – If you do not know- just GIS Sep 2 '16 at 13:03
  • Before making comments confidential, consider the authors or other reviewer might learn from the information. Excessive secrecy, in the long run, may make the review process less effective. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 3 '16 at 3:16
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In general, is it okay to write in a referee report "The other referee says... but actually...".

No, it's not okay, don't do it: referee reports are not forums of discussion between reviewers, they lack the mechanism for an efficient discussion, and it's the authors' duty to defend themselves. In addition, after the second round of reviews, reviewer 2 would probably not have any chance to reply to your remarks.

If you really feel that the second reviewer made a totally wrong comment, maybe you can report this as a comment to the editor, but take into account that the editor might choose to ignore it.

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    You have given an argument that it is not necessary, but I am unconvinced that it is "not okay" or in any way inappropriate. Inability of referee 2 to respond is not a reason not to comment on scientific claims of referee 2. Please revise. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 2 '16 at 9:12
  • @AnonymousPhysicist The way the communication is structured during a review doesn't allow any fair debate between the reviewers, neither direct nor mediated by the editor. The structure of a review is inadequate for such a purpose. If we have to accept this, we would have to restructure the peer-review system, which will probably happen sometimes in the future – Massimo Ortolano Sep 2 '16 at 9:26
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    I disagree with this answer. Referee reports are not discussions between referees and authors, either. Editors are under no obligation to ask authors for responses, nor to ask referees to respond to authors' responses. Everything that written in a referee report is a comment to the editor, which the editor can choose to ignore. – JeffE Sep 2 '16 at 11:06
  • @JeffE I didn't say anywhere that referee reports are discussions between referees and authors, nor that the referee's have to respond to author's responses (where have you read this?). – Massimo Ortolano Sep 2 '16 at 11:13
  • @JeffE An editor can choose to ignore the referee report, but if you read, e.g., this reviewer's guidelines, you will see that it says: " Please note that when reporting on a revision we expect you to read the author reply to your comments and check the changes in their revised manuscript, then decide if the revision is now suitable for publication." Thus, a reviewer, is frequently expected to read authors' replies. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 2 '16 at 11:14

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