When getting reports for papers submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, referees sometimes suggest that some missing items be added to the list of references. In my short career I have seen all possible cases, from honest additions that were clearly necessary, through border-line literature where one could cite any one of a long list of possible sources, to blatant cases of citation shopping where the reviewers ask for 10 of their own papers to be added to the list.

Here, I am looking at the problem from the other side (the reviewer side). I recently refereed a paper for which I suggested that the authors look at a very recent paper, authored by researchers totally unrelated to me, that touches on a couple of issues that I thought were very relevant. Since that paper is so new, it is likely that they were not aware of its existence. Because of all the misbehavior I talked about in my first paragraph above, I am afraid that the authors of the paper I reviewed might assume I am one of the authors of the suggested paper.

I know I should never disclose my identity in a report, but what about stating who "I am not"? Something like this:

I think the authors should have a look at recent paper Nice New Paper, which might help with the interpretation of their results. This reviewer would like to add that he did not participate in said study.

In my opinion this would serve two purposes. 1) Clarify the legitimacy of my suggestion (I do not get anything from it) and 2) prevent the authors of the reviewed paper from suspecting it was the other guys who reviewed their paper and they are shopping for citations.

What are possible ethical considerations against this course of action from the points of view of editors and authors?

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    I only suspect that reviewers are coauthors of suggested papers when it seems like a stretch to suggest said paper. If you find the paper relevant, I don't think you should worry. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 26 '16 at 7:07
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    I would strengthen "This reviewer would like to add that he did not participate in said study" to "This reviewer would like to add that they did not co-author that paper nor are they affiliated with the authors of that paper." – user2768 Sep 26 '16 at 8:18
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    blatant cases of citation shopping where the reviewers ask for 10 of their own papers to be added to the list Really? I'd talk to the editor in such cases, this is plain stupid and should be reported. – Cape Code Sep 26 '16 at 13:38
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    It should certainly not be made a universal rule to add disclaimers like that. Otherwise it will become rather easy to figure out who the referee is - or impossible for the referee to ever suggest looking at their own paper :) – Jakub Konieczny Sep 26 '16 at 17:02
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    Side note: when referring to yourself in a review, even including a gendered pronoun reveals information about your identity, hence should be avoided. – Greg Martin Sep 26 '16 at 21:47

As a reviewer, I have suggested the authors to cite one of my papers only once or twice. I apologized for doing that in the notes to the editor, and remarked that I couldn't avoid it because it was really central. I wrote nothing in the blind notes to the authors, and I write nothing when I suggest papers from other people.

I do this because of two reasons:

  1. I value anonymity of peer reviewers highly, and I prefer to avoid remarks that reduce it by unnecessarily providing additional bits of information. There are already unavoidable signs such as writing style and English mistakes, and I don't want to add more.
  2. I believe it is the editor's responsibility to make sure that the referees are not citation-shopping. It can't be anyone else's, because they are the only person with all the information necessary to perform a check. So I have to justify my actions to him/her, not to the authors.

If, as an author or as a second reviewer, I noticed a very blatant case of citation shopping, I would consider it appropriate to write to the editor privately to suggest investigating. but this has never happened to me up to now. (Although there have been a couple of borderline cases.)

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    Thanks for your input. I agree that ideally this would be the case. In practice I find that many editors mass-process submissions and rely sometimes too blindly on reviewers to make decisions. – Miguel Sep 26 '16 at 9:02

Honestly, unless it's particularly blatant (i.e. five suggested citations all to the same people etc.) I tend to assume people are doing this anyway, or at least extend them the benefit of the doubt.

So my core advice? Spend no more time worrying about this than you already have.

If you really care, the way I would approach this is to phrase your comment as if you had read the paper. So, for example:

"The authors may wish to consider citing the recent article by Fomite et al. Highly Topical Research is Highly Topical in this month's issue of Journal of Our Field. Based on my reading, their findings in Table 2 would strengthen the core argument of this paper."

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    I wished everyone behaved like this. One particularly bad case was a ref criticizing his own paper just so that I would add discussion and citation to mine. Initially he managed to trick me to believe he was someone else. This same guy has done stuff along these lines several times already, including pretending not to be involved in his papers: "I listened to [his own student] present convincing evidence of X at conference Y. His paper [coauthored by him] just appeared in Journal Z". He waited until publication of this paper before sending the review just so that the citation could be added. – Miguel Sep 26 '16 at 9:00
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    @Miguel admittedly, a researcher is most familiar with his own research and publications than with anyone else, and they aren't supposed to reveal their identities. – Davidmh Sep 26 '16 at 9:51
  • FYI: You appear to have a typo: "The authors may with to" appears to be intended to be: "The authors may wish to" (perhaps you intended "want"?). Although, both those possibilities are phrased very passively (wish/want to consider). Better would be "The authors should consider". – Makyen Sep 26 '16 at 15:27
  • @Makyen Fixed the typo. Honestly, most of my reviewer comments are in passive voice to make it obvious that when I switch to non-passive voice it's also non-optional. – Fomite Sep 28 '16 at 4:21

I think that you should avoid remarks like this. Avoid politics and stay focused on science.

Is this the only paper you refer to in your review? If you have other places where you refer to other papers by other authors, what makes you think they will able to single out the paper you suggest as (falsely) your own?

Instead of the way you suggested to write it, how about something like this:

I suspect that the authors overlooked a very recent paper by XYZ (link doi ref etc). XYZ provide these new data and that interpretation which conflicts with point A of the authors and supports their point B. I think it is important that the authors address these new findings so their paper does not become instantly outdated and keeps at pace with new development in the field.

By phrasing it this way, you are doing the following:

  1. You put the focus on the scientific content of the new paper. Instead of saying "here's a new paper, cite it", you point out the scientific reasons that this paper is relevant.
  2. You leave the choice of citation to the authors. Again, by not saying "cite it" you lower the chances of them thinking it's yours. If the paper is indeed relevant as you think it is, there is no reason that they do not cite it. It's their paper after all, and if they choose not to cite the paper, it's their call (pending editor's approval).
  3. You mention the benefit to the authors by reading and possibly citing the new paper. No one wants to publish stuff that's no longer relevant, or superseded by other studies!

I also think that by framing your comment similar to what I suggested, the question of whether they think you are the author or not becomes unimportant. What's important is the science: the point is to make the authors understand that the paper has scientific importance and should then be cited, and even if they think that you are the author of said paper, they will not think you are forcing them to cite it because you are trying to increase your H-index or whatever.

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    +1, but I would drop the "paper instantly outdated" side of the comment and would just leave the "keep at pace" part (which essentially says the same thing without sounding derisive). – einpoklum Sep 27 '16 at 6:13
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    @einpoklum point taken. – Gimelist Sep 27 '16 at 6:44

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