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I'm reviewing a paper whose work is quite related to some of my early PhD work, that was about 2 years ago. I have a paper published in a Journal that proved that method A had good solutions for the problem X.

Now I'm asked to review a paper that does a variation on method A, although they never cite my paper at all, is not exactly the same, but I think there should be a reference, if not because it is my paper, but because by the time I did the survey no one else had used that method.

Now, that said, is it a breach of interest to ask the authors to cite my work, or at least read it?

  • 7
    Maybe discussing this issue with the editor is a good idea. – user4511 Mar 15 '13 at 18:49
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    Is it a conflict of interest? Conceivably. Is it common? Hell yeah. – 410 gone Mar 16 '13 at 7:24
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    You can always say "you need to talk a bit more about previous work on X Y and Z, and how your work fits into the bigger picture of past contributions. Here is a list of references. You should probably cite some of them in your paper." Include your work, but don't tell them directly to cite it. If your work is truly relevant enough they will cite it, if not they will cite some of the other papers you included. – WetlabStudent Feb 15 '15 at 4:08

10 Answers 10

30

If I were you, I would ask myself the following question:

is it better for the paper to be aware of my work?

I believe this is the main question you need to ask. If you see your work is relevant to the problem and can enhance the paper content, then you have to point to it. If you see your work as a complement of the paper just reference it in the review.

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  • 2
    And if you are worried about appearing to have a conflict of interest, point to papers other than your own also. – Ben Norris Mar 16 '13 at 13:42
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    ... which you should do in any case. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 16 '13 at 14:34
22

I don't agree that this is a conflict of interest. The reviewer can point out related work, and recommend that the author cite it. if the work is in fact irrelevant, the author can point this out, and the editor can adjudicate. Referees are supposed to be experts on the material.

This scenario has happened to me a few times. I've recommended that the author cite the relevant papers (including my own as needed).

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  • 4
    Strictly speaking, I think this situation is a conflict of interest (following the "Washington Post rule"), but one that is appropriately addressed as Suresh describes. However, standards for addressing this situation may differ in different fields. – JeffE Mar 15 '13 at 22:59
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    I agree with Suresh. It may subvert the scholarly record not to cite the relevant literature--whether you are among the authors of that relevant literature is irrelevant. Those who insist a priori there is a conflict of interest may themselves have an interest in not citing the prior work of others. I am very familiar with such cases, having corresponded with authors who had published an axiomatization that had appeared in another form in the Journal of Symbolic Logic the year before. They acknowledged this--it was of interest--but did not correct the papers that came out subsequently. – Anon Mar 16 '13 at 0:39
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    To be clear, a conflict of interest does not automatically require you to recuse yourself from reviewing the paper; it only requires that the conflict be exposed to the editor. (Reviewing a paper that already cites your work also presents a conflict of interest.) – JeffE Mar 16 '13 at 19:56
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    This is just an aside, but if reviewing a paper that already cites your work constitutes a conflict of interest (and I agree that it technically does), then it must be an incredibly common conflict of interest for reviewers that are really prominent in their area. Personally, I would like the best researchers in my area to review my papers but I would also, on the whole, trust them to deal with this conflict of interest without it needing to be raised as such. – ThomasH Mar 20 '13 at 22:49
20

Yes, of course there is a conflict of interest in this situation. Reasonable people may differ in their opinions on how the conflict of interest should be addressed in this circumstance, but I think it's obvious that a conflict exists. You are in a position of power over the authors of the paper in your role as a reviewer. If the authors were to cite your paper, that would be of some benefit to you. Therefore, asking them to do it inherently involves some element of conflict of interest.

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  • 10
    Yes, the situation is literally a conflict-of-interest scenario. The questioner has positive motivation to require/suggest the author(s) cite, which is (at least potentially) corrupting. One must avoid not only impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety. Probably should send the paper back to the editor, explaining, not as a referee report, but as explaining the conflict-of-interest. – paul garrett Mar 15 '13 at 19:49
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    I believe the benefit of the additional citations is so negligible that there is no conflict. By your logic there is a conflict if you review a paper that cites you ahead of time. – StrongBad Mar 15 '13 at 20:45
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    Indeed, literally, there is conflict of interest in reviewing a paper citing oneself, etc. Then the issue devolves to what to do in this case. The realities of academe seem to "forgive" the situation that the ms. cites the referee, since otherwise things would be too difficult. The issue of recommending citation is arguably more problemmatical, although, still, the editor may request continuing regardless. – paul garrett Mar 15 '13 at 20:51
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    Don't many editors assign reviewers based on the citations? – Leon palafox Mar 15 '13 at 22:50
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    @paulgarrett: What's the point of sending it back to the editor? The editor will see in your report that you asked to be cited, and if the editor has a problem with that, she can always ignore your report and assign a different referee. – Nate Eldredge Mar 16 '13 at 2:21
11

Asking whether something is or is not a conflict of interest is generally a misleading question, since it suggests a sharp cut-off rather than a continuum. It's very rare to be so completely detached as to have no problematic incentives (for example, many other authors are friends or rivals). Instead, the question is how troublesome the incentives are and how to handle them.

Recommending that the author cite your own papers certainly has the potential for abuse. However, people generally don't worry about it very much, since the worst-case scenario of a few borderline unnecessary citations is not so terrible (if the referee asks for many citations or they are really not relevant, then the editor should notice and intervene).

What's tricky about it is that some papers must be cited to give appropriate credit. If you discovered X, but the author mistakenly credits it to a later paper based on your work, then you have an obligation to tell the author about your earlier paper. The difficulty is in distinguishing what must be cited from what you wish would be cited. I don't think there is any standard rule for how to make this distinction.

What I do in practice is to make explicit recommendations to cite my work only when I can give a clear factual reason. I.e., if the author says something historically incorrect or gives the wrong attribution, then I correct it. However, I'm reluctant to ask the author to include a citation if everything in the paper would be correct without it. For example, sentences like "Previous applications of Smith theory include X, Y, and Z" are still correct even if I wish W were also included.

On the other hand, the next best thing is to say something like "The author may find the following related papers interesting: ..." There's an implicit suggestion that citations could be appropriate, but it's less pushy than saying it explicitly, and the author can decide whether to include citations.

This doesn't really solve the conflict of interest issue. After all, the implicit suggestion is pretty transparent, and the author may still feel some pressure. However, it seems to me like a reasonable compromise.

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6

I don't believe so.

Conflict of Interest usually deal with people that you are at the same institution with, or have collaborated with in the past, or have some kind of financial investment in, and if there's a conflict of interest, you generally decline to review that article. The journal or conference you're reviewing for likely has reviewer guidelines for what constitutes conflict of interest.

There is a risk that you can "out" yourself as an anonymous reviewer, but if you're able to suggest a few papers from various authors, that risk decreases. :)

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  • 4
    -1 for an overly restrictive definition of "conflict of interest", limiting it only to financial settings; the ethical issues are more complex than that. +1 for the "suggest multiple papers" comment as a practical approach, which definitely seems to be the norm in practice. – eykanal Mar 15 '13 at 20:31
4

The tl;dr version:

  1. Of course it's a conflict of interest--you stand to benefit.
  2. You should do it anyway if the work is highly relevant since good citations are important.
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4

If the work is in your area of interest/expertise, there is always a potential for conflict of interest. If the work is a competing approach that you don't agree with, there is conflict; if the work is a similar approach to your own, there is conflict; if this is a journal or conference you submit to with limited spots available, there is conflict; if it is an application for funds you also are eligible for, rather than a paper, there is conflict; if it is a paper that might be used as evidence in such a grant application, there is conflict.

If you or an editor suppress relevant references from your report (whether your own, others you know, or the work of people you have never met) you are compromising the value of the paper if accepted, and impacting the citation chain, and committing a form of indirect plagiarism - people who find this paper will find it more difficult to find the others, and will tend to give attribution to the authors of this paper rather than the original inventors of the ideas (yourself or others). If you are an expert in the area, as your selection as a referee suggests you should be, then you should have a familiarity with the literature and part of your job is to assess the comprehensiveness of the literature review. It may be ideas have been reinvented, it may be an early paper was read or referenced and the idea planted but the citation forgotten or lost, it may be overt plagiarism that the author knows of the work and the similarity, but wants the glory alone.

If you include requests to cite irrelevant references (whether your own or others or others previously published in the same journal), that is again a nepotism-like form of misconduct. Conversely, I have seen reviewers/editors reports that discount relevant work because it wasn't published in a venue of sufficiently high reputation, this is a form of plagiarism and chauvinism.

Work should stand alone on its merits irrespective of who wrote it or where it was published. You as a reviewer have a responsibility to judge the work, and whether it has dealt properly with the literature, to add missed citations, and potentially to remove miscitations (often self-citations by the authors that are of no relevance).

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  • +1 for comments on indirect and overt plagiarism. I am aware of such cases. – Anon Mar 18 '13 at 17:37
1

Asking the author to cite your previous work is not a conflict of interest, but it may indicate a lack of impartiality on your part. In other words, there is always conflict of interest whenever you act as an expert reviewer and editors implicitly assume some small conflicts exist, they also believe you can be impartial despite the conflict. If you are concerned that by asking the authors to cite your previous work that you are not being impartial, there are 3 things you can do

  1. You can reveal you identity and say "for what is it worth, you may want to cite MY work".
  2. You can write the review in such a way that the recommended citations can be easily deleted. You can then inform the editor that you have recommended some citations to your work and you are concerned about your impartiality and ask the editor to use his/her judgment about removing the recommended citations.
  3. You can leave them in and say nothing. If the editor thinks you are being unfair or too self prompting, they won't ask you to review again.
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1

Sure it is a conflict of interest. However, this particular type of conflict of interest IMHO cannot be avoided and is quite probable due to how the review process works:

  • Reviewers are chosen according to their expertise.
  • Therefore, chances are that they have been publishing relevant papers (how else would the editor know of them?).
  • Manuscripts are not perfect, otherwise we'd not need the review process. One important point of the peer review process is that someone who's an expert in the field can actually check that the references are adequate (this is often explicitly asked for). People who have been publishing in the field usually know best whether references are adequate.
  • In consequence, you want exactly these people for the review, even though it creates a conflict of interest. It is a trade-off between the chance to get a better review from someone who is an honest player in that field compared to a "stranger", and the risk that the reviewer exercises undue power over the authors to advance his citation count.
  • So you'll face this quite regularly once you have been making meaningful contributions to your field.

However, usually it is possible to ask that references on this-and-that topic should be given instead of asking to cite your paper.

You may want to look at this related discussion: How to avoid identifying myself in a review?
which discusses a similar situation (though the perceived conflict is slightly different).

Side note: the very fact that you ask here is probably a very good indicator that you are not abusing your power as reviewer. Those who do most probably neither ask nor answer here.

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1

I do not think this is a yes and no question. Furthermore I note that it seems the journal editor is not seen as part of the loop. So from my editor point of view I would make the following points:

  • Asking authors to cite one's paper is generally risking to be considered distasteful (by the editor and by the authors). Most of the cases I have encountered is not about improving the paper, but to promote ones own research. Hence, a perspective on the reasons is important.
  • If your research is not referenced it could be a sign that more relevant literature is missing. In such a case you are better off briefly researching if that is the case and point that out to the authors and to the editor. Your paper along with others can serve as one of perhaps several examples.
  • Do not forget the editor. Point out that your paper is not referenced but please provide a detailed account for why it should be. Appropriate cases could include: it is a first, it is the latest building on earlier work, it contains key information not found elsewhere. If the paper is one of many possible to be cited, your case is probably not strong enough.

So as I see it, "conflict of interest" applies if you ask about adding references for the wrong reason. If you do ask something to be added, make the point very clear why your paper (hopefully along with others) is invaluable and how it would improve the paper. Make your argument primarily with the editor. An editor should evaluate reviewers reports and provide feedback on what should be done to the authors. If you do not have a very strong scientific reason to do it, don't.

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