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I was recently asked to review a paper. I feel like there is a conflict of interest as (i) I frequently collaborate with one of the authors, (ii) I discussed the paper with the authors while they were working on it, and (iii) I am currently doing follow-up work (i.e. extending the work of the paper in question).

I told the program committee member who asked me to review the paper all of this. I was surprised when she responded saying that this is not an issue. Specifically, she responded that this is unavoidable as there is a small community of experts who all work together and that this just means I'm the most qualified expert to review the paper.

What should I do? Should I accept the PC member's assertion that this is OK? (I have been honest with her.) Or should I insist that I am not able to give a fair review?

  • 24
    You're always able to follow your own conscience and decline. If you strongly feel like this is a bad situation, it probably is. If you strongly feel like you couldn't be impartial and objective, you probably can't. If you are concerned your colleagues would frown upon this if they found out, then they probably would. – David Mar 31 '17 at 18:03
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    If you did decide to review it, being as impartial as you can be, put the above statements in the review. – CramerTV Mar 31 '17 at 22:25
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    @CramerTV: That's not good enough, since no one will know other than the authors and the PC chair. The paper will have made the conference/journal without a proper review. This may be fair if the same is true for most other papers, but is quite unfair otherwise. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 1 '17 at 11:42
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    If you can be unbiased, then I think that points (ii) and (iii) mean that you can understand and review the paper much better than most other reviewers. If you can be unbiased. – Nick S Apr 1 '17 at 14:02
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    How small is your community? If you decline, how many others would have the relevant expertise to perform this review, and how likely would they be to have problems similar to yours? – user2357112 supports Monica Apr 1 '17 at 16:42
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From an outsider's perspective, both choices are now ethically just. You've declared the potential conflict of interest and been assured that the authority in question doesn't see one ( hopefully you did this through a means which let you keep a record).

So now it pretty much comes down to whether giving the paper a fair review makes you feel uncomfortable. If it does, then get back to the committee as soon as possible, and tell them as clearly as possible that you can't do the review. Otherwise, review the paper, making full use of your deep understanding of the context of the work.

If you're wondering whether the committee member's statement is ethical, then consider whether you, as an obviously knowledgeable person in the field, could think of three other possible reviewers. Of course, if you can, then maybe one answer is to say no, but pass on those names instead.

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    Disagree with the first part of your answer. The fact that a reviewer consulted a PC chair does not make this fair to the authors; they do not and should not care about the internal deliberations of the PC and the reviewers. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 1 '17 at 11:21
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    I agree with @einpoklum in one sense and not in another. I think that consulting with the chair is necessary but not sufficient, in the sense that if it really weren't too bad a conflict, and OP felt it could be reviewed objectively, it would be OK to proceed. Here it seems clear the conflict is too great and the chair should be ignored. The part where I really disagree though is the question of who it would be unfair to. It seems like the bias here would be in favor of the authors/collaborators and unfair to the other authors who are competing with this work... – Fred Douglis Apr 1 '17 at 18:05
  • @FredDouglis: I meant all authors. Should have made that clear. Of course it would be unfair to the authors of other papers, who get a not-biased-in-their-favor reviewer; but it would also be unfair to the authors of the paper OP got, because now it would appear they inappropriately got a paper into a conference - even if it wasn't their fault. So everybody gets hurt some way... Also - see my answer. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 1 '17 at 18:56
  • @einpoklum, fair enough. The reason I didn't interpret it that way was because it would be unfair to other authors on its face. So I'd read it as "the other authors don't care whether the PC or whoever thought it was ok, it isn't"... the authors who would benefit aren't going to be tarnished due to inappropriateness if no one knows a reviewer was biased. Only if it somehow came out. – Fred Douglis Apr 1 '17 at 19:02
  • And I'll add I agree with your answer, "anonymous reviewer" must not review it and seems to know this. – Fred Douglis Apr 1 '17 at 19:11
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I've occasionally been in a situation where I was asked to review something I thought would normally be a conflict. I was told it would be ok if I felt I could be unbiased. It sounds like you think you can't be unbiased... so just say no.

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The main requirement with a conflict of interest is that it must be disclosed to the editors.

Reviews aren't processed automatically, but by an editor. The editor is supposed to read your review - in particular if you indicate a conflict of interest - and may then decide whether your review is fair, or may need to be ignored.

So just do a very thorough review (in your case, probably a very much critically thinking review, because this is also a chance to reconsider foundations for your own work!) and in the confidential remarks, repeat your conflicts.

I have also reviewed papers where I had prior collaboration with one of the authors. It turned out the other reviewers liked the paper, but I found flaws in the proofs. My review "won", they had to fix the proof to get it accepted. Sometimes, a reviewer with a conflict may be the most valuable, because he puts much more effort into the review. The editors just need to know and pay attention to potential bias.

Personally, I would not do the review because you are already working on a follow-up and seem to be quite close to the authors. This most likely makes you too "blind" for the actual problems of the approach. And in the worst case, imagine that you find a fatal flaw when doing the review, which may even kill your own current work? Imagine you find some weaknesses, they need to resubmit, and your own work cannot get published until theirs is, so you end up delaying your own work... so by doing a good review, you may hurt your own research? It's probably better to have someone else do the review - or they missed some weakness, or if they delay publication, neither is your fault. Also, will you be able to remain anonymous to the authors? Imagine you find a weakness, and 'kill' their submission, and you somehow give away you reviewed... will they take this well?

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    I think your last comment is the weakest. If there is s flaw, whoever finds out BEFORE publication, they should be grateful the paper was killed/delayed. Better than being published and find a flaw afterwards. – user Mar 31 '17 at 21:34
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    That is what is should be like, but you'll learn that people feel otherwise. People will rather get their work published, then find out it's useless. You may even get to write another publication on the problem. – Anony-Mousse Apr 1 '17 at 8:20
  • While it's true that a potentially-biased review might be the most valuable, this is actually an argument against anonymous and impartial reviews in general. Now, you can make this argument, but not - I believe - as a justification for reviewing one paper out of many in an interest-conflicted impartial way. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 1 '17 at 11:45
  • Well, it is not anonymous to the editor, and what do you mean with impartial? – Anony-Mousse Apr 1 '17 at 14:01
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TL;DR: I think (iii) is your strongest problem.

(i) and (ii) can be mitigated by the editor by having other reviewers not collaborating with the authors balance with your likely deeper expertise; this requires a legitimate judgement call.

However, as for (iii), separating the contribution of your own work from theirs under the influence of a review cuts into your own flesh. It is similar to be asked to review proposals for a funding call in which one submits oneself. One can never win: either one violating ethics by damaging other submissions, or one is generous in giving proper credit to others, thereby endangering one's own submission (kill one's own child). And it looks bad if you were on the committee, no matter what you do.

Your case is probably not quite as extreme, but requires careful handling. If you feel compromised by your current extending work on the topic, you probably should tend to decline.

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I believe that the reason the committee gave you for giving you the go-ahead anyway (small community of experts and therefore any reviewer would potentially have a conflict of interest) is a common one in this situation. However, if you believe that you are unable to give an unbiased review, I suggest recommending a new reviewer to the committee. This will alleviate the burden of the committee to find a new reviewer and they will be more accepting of you declining to review.

  • Suggesting someone else is a good idea (I also mentioned the option of finding someone else in my answer), but a reviewer suggested by a very biased reviewer suffers transitively of some bias too... also you're assuming it's the OP who needs to convince the PC chair of something, which is not the case. Finally - you didn't write you, as opposed to OP, believe about OP's situation - and I think it's important to do so. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 2 '17 at 16:13
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As far as I can tell, there are two potential problems if you review this paper. (1) You might be biased. (2) People might think you're biased (even if you really aren't). The program committee member's saying it's not an issue indicates to me that (2) won't be a problem. But (1) is something only you can decide about. If I were in your position, I would first reflect very carefully on whether I can write a completely fair report. If so, I'd go ahead and review the paper. If not, I'd tell the PC member that I can't review the paper because I'm not confident that I wouldn't be biased.

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TL;DR: You mustn't review the paper; escalate to force the PC to devise an alternative course of action.

It would be unethical for you to review this paper. If your research community is so small that the only person to be found who can review a paper meets your conditions (i) - (iii) (especially (ii) and (iii) ) - then it is not a field in which proper peer review is really possible at all. Or at least, some of the field isn't.

For such (sub)fields, the first thing that has to go is anonymity (which seems to be in effect in your case): The authors would actually know it is you who wrote the review (or perhaps another similarly-interest-conflicted member of the PC). The second thing is the pretense of publication selection by fair peer review. There should be other arrangements, either simply including in all papers into a non-reviewed section (since there should really be very few of them), or enacting some kind of collective decision-making process regarding which papers make the cut, that involves most/all stakeholders within this small community.

But I doubt this is actually the case. I'm guessing the PC chair was brushing you off to avoid more hassle - as I'm sure she's swamped with other work. I'm almost certain there are people - perhaps not on the PC - which can review the paper and are less conflicted. The PC needs to reach out to them to ask for help with the review. And a last resort for the PC (again, assuming she doesn't face the same situation for many papers) is to accept this paper without review: The committee accepts, but notifies authors of its failure in the effort to find an impartial reviewer, and the reason for this failure. Such an action should probably be taken after consulting all PC members to form a consensus.

Now, there are other ways to handle this situation, I suppose - those were just a few alternatives; but what the PC chair cannot and must not do is brush conflicts of interests under the rug. And the same goes for you: Her authorization does not justify your actions (it merely partially shifts responsibility for a misdeed).

  • Reviewer anonymity is by no means a core requirement of ethical peer review, it’s merely a (fairly debated) property of the currently prevalent form of peer review. I do agree with the rest of your answer though, especially the bolded part, and the last paragraph. I’m a bit dismayed at the community’s blasé attitude towards this flagrant ethical violation. – Konrad Rudolph Apr 2 '17 at 15:53
  • @KonradRudolph: I didn't argue reviewing anonymously is a core requirement, but it looks like that's how things are done in OP's specific case - since otherwise the authors would probably be "in the loop". Edited to make that a bit clearer. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 2 '17 at 16:13

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