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I was under the following situation and I'm not sure which would have been the right way to handle it.

I was refereeing a paper. I suggested that the authors could cite a very recent paper which was uploaded on a repository (so, not official publication but publicly available nevertheless) that could have solved one of the conjectures they mentioned.

They respond that they do not want to cite unofficial publications that have not been fully verified yet (as indicated in their opinion by acceptance on one of the venues). This respond is somewhat understandable.

But they went an extra step and they said that the mentioned pre-print probably has mistakes (no reference) since it was submitted to XX venue and was rejected thus they do not want to cite it.

Is it normal that they disclosed to me some private information about a submission of a paper and its status?

I felt uncomfortable about this disclosure of private information. How could they know that it was indeed submitted? How could they know why it was rejected? Even if they know (for example by communication with the authors) what gives them the right to announce this to me (an anonymous referee-maybe I'm one of the authors of that preprint). Note that the two papers have disjoint sets of authors.

Question: What would be the most appropriate way to handle this situation? I let it be, but I feel that the authors have crossed many lines with their responses and I still feel somewhat uncomfortable for this.

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    Maybe they knew about the preprint, contacted the authors with additional questions or a status if it might be published soon and were given the information they gave you? – skymningen May 11 '17 at 11:14
  • @skymningen Still, can they share this info with me? I can think of many scenarios where they could get this info, but the question is are they allowed to share it? – PsySp May 11 '17 at 11:19
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    If it was volunteered to them, say by the author(s), I feel like it's fair game to repeat. Especially if it were online somewhere else already. It seems hard to tell if some particular tidbit is within their rights. – Artimis Fowl May 11 '17 at 15:44
  • That is fine and understandable. -- [citation needed] – JeffE May 12 '17 at 8:17
  • @JeffE I am not sure I understand your comment. I mean that I understand their logic (not sure I fully agree though). What do I need to cite? The questions still are: (1) are they right that they insist on not citing it? (2) Is it fine that they disclose to me info about the status of the mentioned paper, especially when this info is not public? – PsySp May 12 '17 at 8:49
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To me, their response was very unprofessional. I'm assuming that the review is still blinded and further communication with the authors directly may not be possible or even useful.

As a peer reviewer, you are a volunteer for the journal. If the lack of professionalism of the authors made you uncomfortable, you could communicate this with the editor. Although the editor might not do anything about it, he or she might reconsider publishing future papers from authors who do not respect blind peer review. Publishing our work is a privilege, not a right. I am not an editor, so I'm not sure how editors may handle such a situation. Although this case involved the reviewer and not the authors, PLOS ONE received attention a few years ago for removing a reviewer who made a sexist remark in their review: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/05/plos-one-ousts-reviewer-editor-after-sexist-peer-review-storm

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The information that the pre-print "probably has mistakes" usually is not private. Such information can arise e.g. when a random reader spots a mistake. (Lots of people have been debating the recent Babai preprint on the graph isomorphism problem in early 2017.)

The information about the pre-print being rejected is a somewhat different story (it is certainly less relevant to the referee!), but even that could have been shared bona fide by the authors if the authors of the pre-print openly told them. It is probably not the best option the authors could have taken, but I don't think it is a good reason to declare breach-of-trust over.

  • Thanks. I did not imply breach-of-trust, just it was something that made me feel uncomfortable, and I explain why (because in my opinion this is a private info+in the absence of a particular mistake does not justify the excuse "we don't want to cite potentially bogus papers). BTW people were citing Babai's paper as potential breakthrough, and to my opinion there is nothing wrong to do so (something along this lines: this conjecture might have been settles by the work of such-and-such). – PsySp May 11 '17 at 17:54
  • @PsySp - But you asked for people's opinions. So really, there's no reason to get defensive. – aparente001 May 12 '17 at 3:23
  • @aparente001 Thanks. I am trying to explain my point of view. Maybe I am over-reacting, thus this seemingly "defensive" stance. – PsySp May 12 '17 at 8:55
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    @PsySp - Thanks for raising a pair of interesting ethical questions. – aparente001 May 13 '17 at 0:38
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The right way of dealing with that - in my opinion - would have been to pinpoint an/the error in the publicly visible, though unofficial repository. "Because arXiv ... contained this-and-that error, we do not feel comfortable to cite this paper, as we do not know whether the error is recoverable."

Thus, no reference to submission, review status, etc.

A paper under review should be treated as not written, except by the authors (who can obviously act as they please) as well as the reviewers/program committee and editors in the service of the submission/publication process.

  • Sure, What happens when their claim is based on some "rumor". I understand that they might feel uncomfortable citing a paper that might or might not contains errors, but I do not see how they feel comfortable sharing private information with an anonymous referee! To put it another way, is this info private? – PsySp May 11 '17 at 17:47
  • The statement about the error in the arXiv paper should be fully transparent and trackable. Everyone should be able to check. They cannot be expected to try to do the job of recovering the error (that's why I added the disclaimer about recoverability). It's nice if they do, but it's not a requirement, strictly spoken. The other thing, rumour or not, is taboo - no divulging of review-relevant information should happen (of course, the authors may have told the story themselves around, but telling an embarrassing story yourself or having it told further by 3rd parties is still a difference). – Captain Emacs May 11 '17 at 18:22

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