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For the first time, I've been asked to referee an article for a journal, and a prestigious one. I work in Maths, so the article has been online as a preprint on arXiv for some time, and it was on the top of my reading list anyways. I feel very confident that I can referee the article, that's not the problem. I understand it well, I don't have a conflict of interests.

But I don't know how to handle my refereeing work socially. Can I talk about it? When my office mate asks me "I've noticed you are reading this article very carefully and you're taking a lot of notes.", what can I say? Is it ok to say that I'm refereeing the article? Can I name the journal or the editor, if the conversation continues?

I'm thinking about the article a lot, so I'll inevitably talk about its contents often with my colleagues. Can I bring up my task as a referee? If I should hide it, what are some recommendations to do it?

I also happen to know another referee of the article. Is it appropriate to bring the review process up in a conversation?

And the killer aspect: If I meet the author on a conference, is it acceptable to tell them that I was a referee?


In short, I want to know what the appropriate boundaries are when discussing my refereeing work with others.

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    Generally, no, you don't talk about it. Saying it is an article you are refereeing should pretty much end the conversation right there if your colleague is at all aware of the ethos of refereeing. – Jon Custer Jun 7 '17 at 13:30
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    If the article is available some other way, say on-line, then you can talk about the article. But still you would not mention that you are refereeing it. Another point: I would say that two referees should work independently. – GEdgar Jun 7 '17 at 13:33
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    @AaronBrick, I know the authors, but their name is also on the article. In quite a few fields (Maths, Computer Science), authors are visible to the referees, while the referees stay hidden. – Turion Jun 8 '17 at 5:36
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    "If I meet the author on a conference, is it acceptable to tell them that I was a referee?" Given that there's some argument against doing so, let me ask: what possible benefit would such an action bring to anyone? – Greg Martin Jun 8 '17 at 9:49
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    @GregMartin, I'm not expecting any benefits, I just want to talk to people without having to keep secrets. – Turion Jun 8 '17 at 12:38
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There are different confidentiality requirements involved, some to protect the authors, some to protect the referees.

A) As a referee, you absolutely must not reveal the content of an article you are refereeing to others. In many cases, the paper will be available on the arXiv anyway, and you can speak about the contents of the arXiv preprint, even if you are refereeing the paper, but not about anything you couldn't have learned outside of the refereeing process.

R) It is not customary to reveal oneself as a referee of a specific paper, but there is no strong consensus on how strict this should be handled. It is quite certainly ok to mention that one is refereeing for a specific journal (many people list the journals they have refereed for in their CV).

To your detailed questions:

  • When discussing the article, do not mention that you are refereeing it. Be careful not to mention details exclusive to the submitted version and absent from the preprint.

  • When ask by your office mate, it is fine to say that you are refereeing. They should not pry for details. If they know which article you are refereeing, do not mention the journal. If not, you can mention the journal. Better not name the editor.

  • As mentioned in the comments, it is typically better if referee reports are independent. Do not discuss an ongoing referee report with your co-referees.

  • Some people do reveal themselves as referees to authors. In general, I would advise against it though.

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    I would suggest that remembering what you learned from a preprint and what you learned from a referee version is just too hard to keep track of. Don't volunteer information, and if the paper comes up in normal discussion you can ask, "What's that paper about?" and go from there. – David Jun 7 '17 at 16:44
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    "Be careful not to mention details exclusive to the submitted version and absent from the preprint." The difficulty in keeping those straight on the fly suggests it may be better to just avoid discussing it at all until it's published. – jpmc26 Jun 8 '17 at 0:59
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    What's wrong with revealing yourself as a referee to the authors? – Mehrdad Jun 8 '17 at 8:43
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First, it's important to distinguish two cases: The case where the work under review is already publicly available as a preprint (which seems to apply here), and the case where it isn't. In the latter case, the work under review needs to be handled with absolute confidentiality. In the former case, things are less clear.

I will answer your questions for the case I feel confident about: a non-publicly-available submission in software engineering. For a publicly available submission, adequate answers may be less (but not more) conservative.

Is it ok to say that I'm refereeing the article? [...] Can I bring up my task as a referee? If I should hide it, what are some recommendations to do it?

It's OK to say you're reviewing "an article" or "the article on my desk". It's not OK to disclose the title or author name.

Can I name the journal or the editor [...]?

Yes. The information that someone has been reviewing for a specific journal is routinely mentioned in CVs, and the list of editors of a specific journal is normally publicly available, too.

I also happen to know another referee of the article. Is it appropriate to bring the review process up in a conversation?

Yes, but only after both of you have submitted their reviews, and if the conversation involves no additional persons other than the referee.

And the killer aspect: If I meet the author on a conference, is it acceptable to tell them that I was a referee?

I've occassionally seen cases where reviewers revealed their identities even within their review, which effectively amounts to the same situation as in your question. However, in fact, this seems to be a controversial question without a universally accepted answer.

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    I disagree about the conversation with the other referee. It's already suspicious that the OP happens to know another referee. How could that happen if either sticks to your other rules? – Walter Jun 7 '17 at 14:43
  • @Walter, yes, I was concerned as well. In this case, it happened because some people sometimes forward emails without cutting off the previous conversation. – Turion Jun 7 '17 at 14:58
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    In that case, pretend that you do not know the other referee. – Arno Jun 7 '17 at 14:58
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    You're right. In my field, you sometimes get to know the identities of the other reviewers, but only after submitting the review. In this case, the independence of the reviews is not at stake. – lighthouse keeper Jun 7 '17 at 17:56
  • The "meeting author at conference" thing - I think it's a different situation while the article is under review, or afterwards. I've had reviewers wait until after the article is accepted, then reveal themselves and congratulate me on it. – Flyto Jun 11 '17 at 21:44
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My answer is going to differ from the comments currently left.

Ethically, there's a certain reserve you need to have around the articles you are reviewing. You certainly can't share the manuscript.

But what you are talking about is coffee break conversation. I see no issue in saying that you are reviewing an interesting manuscript, on subject X. You should not revealed the authors' names, but you can certainly talk about it. Reviewing is not a secret mission.

You should not however discuss it with the other referee, as you don't want to influence each other.

As for revealing your identity to the authors, I personally see no problem with it, especially if you had a positive review. Be careful, however, as if their article got rejected, they might not like you very much...

  • Excellent answer! I may add that I have myself meddled a bit with keeping the identity of an article I'm refereeing secret and regretted it. It can lead to all sorts of unwanted situations. Don't even consider this. Not now, not for another paper, never. – Walter Jun 7 '17 at 14:44
  • You have to be really careful what you discuss in "coffee break" conversation doesn't reveal something provided in confidence. You don't want to, for instance, spur a colleague into pursuing similar research just because they heard about this paper. – Fred Douglis Jun 7 '17 at 15:12
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    Revealing yourself to the authors can cause problems. For example, will they think that you're trying to say, "I did you a favour by positively reviewing your article: maybe you could do the same for me, some day?" Ultimately, if you don't think you'll gain anything from revealing yourself to the authors, why do it? And if you do think you'll gain something, that seems unethical. – David Richerby Jun 7 '17 at 16:10
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    @FredDouglis I agree that you don't want to reveal secrets in coffee break convo, but the idea you suggest is a bit intense. Unless your colleague can create an article out of thin air, the article you're reviewing will already be published. So no plagiarism. And if it suggest new areas of research for colleagues, why not? – Emilie Jun 7 '17 at 16:52
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    @FredDouglis then I think our views on this are just irreconcilable! ;) – Emilie Jun 7 '17 at 17:12

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