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In a research meeting I mentioned I was doing some peer-review for a conference and disclosed the general topic it was about, without any further details. Immediately my colleagues demanded I disclose information about details of the paper, authors, and they even suggested I should share the paper with them immediately, and they swore "they would not share it with anyone".

I refused and said this was unethical behavior. They all got really angry and took it personally, saying that sharing a manuscript under review was completely normal and ethical, and even recommended and the problem was simply that I did not "trust them".

What is your experience with this? What are your thoughts?

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    "they swore that they would not share it with anyone" -- "they said sharing it was completely normal". See the contradiction? :) – Dirk Jun 27 '17 at 14:52
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    Do you already know that this paper wasn't publicly shared, e.g. on a pre-print server? Either way, it'd seem like a courtesy to the author to let them know that people are interested in their paper, potentially allowing them to share it or engage in discussions about it at their discretion. – Nat Jun 28 '17 at 3:13
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    Consider the paper as not existing, except for the purpose of your review. Unless you are permitted to have sub-reviewers with permission of the editor, in which case you act as intermediate editor, you must not show the paper to anyone and should not actually even mention its existence. You never know how competitive a topic is. Your colleagues have a very loose understanding of ethics. – Captain Emacs Jun 28 '17 at 15:20
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    What if the paper is rejected, and your colleagues end up using results from it and publish themselves before the actual authors? – user21264 Jun 28 '17 at 22:19
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    It's not just a matter of trust. It's a matter of contamination. We alter our own memories all the time. It's very easy to think that we came up with an idea that someone else originally came up with. I know, I do this all the time. This is why maintaining a proper boundary is so crucial. It keeps people honest, even at the subconscious level. – Stephan Branczyk Jun 29 '17 at 14:33
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Echoing the other answers: NO, "sharing" is not ok, especially with people whose interest is manifestly acquisition of information, rather than helping you give an expert review. Obviously. For that matter, this episode should cause you to seriously question the morality/ethics of the people who tried to bully you into "sharing". They are cheaters... sorry. Yes, we all have to learn how to "get along" with cheaters, but/and it is important to know who they are, ... and now you know, sadly. My sympathies.

  • +1 for outright calling his/her colleagues what they are; OP should be constantly vigilant henceforth knowing they have dubious ethical standards. – JNS Jul 3 '17 at 9:17
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Do not share this manuscript.

It is one thing for you to solicit input, under an agreement of confidentiality, when you recognize there is another expert who can help with the review.

It is totally different when someone demands that you share it, not because you are getting help with the review, but for their own edification. The manuscript is confidential. Keep it that way!

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    The bullying, manipulative approach doesn't help the offenders' case, either. It may be they are legitimately able to help give expert analysis, and it may also be perfectly normal for them all to share their papers with each other (regardless of ethics or how it's done elsewhere.) But the demand of trust, the contradictory statements, and the general sleezy tone makes it sound more like "used car salesman" than "trusted academic." – corsiKa Jun 28 '17 at 16:49
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Sharing articles like this does happen, sometimes it's fine, but it probably happens more than it should. If in doubt, the simplest course of action in this situation is to get in touch with the editor for whom you are carrying out the review. Ask them if they are happy with you sharing the manuscript, or selected details from it, within your research group. You then don't have to shoulder the blame if the answer is "no", you can just blame the editor.

Note that some journals provide specific guidance. The instructions for a review I carried out recently included this:

[I]f you are planning to get help with your report from a colleague (e.g., as a way of providing mentorship and training with reviewing), we do ask that you keep any such consultation to a small number of people (1 or 2) to respect the confidentiality of the review process. On rare occasions you may also want to consult with a colleague outside your group to gather additional input, and in such situations please contact us beforehand to verify that there would not be a conflict. When you submit your review, we will give you an opportunity to acknowledge anyone who did assist you to give them credit for their contribution.

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    To be honest, if as an editor I received a question per this suggestion (the simplest course of action in this situation is to get in touch with the editor for whom you are carrying out the review. Ask them if they are happy with you sharing the manuscript, or selected details from it, within your research group) I would wonder what part of confidentiality the reviewer didn't understand. – Fred Douglis Jun 27 '17 at 20:31
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    "Sharing does happen" -- all sorts of bad things happen all the time. People get robbed. That doesn't mean the poster should share the manuscript or that it's OK to share it. "sometimes it's fine" -- What's your justification for saying that? The peer review process is supposed to be confidential. I do agree that asking the editor is a fine idea. – D.W. Jun 27 '17 at 21:10
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    I think asking the editor is insulting, time-consuming, and embarrassing. The rules are quite clear. – Fred Douglis Jun 28 '17 at 12:21
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    You'd really be insulted if someone said, "I'm unsure about the analysis in section 2, but my colleague invented that technique, so I'd like them to weigh in"? This seems like a win for literally everyone involved: better reviews for the journal (and author), easier time reviewing for the reviewer, etc. – Matt Jun 28 '17 at 15:21
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    My bad--I thought you were replying to scenario described in this answer. I agree that "GIVE ME THE PAPER YOU'RE REVIEWING" is totally insane. – Matt Jun 28 '17 at 15:57
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The above answers are valid and I support them fully. By the sound of it your co-workers were demanding to look at it, whilst the review process is indeed a strictly confidential process.

Nonetheless, I just wish to add an exception to the rule:

Sharing a manuscript under review is fine when inviting others to look at it too as part of the review process. Typically, the big chief honcho of a research group is constantly flooded with review requests and often they can't handle it on their own. In this context, it is actually great when busy folks share this burden, because multiple parties benefit:

  • The department's head as it reduces workload;
  • The postdocs, grad students etc who are helping out with reviewing as they learn how to be a good referee;
  • The manuscript's authors as they will receive a much better review because multiple people have looked at it, instead of just a super busy head-of-department who hasn't have the time for it.
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    Count me among those who consider garbage the practice of farming referee reports out to postdocs and grad students. If one cannot write the report, one should turn the request down. It's perfectly reasonable to suggest to the editor using a postdoc or grad student as a referee, but when Professor X agrees to review a paper, one expects that it is Professor X who reviews it. This answer gives a lot of good reasons for declining the referee request and suggesting someone else as a reviewer. – Dan Fox Jun 28 '17 at 10:10
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    @DanFox If Professor X passes on to a grad student, who perhaps has never reviewed a paper before, they can oversee the process and at the very least provide some quality control. They may well add their own insights as well. I don't see where the great harm lies. – user2390246 Jun 28 '17 at 12:27
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    @DanFox - I concur with user2390246 - if a bunch of postdocs and grad students have had a look at it, the review can be discussed in the group. I've learned a great deal from such a process for sure. Of course the invited referee should agree with the final review report. – AliceD Jun 28 '17 at 12:35
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    @DanFox I completely agree. I actually find that behavior as unethical and corrupt as ghostwriting. When you submit to a highly-ranked journal, you expect that your manuscript is reviewed by an expert in the field that the editors contacted, not by someone else, particularly a student. I often hear that this is done for the benefit of students but I honestly don't think so. I think it's pure greed. If a professor thinks that student is qualified to make the review, then he should recommend the student as a reviewer so he can get the credit. Let's see what the editor thinks about that. – Pablo Jun 28 '17 at 16:09
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    @AliceD, I understand your point, but that's still unethical and no author likes their work sub-reviewed by a student. There are many ways to train students to do good peer-review that don't involve playing around with the real process of publishing. For example, giving an already published article, or an article for a local workshop you are organizing to all of them, and then comparing and discussing the reviews. It would be the same as arguing that writing an article where your supervisor gets the credit is good for you, cause you learn to write... – Pablo Jun 28 '17 at 18:08
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Unless there's some explicit okay to the contrary, you would normally regard a review as completely confidential. Even if it weren't a formal requirement, in my mind it's what the author(s) have a right to expect. If they want to share it ... there are often ways to do so, and if they haven't done it, it shouldn't be your choice to share it.

On occasion I have shared the general topic of a paper under review where that was relevant. That is, I have once or twice said something like "Oh yeah, I agree topic X is becoming more popular lately - I refereed a couple of papers on it just recently".

By contrast, anything that would give explicit details of the contents of a paper or identify its authors (even with blinded reviews it's often pretty obvious who the authors are) would contravene the either the near-universal expectation of confidentiality or more typically a journal's explicit requirement of it.

In short -- don't share it. If you think there's a really good reason to, ask the editor -- who will almost certainly tell you no, and for good reason.

  • Maybe there's another alternative: the OP's colleagues could send the author requests for a preprint of the paper. If the author says yes, then there's no harm done imho. – user159517 Jul 3 '17 at 11:34
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My PhD advisor was reviewing a paper and wanted me to look at the math (it was complicated); he still got editorial permission first. I did look at it, and I found a simple problem (the paper's authors used a $log_2$ result as if it were a $log_{10}$ result and got a [beneficially] wrong answer).

I was 'raised' to never share anything about a paper under review, including the topic! Plus I have known an unethical professor that used an idea from peer review to write a very similar paper. So suppose the paper you are reviewing is rejected at this journal for some reason, but the author still should retain all rights to his idea. He may get it published elsewhere.

But by showing it around you have effectively published his idea behind his back in a way others can steal it. One of the people interested in this can write their own paper, and perhaps with better contacts, reputation or just better writing, get published and steal the credit from the original author.

That is not fair or ethical. Even telling somebody about the topic or the title could trigger interest in the problem that did not previously exist, along the lines of "Hm, that gives me an idea..." That leads to pre-emption also.

I think the only advantage you can ethically enjoy, as a reviewer, is that IF the paper is accepted and GOING to be published, you have a significant head start on following up based on any new insights in the paper; giving proper credit where credit is due.

You should never share what is supposed to be confidential without permission of the editor, not even with friends you trust -- because the friends they trust may not be people you can trust.

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Your collegues complained, among other things, that your unwillingness to share the paper demonstrated distrust on your part --- and well it should. Had you been willing to share the paper without permission, you would have been giving the author reason to distrust you. Your collegues demonstrated remarkably unethical behavior and, to refute their claim, have proven they cannot be trusted.

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