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I am reviewing the second revision of a paper and am getting tired of this incredibly slow process of me pointing something out that requires clarification just to hear back from those authors two or three months from now (at the earliest).

Do you think I would insult gravely the academic spirit and / or authors of that manuscript if I just e-mailed the corresponding author saying "Look I still don't understand X because of Y can you please explain?"?

Personally, I think that doing so would just be what science is about: a bunch of people interested in similar scientific topics talking to each other.

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    What did the handling editor say? Potentially it is okay, but only if the editor says so. – StrongBad Apr 21 '13 at 13:14
  • Okay I understand. I haven't contacted the editor yet. I thought I could just e-mail the corresponding author as I do with any other author of papers when I have questions regarding their content. But maybe I am missing something regarding the 'ethics' of being a referee? – Name Apr 21 '13 at 13:17
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    A corollary question for the community : is an electronic platform that manages the review process should allow direct messaging between referees and authors? – Sylvain Peyronnet Apr 21 '13 at 13:19
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    You might not agree with the process, but it has the merit of reducing conflict of interest situation which could interfere with objectivity. Like you get chummy with the author. Maybe meet over a couple of beers, etc. Pretty soon, you're not doing such an objective job of reviewing the paper. Anyway, couldn't the editor act as intermediary and pass on the requests for clarification? – Kaz Apr 21 '13 at 16:39
  • @Kaz I've never heard of the scenario you paint. To my mind, if you were to get chummy in an open review process you are also going to get chummy with the current system. The contrary, referees not behaving well because they dislike the authors / compete with the authors I may have heard of. – Name Apr 21 '13 at 20:29
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No, you should not, but there is of course no law that prevents it. Peer review is a process where the editor appoints reviewers because of their expertise to provide independent and knowledgeable views on the submitted manuscript. As such the reviews should pass through the editor since they are not only made to improve the manuscript from the point of the author but also prepare it to be worthy of publication in the journal to which it is submitted. Making such contact is thus breaking an understanding with the editor/journal and integrity of the journal review system and quality assurance. The correspondence needs to go through the editor.

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    If I understand you correctly, refereeing isn't about being another scientist interested in the same field as the authors of the manuscript -- it is really just about doing (unpaid) work for a journal? – Name Apr 21 '13 at 13:21
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    Sorry if I did not express it clearly enough. Reviewing in the broader sense is of course to safeguard and improve science but it is the journal editor who is apointing the reviewer and the interest is thus also to make sure the manuscript meets the standards of the journal. There are as I understand it paid reviewers in some cases (although not in my field). So reviewing is unpaid and the job is done to keep the quality up in general but we also serve the journals and their publishers to uphold their reputation (whch we also benefit from in terms of e.g. citation index). – Peter Jansson Apr 21 '13 at 13:38
  • I can see upholding the quality of journal: if the referees only accept brilliant manuscripts that are likely to attract lots of citations then all future authors benefit from a higher CI. – Name Apr 21 '13 at 14:05
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I am reviewing the second revision of a paper and am getting tired of this incredibly slow process of me pointing something out that requires clarification just to hear back from those authors two or three months from now (at the earliest).

You don't need to e-mail the authors directly to get the information you want. The several month delay you are talking about is the time it takes to collect all the reviews, send them to the authors, and wait for a revised version of the paper. However, in the journals I'm familiar with you could request clarification by asking the editor to send a short message to the authors now and relay the response to you. Going through the editor might slow things down by a day or two, but not by months.

Do you think I would insult gravely the academic spirit and / or authors of that manuscript if I just e-mailed the corresponding author saying "Look I still don't understand X because of Y can you please explain?"?

The phrasing of your question is hyperbolic, but yes, this is something that could be considered offensive or unethical. Sending queries through the editor slows things down only slightly, while it avoids various difficulties:

  1. Reviewers might bypass the editor on requests they would rather not call to the editor's attention (for example, suggesting that their papers be cited). Along similar ethical lines, announcing to the authors that you are reviewing their paper might help you pressure them for favors elsewhere. For example, it would be unethical to write "Dear X, I'm a reviewer for your recent submission to Y. I'm having trouble understanding it, so I fear it might take a while to arrive at a decision, but it could help to know blah blah blah. Can you supply any additional information? Regards, Z P.S. Have you reached a decision about participating in the joint project I proposed?"

  2. It's important for the editor to be aware of all relevant information. If several reviewers request clarification about something, then that is itself informative about the clarity of the manuscript, even if they all agree in the end that it is correct. It's also valuable for the editor to see and judge the response itself (and not just to know whether it convinced the reviewer).

As Daniel Shub pointed out in the comments, you can always ask the editor whether it would be appropriate for you to contact the authors directly (it may depend on journal policy, customs in your field, or the editor's judgment of the particular situation). If the answer is yes, then you are all set. However, if the answer is no or you don't ask, then you should relay all communication through the editor, and I would expect that to be the usual answer.

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I am reviewing the second revision of a paper and am getting tired of this incredibly slow process of me pointing something out that requires clarification just to hear back from those authors two or three months from now (at the earliest).

So what? Your understanding is not one of the required outcomes of the refereeing process.

Do you think I would insult gravely the academic spirit and / or authors of that manuscript if I just e-mailed the corresponding author saying "Look I still don't understand X because of Y can you please explain?"?

Perhaps not, but you would subvert the whole point of refereeing, which is to judge the paper on its own merits. The typical reader is not going to have access to the authors to clarify any confusing aspects of the paper. If the paper is confusing, it is simply not ready to publish; contacting the authors would not change this fact. If the authors have not addressed your concerns despite multiple rounds of reviewing, the appropriate response is to recommend rejection.

Others have raised additional ethical issues, so I won't repeat them.

  • excellent point about my understanding not being the required outcome of the whole process. – Name Apr 21 '13 at 21:13
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    I think one desired outcome of the refereeing process is to get the paper to a point where the typical reader can understand it. Sometimes the paper needs too much help, and it should be rejected. But if you the referee can eventually get the authors to revise it to be clearer, then, as byproduct, you will also likely understand it better. – Dan C Apr 21 '13 at 21:19
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Do you think I would insult gravely the academic spirit and / or authors of that manuscript if I just e-mailed the corresponding author?

You are "hired" as a reviewer by the responsible editor hence by default you should obey the journal editorial board/conference programme committee rules. In your particular situation, I do not think contacting authors is appropriate. Obviously, they did not communicate their ideas/results clearly enough for the target audience, which is a reason for rejection (or at least subtracting "points" in the review). As a referee, that's just about what you need to care for. You are not supposed to do the authors' job, or invest more energy than any other interested expert reader would.

Communication with authors:
Generally speaking, sometimes there are sound reasons for starting a communication link with the authors (for example when the referee process is friendly, such as for invited contributions to journals, or chapters in an edited book). If that is the case, then you have at least the following options:

  1. anonymized channel: preferrably channel all the communication between you and authors via the responsible editor who will "anonymise" your messages. Of course the editor has to be OK with such a setup;
  2. direct communication link: ask the responsible editor for approval whether establishing a direct communication link is fine with her/him and if so, obey by whatever restrictions (s)he puts in place and keep the editor in the loop too - you need to keep a good track of the communication should there be a dispute later on. Sometimes communicating with authors is outright forbidden in guidelines to referees. Check the journal's rules carefully! Or finally,
  3. after-review contact: you can finish the review on the basis of what is submitted as is usual, but you identify yourself in the review. Again, ask the responsible editor for approval first. Authors might choose to contact you, or not. It will be their decision.

In the past, I went the route #3. It worked well. But remember, reviews are blind in order to allow reviewers to be frank. Sometimes (most of the time?) such a feedback causes pain and friction. You need to think twice about this and always obey the editor's guidance. The reason is, sometimes with a best intention, you might cause harm! Such as rejection of the paper on the grounds of a mismanaged review process.

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