The list of disfavoured reviewers: who should be on yours? And will an editor heed it?

Last week, I wrote about lists of suggested reviewers (for manuscripts).  Most journals require them, although authors sometimes resent it; as an editor I use them and appreciate them very much..  But there’s another list that puzzles some authors: the list of disfavoured reviewers.  This is a list of people that you’re requesting not be asked to review your manuscript.  As an editor, how do I use that list?  And who (if anyone) should you put on yours?

Let’s start in the editor’s corner.  (I can’t speak for every editor, of course, and I hope others will use the Replies to chime in.) Some authors are cynical about disfavoured-reviewer lists, believing that editors use them to find particularly critical reviewers. I don’t know anyone who does this, and I’d consider it highly unethical.  At the other extreme, some folks suggest that disfavoured-reviewer lists are ignored.  I don’t ignore them.  It would be hard to, actually, as at journals I’ve worked with recently, the system flags a reviewer as disfavoured if you initiate an invitation.  Do editors or journals absolutely promise to avoid every reviewer on your disfavoured list?  No (although I don’t think I’ve ever used one). I can imagine circumstances in which author and editor could disagree about the need for a particular viewpoint, or the possible damage from seeking that viewpoint.  I think it’s best to think of your disfavoured list as requests to avoid, rather than vetoes. I can absolutely promise one thing, though, and I hope every editor in science would join me: if I ever use do a disfavoured reviewer, I’ll read the resulting review very carefully with the disfavouring request in mind.

If you’re building a disfavoured-reviewer list for a submission, who should be on it?  I can think of at least five reasons you might disfavor someone (and I invite you to add to my list in the Replies):

  • Someone’s an obvious choice to review, but has a non-obvious conflict of interest. Perhaps the only other lab working on your study system is headed by your sister-in-law or business partner, and an editor might not realize the connection. In this case, you’re doing both editor and potentially-conflicted reviewer a favour – they’ll avoid the time, bother, and awkwardness of a request for review and a reply.
  • You’re genuinely worry about your work being “scooped” if a particular researcher sees your unpublished manuscript (this is also a common reason for not posting preprints). In my own field (ecology and evolution) scooping is relatively rare, although it does happen. In other fields, such as biomedical science, it can be a real concern, and “rival” labs may routinely disfavor each other.*

  • You’ve had a longstanding and severe professional disagreement with someone that you believe would make them unable to give a dispassionate review. I don’t mean, here, that you’re worried person X will disagree with your take on something in the current manuscript. That’s the kind of review you should seek out, not avoid. After all, don’t you want help crafting a paper that will convince folks who don’t already agree with you?  But sometimes two researchers publish long series of conflicting papers, and this can make it hard for them to see each others’ work fairly.
  • You’ve been treated inappropriately or unprofessionally by someone, and you believe they’ll use the review process to continue that. I wish this weren’t a worry in science, but of course it sometimes is. Sometimes the bad behaviour is in a professional context, and sometimes in a personal one, but the worry that it could bleed over into assessment of the science in a manuscript is a recognition that scientists are human, with all the potential for poor behaviour that that entails. (It’s also an excellent reason for double-blind review.)
  • You’ve recently had to reject someone’s work, or job or grant application, or you’ve been  involved in a disciplinary action through a scientific society, and you fear retaliation. Nobody should retaliate this way, of course – we’d all like our science to stand on its own. And I firmly believe that most scientists will give a fair review to a manuscript from someone who didn’t hire them. But, again, scientists are human, and yes, retaliation does happen – whether it’s deliberate or not.

It’s worth pointing out thing that’s not a good reason for disfavouring a reviewer (and thanks to Chris Mebane for raising this in the comments to last week’s post).  If you’ve written a manuscript that’s critical of another paper, or another group’s work more generally, you do not (absent some other circumstance on the list above) get to disfavour the authors you’re criticizing! Everyone, including you, will learn more from a back-and-forth.

Finally, should your disfavoured list often be long?  I hope not.  Science isn’t a perfect world, so scoopers and retaliators and the like certainly exist.  But – and perhaps I’m naïve – I think they’re less frequent and less important that many folks think.  Part of that is an apparency bias: we tend to tell stories (loudly) of unfairness in review, while keeping much quieter about the helpful, or at least fair, majority.**  Furthermore, if a review is unprofessional or makes the kind of unsubstantiated attack that suggests it’s not really about the science, a good editor will see that.  They may downweight the review, disregard the review, even sometimes redact the review. True, not every editor is a good editor; but that review you fear – even if you get it – won’t necessarily sink your manuscript.  All this suggests that you can, and should, reserve spots on your disfavoured list for particularly acute problems. Many of us have a few of those.  I hope you never have a lot.

© Stephen Heard  August 4, 2020

Image: The Hatfields and the McCoys, well known for disfavouring each other as reviewers for their scientific papers. OK, maybe not for that.  Floodwall in Matewan, West Virginia; photo from US Army Corps of Engineers via, public domain.  

*^You may of course think that the problem isn’t the potential scooping; it’s the choice of labs to work competitively rather than co-operatively. At least, I claim that you might think that, because I do.

**^There’s a recent paper attempting to quantify unprofessionalism in peer review. It suggests a startlingly high incidence of various sorts of conduct that might be considered unprofessional.  However, this is a difficult thing to measure, especially when it has to rely on volunteer reporting; and the authors were unable to assess the impact of such conduct on the publication fate of manuscripts.


Do editors really use those lists of “recommended reviewers”? And who should you suggest?

You know the feeling: you’ve spent many hours painstakingly massaging your manuscript into compliance with a journal’s idiosyncratic formatting requirements. You’ve spent another two hours battling its online submission system*.  You’re almost there – ready to hit “submit” and go for a well-deserved beer or cinnamon bun – but there’s One More Screen.  The system wants your list of five recommended reviewers.  Does this really matter?  What does an editor do with it?

Well, I can’t speak for every editor (and I hope some others will add their own thoughts in the Replies).  But I can tell you what I do with them, and perhaps that can guide you when you get asked for that list. Continue reading

Moving courses online isn’t easy – or cheap

Yesterday evening (as I write*) I spent 40 minutes filming three minutes of video.  It was a clip explaining how to collect aquatic insects, for my newly-online-with-lab-at-home Entomology course. That “40 minutes” is just camera-rolling time.  It doesn’t count planning what to film, travel to location, or editing the video later for posting (I only stepped on a slippery rock and swore on camera once; but it was a good reminder that I should probably learn how to bleep the audio track). Continue reading

What, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

Book blurbs are weird. Every book – no matter how awful – manages to find blurbers who will sing its praises.  So what, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

I was driven to think about his by the blurbs for my own new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  As they came in, and I read people waxing poetic about just how awesome the book is, I was thrilled, and embarrassed, and skeptical, and also felt just a little bit dirty.  Had the blurbers actually read my book? Did they really mean those things they said? Would anyone believe them? What if someone did, and bought the book, and didn’t like it? Continue reading

Diversifying scientific names, and diversifying science

Many of Earth’s species bear scientific names based on the names of people – for instance, Charles Darwin’s barnacle (Regioscalpellum darwini) and David Bowie’s spider (Heteropoda davidbowie).  My new book explores some of the things we can learn from such “eponymous” scientific names.  These names let us see something of the quirks and personalities of the scientists who engage in the creative act of naming.  They also open a window on who scientists think might deserve the honour (well, usually it’s an honour) of having a species named after them.  There are a lot of things you can see through that window.  One of them has to do with diversity.

I don’t mean biodiversity, although it’s true enough that the Earth’s incredible biodiversity is what provides the window of naming in the first place.  Instead, I mean diversity of people.  Who are the people who have species named after them?  Perhaps not surprisingly, answering that question reveals a scientific community with a longstanding diversity problem. Continue reading

The blog post that dooms the universe

Warning: silly.

Got your attention, did I?

You know what got mine?  Noticing, a while ago, the apparently inexorable growth of interest in what I thought was a fairly dull* post, Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”, first published here in June 2016.  That post got a bunch of views when I first posted it, which isn’t unexpected.  Then it was largely ignored for a year or so, which isn’t unexpected either.  Then something odd happened: exponential growth.

That’s what’s shown in the graph above: month-by-month readership statistics for Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”.  It’s a lovely curve, isn’t it?  Let’s ignore the first year (which is dominated by novelty; every post gets a spike when first published).  Let’s make a semilog plot of the remainder, because that seems right for a curve like that.  And let’s fit a line to that semilog plot, because we’re scientists and we like to do that kind of thing. Continue reading

Are spiders insects? And what good are polls?

Last week, I wrote about a US court decision that established that legally, spiders are insects (at least in the jurisdiction of the court in question).  The case turned on the “ordinary meaning” of the word insect, or roughly, what a reasonable person could think a non-specialist means by it.  I was surprised to learn that many dictionaries allow for definitions of insect that include spiders.  Could this be true, I wondered?  So I took a poll.

Let’s start with the results, and then later we’ll ask if we should have done that. Continue reading

A year of books (4): Snow into summer

Time now for the fourth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. I’ve got eight books (or series) for you this time.  When I started the first, there was snow on the ground; I finished the last on a hot summer day.  And yet – a curiosity of Fredericton’s climate – it’s was only six weeks!


The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay, 1984-86).  This is actually a trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.   I’ve been re-reading old favourites a lot lately and these are very near the top of my list.  They’re epic fantasy, à la Tolkien (Kay helped edit some of Tolkien’s posthumously published material) – but with much more humanity, more adult relationships, more lyrical writing, and many more surprises (revealed connections, along the lines of what made N.K. Jemesin’s Broken Earthso astonishing).  Now, “better than Tolkien” would be fighting words for many fantasy buffs (a fight best undertaken with an elven sword, of course), but if anything qualifies, to me Fionavar is it. Continue reading

Court: “Spiders are insects.” Biologists: “Say what?”

Last month, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th district rejected an appeal on the grounds that spiders are insects.  Now, I’m not a lawyer or a judge, but I am a biologist, and I have thoughts.  But before we get to those, a quick poll: Continue reading

Mathematics (and the rest of science) for human flourishing

I read a lot of books, both technical and not.  Some I struggle through; some I enjoy in a forgettable sort of way; and some grab me and promise to stay with me.  I recently finished Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing, and to cut to the chase, you should read this book too.  What’s that? You’re not a mathematician?  Well, neither am I.

Actually, this book is only sort of about mathematics.  First, as Su says in his opening paragraph, Continue reading