It’s been a rough couple of weeks for rose coloured glasses in biology. There’s the unfolding saga of paper retractions in social behaviour; and then there’s cite-my-paper-gate. I don’t have much to say about the former (beyond expressing my admiration for the many scientists who are handling their unintended involvement with grace and integrity). But the latter made me think.
If you didn’t hear about cite-my-paper-gate: someone (yet to be publicly identified) has been busted over all kinds of reviewing and editing malpractice. Among other things, this person used their editorial positions to push authors into citing their papers – and not just one or two, but lists of 30 or more. It very much appears that they also falsified peer reviews with the same aim. Really, if this is new to you, read this summary – it’s appalling.
Now, most of us (I hope) will go our entire careers without having to retract a paper or otherwise be entangled with shady data practices. But every last one of us has had a reviewer say “cite my paper”. In fact, I’ve been that reviewer myself – many times. How do I excuse myself? And how should you react if you’re reading That Review That Says Cite My Paper?
First, there is absolutely no doubt that the individual behind cite-my-paper-gate was behaving inappropriately (and then some). If you ever have a reviewer or editor suggest that you cite 30 of their papers, the advice is easy: don’t do it, and report the suggestion immediately to the next person up the journal’s chain of command. (A good Associate Editor, of course, will already have spotted when a reviewer does this; and a good Editor-in-Chief should surely have spotted an AE doing it.)
Second, most cases are less egregious than cite-my-paper-gate. (They’d pretty much have to be.) You’re more likely to get a suggestion to cite two or three papers, not a diktat to cite 30. When you get that suggestion: you don’t have to do it. I think (I hope!) that any Associate Editor worth their salt will see the potential conflict-of-interest in the reviewers’ suggestion, and be open to a Response to Reviews explaining why the citations aren’t necessary.
Third, though, to push back against my own last two points: I’d suggest being receptive to the idea that when a reviewer suggests citing their own papers, that actually might be helpful. I’m as guilty as the next person of making jokes about this*, and I’ve definitely had reviewers suggest papers (of their own) that just weren’t relevant. But I’ve also had reviewers suggest papers of their own that were relevant. And that brings me to my own times being That Reviewer Who Says Cite My Paper.
It shouldn’t be a surprise when a reviewer suggests a new citation, and it’s a paper of their own. Think about it: I’m asked to review a paper because it falls close to my own published research. One useful service reviewers can provide is alerting authors to papers that are relevant, but that the authors weren’t aware of. There’s no shortage of obscure papers out there. And: whose obscure papers, on topics close to my own published research, do I know better than anyone else does? And whose do I know better than I know anyone else’s? Exactly: my own.**
So, it’s not uncommon for me to review a manuscript, and point out a paper of my own that’s relevant. I’ve often published work relevant to the manuscript I’m reviewing (duh!); and I don’t blame the authors for missing a paper that’s achieved less fame than I might have wanted. What I do, though, is phrase this carefully. I usually say something like “I’m NOT saying that you have to cite this, but you could easily have missed this paper of mine, which on page XXX says something that supports your argument”.
Similarly, when I get That Review That Says Cite My Paper, I try to restrain my eyes from rolling until I’ve had a chance to consider the suggested citation carefully. Peer reviewers are experts, or at least they should be, and it’s foolish to do anything other than accept the help that expertise offers. In my experience the suggested citations, more often that not, really do improve my manuscript. When careful thought suggests that they don’t, I explain why and don’t add them – and it’s never torpedoed my revision.
But then, I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve never run into cite-my-paper-gate-guy. Phew.
© Stephen Heard February 4, 2020
*^Especially when the reviewer chooses to remain anonymous but then recommends citing six papers that have only one author in common. I mean, come on.