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You’re genuinely worry about your work being “scooped” if a particular researcher sees your unpublished manuscript (this is also a common reason for not posting preprints).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 Wikimedia.org, 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.