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  • You’re genuinely worry about your work being “scooped” if a particular researcher sees your unpublished manuscript (this is also a common reason for not posting preprints).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


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

  1. Pingback: Como sugerir revisores e editores para um manuscrito – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  2. Marco Mello

    Thank you very much for sharing your view about this polemic issue. I’m very skeptical of those disfavored lists, because of academic gossip. Yes, unfortunately, I know some concrete cases of editors discussing those lists with colleagues and commenting things like “look who dislikes whom!”. This is highly unethical, of course, but Academia can be a toxic place sometimes. I use those lists with extreme caution, and only when I trust the associate editor.


  3. sleather2012

    As an Editor I quite often use one of the disfavoured reviewers and am often amazed at how friendly and supportive they are compared with some of the favoured reviewers! Are some authors trying a double-bluff?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Do editors really use those lists of “recommended reviewers”? And who should you suggest? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  5. Jan Murie

    At the risk of opening another can of worms, I don’t agree with the statement that knowing, or thinking one knows, that someone has acted inappropriately toward you in the past is a good argument for double-blind reviewing. I suspect most double-blind reviews are not really double-blind. A reviewer is much more likely to know the author of a manuscript than the author is to know the reviewer. And trying to guess who the reviewer is a mug’s game even when there are some clues available in the review. I have always maintained that reviewer anonymity is rarely appropriate and full transparency is desirable. Yes, that could lead to some hard feelings, but it’s best to have those things in the open rather than suspicions that can lead from anonymous reviews. The adoption of lists of favoured and unfavoured reviewers by authors can help preserve fairness in the reviewing process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Totally agree with you that guessing at reviewer identities is a mug’s game. Editors-in-chief have told me that when an author complains about an anonymous reviewer, and says they know who it is, they are almost always wrong!


  6. Ian Dworkin

    While I was an AE at several journals, I generally avoided picking reviewers from the disfavoured list, with just a single exception that I remember (but there was a time when I handled a lot of papers, so there may have been more). Like you, I read that particular disfavoured review with a particularly keen eye just in case. I don’t remember the specific outcome of that paper.

    I do however disagree (? may be more worth your phrasing than intent though) with one point you mentioned, and I have seen it happen (not as an author, but as a reviewer of the manuscript). This happened the first year I was a new minted assistant professor (so back in 2007 or so). Someone was put on the disfavoured reviewer list (I did not know this at the time, only after in discussion with the editor) because it was well known that anyone in the field who openly disagreed with them would receive quite unfavourable reviews that were totally unreasonable. They, were also chosen as a reviewer (along with me). When I (as one of the reviewers) received the full set of comments (my own and that of the other reviewers), I was appalled by this review, both in its lack of professionalism, but also suggested that the authors did or did not do things that were clearly contradicted by the manuscript. The paper was not accepted in that journal (but was in another journal, where I also was asked to review it). Flash forward some time in the future (I think about a year later) and it came up when I was having a 1-1 discussion with the editor (and mentioned this paper they had handled) and after I mentioned my concern over that review they told me the reviewer had been on the disfavoured list, but included anyways. This has stuck with me since then, and always felt I should have contacted the editor immediately to point out my concerns with that review.

    From that point on (and I think it has only happened once since then when I have been a reviewer), I now feel I need to let the editor know that I think there are problems with the other submitted review that they may wish to consider.

    So I think sometimes that in certain sub-fields (including evolutionary biology) that there are people who have staked so much on certain ideas, or just because of who they are, will review extremely harshly (and unreasonably). I think this is VERY rare, but it does happen. So when choosing a reviewer from that disfavoured list it is worth thinking carefully about.



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