Academic paper: Ethics of reviewer requesting added references
February 19, 2015 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I would welcome some opinions on the ethics of a reviewer for an academic paper and potential ways to address a problem with a request to add inappropriate references.

I submitted a paper to a reputable journal, one of the bigger ones in my field. Reviewer #1 asked for some data changes which we did. R #2 asked us to make our results clearer and more detailed and to add 3 references. We made quite a few changes to improve clarity and add detail and added one of the requested refs, which was marginally relevant. We rejected the other two since they were irrelevant, basically engineering papers in a soc-sci methodology paper, linked only by being in the same general field. We explained that the novel element of the paper is the method and results were largely for another paper since they are extensive.

On second review R #1 says they are happy for the paper to be published. R #2 has again asked for more detail of results, again with little detail and with nothing to add to the already thin feedback in his first review, but more pointedly has now asked for a total of 4 further references to be added, including the 2 we already rejected. All of the suggested papers have one author in common. All are clearly irrelevant - I could easily find dozens, even hundreds, of papers which would be more relevant. The general feel of my co-authors and me is that we are being held to ransom by this reviewer. What actions might we take to address this? Are complaints to the editor effective? Is there another solution besides a complaint or sucking it up and getting on with adding bogus refs?

Apologies for adding two academic ethics questions in two weeks, they are both for real unfortunately. Reading this back it seems like we are spitting our dummies a bit but we are all experienced authors, we did way more than was asked for post the initial review and I don't think this is just sour grapes on our part.
posted by biffa to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This may be field-specific, so exercise appropriate caution, but when a similar thing happened in my last lab, the response was an unusually pointed version of the cover letter that goes with the resubmitted paper, indicating that the references were definitely not going in, and possibly some backchannel stuff from the last author/lab PI to the editor (I wasn't privy to it, but it was strongly hinted at in lab meeting).

With some journals it's also a thing to specifically anti-request certain reviewers, which doesn't help now but can help nip this stuff in the bud in the future if you know or can guess who Reviewer #2 is.
posted by dorque at 9:51 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Depends on the editor, but if this really is as obvious as it seems to be, a strongly worded (though not directly confrontational) cover letter plus a friendly "what's up with this?" email to the editor should make a difference.

If this is, in fact, a problem reviewer, the editor should know about it. If the editor is any good, they want to know about it.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:01 AM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

All of the suggested papers have one author in common.

Do some recent articles in the journal also contain a seemingly high number of tenuous references to papers by this author? If so they might have a reviewer problem the editor would be glad to be made aware of.
posted by mikepop at 10:11 AM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: PI calls the editor. Editor may not be paying close attention, since it seems you're in spitting range of acceptance; the revisions that #2 requested may have seemed easy and unproblematic to Editor, so Editor, busy with many other worse problems, may have just skimmed it. It's now time to call it to the mat. The PI or last author does this, in a phone call to make sure the point is received.
posted by Dashy at 10:16 AM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: This looks bad for the reviewer.

Senior author should send a very short email to the editor expressing the concern and asking to schedule a phone call.
posted by grouse at 11:27 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have never, ever, had a reviewer request to add references, nor would I do this as a reviewer, and this sounds extremely problematic to me. It might be acceptable to say the paper needs more discussion of (something), in light of recent publications such as (whatever). Contact the editor for sure.
posted by Missense Mutation at 11:43 AM on February 19, 2015

I think suggesting particular references is fine (and see it with relative frequency in my field) but this pattern of behavior looks bad. The editor should know if the reviewer has an obvious conflict of interest. Even if they don't, they may not allow this behavior if called on it.
posted by grouse at 11:46 AM on February 19, 2015

Response by poster: This is not the first time this has happened to me, sometimes (less often than not though) it is a genuinely helpful recommendation. Generally, reviewers tend to back down if you say no or use one of the more relevant ones - I had one paper where someone recommended 5 papers with a shared author, and they were pretty crap, but they backed off. This is the first time I have had one with the nerve to escalate when we called him on it. It is a big problem with the review process I think, and a good argument for non-anonymous marking. A biosciences colleague tells me it has become pretty common in their field also.
posted by biffa at 12:34 PM on February 19, 2015

I have never, ever, had a reviewer request to add references

This must depend on the field - it's relatively common, and in fact I asked someone to add a few references just last week. (But none of them were my own work!)

In this case, it is obviously bogus, and the answers above are spot-on. This is squarely in the editor's court - the lead author should write back to the editor with reasons why they disagree with the reviewer's recommendation. You don't even have to point out the self-serving nature of the review comments explicitly if you phrase it with the right passive-aggressive detail: "Anon reviewer #2 has suggested citing A, B, C et al., B, P, Q et al., and X, Y, B et al., ... "
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:02 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: Reviewers commonly ask to add references. I've done it myself many times if I feel an important paper is being left out of the submission. I have not, as a point of personal ethics, ever suggested one I'm an author on, but asking to add a reference is absolutely fair game. Authors should be challenged to provide comment and context. That's part of the reviewer's job.

But the above answers are the right way to go: talk to the editor first.
posted by bonehead at 3:02 PM on February 19, 2015

Here is what I would do in your response to the reviewers:

"Reviewer #2 has suggested citation of A, B, C et al. [as per RedOrGreen] [...] We thank the reviewer for the suggestions.

"We respectfully disagree that A, B, C et al should be referenced, as its subject matter is small purple objects immersed in badgers' milk, whereas this paper is in the domain of delay-tolerant networking. If we have misunderstood the relevance of A, B, C to this paper, further clarification would be much appreciated.

"We respectfully disagree that B, P, Q et al. should be referenced, as its subject matter is asterisks adjacent to the word 'kneecap' in the third draft of Anna Karenina, whereas this paper is, as explained above, in the domain of delay-tolerant networking. Asterisks are relevant to software-defined networking but do not play a role in DTN. If we have misunderstood, we welcome further clarification.

"We respectfully disagree... [...]

"We respectfully disagree... [...]

"We thank the reviewer for the suggestions and await further clarification."

If the reviewer spits the dummy a second time, that's when I would talk to the editor, but it shouldn't be necessary after a solid factual rebuttal.
posted by tel3path at 1:11 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I talked it over with my colleagues and we decided I would contact the Editor in Chief of the Journal. I emailed to schedule a call and had a useful chat. He asked us to resubmit without adding and it went through pretty quickly. They week be watching the reviewer for repetition.
posted by biffa at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Glad to hear it went the way it should.
posted by Dashy at 1:50 PM on July 8, 2015

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