Conflicts of Interest

[Micro-intro: I’m a new author on this blog. I’m Carrie Jenkins, one of the editors of Thought. Hi!]

Wesley Buckwalter writes, via our Suggest a Topic page:

It would be very helpful to hear a discussion concerning editorial and referee conflicts of interest. For instance, there are many potential kinds of conflicts of interest in reviewing (author is your PI, history of co-authorship, shared grant, same department, etc) with seemingly no consensus in philosophy which are appropriate or inappropriate when issuing invitations of review. I frequently receive invitations in which I declare even remote/perceived conflicts, or sometimes even feel that I must decline in light of them. I realize it is difficult to recruit referees, but this seems like an issue essential for quality of review, and something we should have transparent consensus both from the perspective of editor and reviewer response?

The first issue this raises in my mind is that of anonymity. If a reviewer is in a position to declare a conflict of interest, then there is no possibility of anonymous review, and that is an issue independently of the conflict of interest. In my experience, there is little by way of disciplinary consensus regarding when non-anonymous reviewing is acceptable. There do exist areas of philosophy in which expertise is so limited that the only alternative to non-anonymous review is non-expert review. The rest, I take it, is a matter of judgment calls.

Qua editor, I would say it is best practice for reviewers to declare to editors if they know who the author of a paper is, especially (but not only) if they feel that there could be a conflict of interest. In some circumstances they might still be the best (and/or only) person available, but it really helps if editors know that there could be an issue, so that they can ask someone else wherever possible.

Further thoughts/discussion welcome!


12 thoughts on “Conflicts of Interest

  1. Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa

    Do all conflicts of interest involve failure of blind review? I can imagine a couple of possible situations where they mightn’t. What if a submission is deeply critical of my own work, or if it heaps praise upon it? What if a submission runs an argument very similar to one I’m working on in a paper I’m trying to get published? I usually declare these things as potential conflicts of interest.

    1. carriejenkins Post author

      Good point! I was only thinking of the kinds of COI mentioned in the submitted question, but there are these kinds too.

      I think potential COIs consistent with anonymity are also worth declaring. Some of them are things that (hopefully) were also visible to editors when reviewers were selected in the first place (e.g. the heaps of praise). So there should be a higher chance an editor will reply that the COI is already accounted for and the review is still wanted. But always better to err on the side of disclosure, as far as I can tell.

    2. elisa freschi

      It might have to do with the fact that there are not that many people working on my area of specialisation, but I am usually called as a reviewer exactly when the article to be reviewed overlaps somehow with my own research. How could I be able to judge about X’s very technical claims on some specific issues (say, the influence of Plato’s usage of subordination on Plotinus’ argumentative style), unless if I had spent some time on them myself?

  2. Tom

    There’s also the possibility of being asked to review a paper that is very critical of one’s (former) supervisor, best friend from graduate school and so on. Such cases are rarely transparent to the editor. I don’t know how often they occur but if they do, it should be made known to the editor. What I wonder is whether one should disclose (potential) conflicts of interest when submitting the review or earlier. It seems to me that some conflicts do and some don’t render the review useless. I once reviewed a paper with a footnote highly critical of someone I know quite well. When I read that footnote I had already written down some notes and since I didn’t want my work to be in vain, I turned them in anyway. So I agree with Wesley that some thumb rules would be welcome.

    1. carriejenkins Post author

      That’s a good point too. Qua editor, I know I’d appreciate knowing about potential COIs of this form. I don’t know how common they are, but they must happen from time to time. (In fact, I once heard of a case where someone was asked to review their spouse’s paper. A solid testament to the triple-anonymised nature of the reviewing process, but … problematic.)

      I wonder if something this could be a useful rule of thumb: if, when reading a paper you’ve been asked to review, you realise it is either by or primarily about someone whom you know well in a personal capacity and/or have a close working relationship with* then it’s worth checking in with the editor.

      * So many vague terms. But since this is surely a vague matter, I’m not sure that’s avoidable.

  3. wesbuc

    Hi Carrie great to see a post about this issue/my question! Clearly it is important to preserve the anonymous review process. I have to admit though, that was far from the first issue on my mind when I was thinking about what seems like a very troubling lack of transparent policies in philosophy over conflicts of interest in reviewing. (Your worry struck me as a secondary issue because, for instance, if you decline a review request by a handling editor bc of a serious conflict the issue seems moot. There’s also several types of conflicts/ways to declare potential conflicts that might not violate anonymous review when completing assignments.)

    What I had meant to ask was actually much more basic–about the kinds of things that constitute various sorts of conflicts. For instance, since the onus seems to be on the responsible reviewer to either declare conflicts or decline assignments in light of them, I was thinking it would be really helpful if there were some consensus about when potential conflicts constitute clear grounds for declining a request. It also seems like it might be helpful if there were some standard for when one should accept an assignment, but declare a relationship as a potential conflict (again in some way that best preserves anonymous review). It would be helpful in the sense that it could potentially save everyone a lot of time and also ensure for everyone better standards for quality of review. I mentioned in the OP (e.g. history of co-authorship, shared grant) a couple of examples in which I feel it would be most responsible to decline in light of potential conflicts. But I am very curious to hear from others.

  4. jdjacobs

    For cases that threaten anonymity, I agree with Carrie that you should let the editor know. (Be careful with what you say; if the review is triple anonymous as it is at several journals, Res Philosophica included, the editor doesn’t know what the author is, and what you say might make it clear whom the author is to the editor.) Where possible, you should let the editor know before you start the review. That might not be possible. (For example, you may only come to realize that you know the identity of the author after finishing most of the review, as Tom notes above.) If that’s the case, simply let the editor know what happened and that you’d be happy to send her the review if she’d still like to see it.

  5. jdjacobs

    On the broader range of types conflicts of interest, I think it’s good to let editors know, on the condition that you are willing to referee the paper in spite of the potential conflict of interest. (If you’re not willing to referee the paper, there’s no good in informing the editor, and there is potential for undermining the anonymity if the process is triple anonymous.)

    What constitutes a conflict of interest is an important, but thorny question. To me, it’s better to think in terms of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. Might someone reasonable conclude, if they knew the details, that there is a potential conflict of interest? If so, I’m inclined to think you should inform the editor.

    This sets the bar very low, and might involve an increase in work for editors, who already find it difficult to find referees. But initially, at least, I see no other harm in informing the editor who can then make an informed judgement of the particulars of the case, taking into account factors such as the severity of the potential conflict of interest, but also how many potential referees have already said no and how long it’s been since the initial submission.

    What could give the appearance of the potential conflicts of interest? Clear cases have already been discussed: the author is a significant other, close friend, departmental colleague, dissertation director, recurring co-author, involved in funding you (PI). Other cases already mentioned don’t involve the author, but involve the persons engaged with in the paper, either by way of criticism or high praise.

    Carrie suggested a rule of thumb above: “if, when reading a paper you’ve been asked to review, you realise it is either by or primarily about someone whom you know well in a personal capacity and/or have a close working relationship with then it’s worth checking in with the editor.” I wonder if we might go even further: If someone might *reasonable* ask “Yeah, but might the referee’s recommendation have been influenced by . . . ?” then it’s worth mentioning it to the editor.

    Does that set that bar too low?

    (There is the *further* question about which of these sorts of cases ought to be acted on by the editor. But I wanted to keep that separate for the moment.)

  6. Caleb Cohoe

    I want to follow up on the previous comments by asking about the particular case of refereeing papers dealing with one’s own work. A friend informed me about what seems to me to be a problematic case. A junior philosopher submitted an article that was critical of the views of a dominant figure in a small sub-branch of a larger field. The paper was returned with a rejection based on a referee’s report consisting of multiple pages of detailed line-by-line criticisms, both major and minor. From the style and content, it seemed clear that the referee was the person whose position was being criticized. The paper was then rejected based on the recommendation of the referee. When the paper was submitted to a different journal, one of the referee’s reports (the one that led to it being rejected) was virtually identical to the referee’s report from the first journal. Thus it seemed that in both cases the journal editors made the person whose views were being criticized (a person who, admittedly, is one of the leading experts in this small field) the gatekeeper. This seems objectionable to me, but I don’t know how common or accepted this refereeing practice is. Is it ever acceptable for editors to ask the target of the paper to serve as a referee? Should authors always decline to referee such articles or do circumstances sometimes make this acceptable?

  7. Rachel

    This isn’t *quite* a conflict of interest, but I think it’s a point worth discussing.

    A couple times I’ve reviewed papers that I was inclined to recommend R+R over reject because I was worried that if it was rejected, it might go to another journal and be accepted. (I’ve seen this happen, for what it’s worth.) Why was I worried? Because the paper made some extremely problematic errors, ones that are ethically worrying — ones that could be harmful to some underrepresented groups. I also knew that most other referees wouldn’t even spot the errors, let alone require them to be fixed. So by recommending R+R, I make it more likely that those errors will be fixed in a way I think is important.


    1. Sara L. Uckelman

      I hope that when you made that recommendation, you included a private note to the editor explaining exactly what you explained above — that would be incredibly useful information for an editor to have.


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