Suggest a Topic: Who should Editors Invite as Referees?

Cable Cohoe writes from the Suggest a Topic page:

I want to ask 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?

Should editors ask someone to referee a paper whose views are criticized in the paper? It’s not really clear to me what the norm is among journal editors, so I’d be interested to hear from the other contributors.

For my part, I’ve made it a policy not to ask the person whose views are criticized to be a primary referee. I can see why it would seem like the thing to do: Who would know the view better? But the evidence we have concerning implicit bias seem to me to suggest that it would be better to find referees without so much at stake in the debate.

Still, in cases where the two referees disagree in their assessment in a way where the person whose view is criticize could help settle the disagreement, I have invited the author as a third referee. But I’ve done that only after receiving the initial reports and trying to come to a decision after reviewing them.

What are other practices in the discipline, and what should the right practice be?

(There is a second issue worth having a discussion about—should a journal use a referee who has already referees the paper for a different journal?—but I want to focus our discussion on Caleb’s question. So I’ll leave this other issue for another post.)


3 thoughts on “Suggest a Topic: Who should Editors Invite as Referees?

  1. Kevin

    I think it would depend on who the reeferee was. I have good reason to think one major player I was criticizing was a referee of a paper I wrote and he did a splendid job. But I can see how others would likely be problematic. So unless the editor has good reason to think the potential referee belongs in the first class, I think it’s better policy to not have that person referee the paper in question.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    the fact that the second time the referee report was almost identical to the report from the first submission suggests that the author might not have done a good enough job in revising the paper. even the most uncharitable referee reports can turned into improvements in a paper–if nothing else, authors should make changes that prevent those misunderstandings. (of course, other explanations are possible for why the referee report was almost identical the second time.)

    that being said, i think people who are criticized by a paper often have the most useful feedback for editors and authors, so i see not reason not to ask them. but editors should take such feedback with a grain of salt. if an author who is criticized recommends rejection without good reasons, the editor is not obligated to reject the paper. s/he can appeal to other (more independent) referees who recommend acceptance or revise/resubmit.

  3. Miriam Solomon

    There are two issues here: whether or not it is a good idea for an author being discussed to be the reviewer of the article, and the matter of the same referee being used by two different journals for the same article. On the latter issue, I think it is wrong for a referee to evaluate the same article at a different journal. The referee should decline on the basis that they have already evaluated the article for one journal, and the author is clearly seeking a new reading.


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