Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Self-promotion via reviewing

A reviewer has a certain level of control over an author.  When that reviewer asks for major revisions and requests the author cite their own papers, it is a conflict of interest, and is used in ways that are against the spirit of peer review.  I'm wondering, how can we as researchers who use and, in some ways, administer peer review processes, set standards and monitor the conflict-of-interests of reviewers?

I've been an associate editor for five years now, and I've noticed that reviewers, more and more often, are using their review to compel authors to cite their own papers.  The review is anonymous to the authors, but as an associate editor, I know the reviewer's names.  So I can see clearly when a reviewer is listing their own papers to be cited.  The reviewer's papers to-be-cited are a "request", but one that authors can only assume are requested under threat of a reject suggestion by the reviewer.  

The signs that the papers are listed for self-promotion are obvious: listing more than one of one's own papers; listing papers that were not published when the authors submitted their paper; listing papers that are in the general area but not close enough to actually impact the manuscript's conclusions.  

When is a reviewer's request to an author to cite the reviewer's paper justified?  I'd like to hear others' opinions.  I think it is justified if the paper would affect the manuscript's conclusions.  It is not justified solely to round out the related work section -- if a reviewer feels a manuscript's related work section is too shallow, in general, the review may state simply that more (or more closely) related work needs to be discussed, without mentioning the reviewer's own work.

One solution I am thinking of: associate editors would put in a standard disclaimer to their "editor comments" given to the authors upon any revision decision:
The editors will not reject a paper for non-citation of any reviewer-requested reference if the authors make a case that the reference does not affect the conclusions of the manuscript and the related work is generally well described.
What other solutions could have an impact?  Or do you think I'm overreacting?  Let me know in the comments.