Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To review or not to review? A question of personal bias and professional ethics.

Just a quick question, probably for those who are midcareer and beyond, sparked by an e-mail exchange with a colleague a few days ago, regarding a dilemma s/he is having:

If you received a request from a journal or a press to review a book or article manuscript written by a junior person whom you considered a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance, what would be your response (assuming that you had time to take on the job, and felt qualified to review the material)?

(a) Accept the review job. I am able to separate my personal feelings from how I evaluate a scholar's work.

(b) Accept the review job, even though I know I'm likely to be a bit biased in favor of this person. Publications can be make-or-break for tenure, and this is an opportunity for me to help out someone whose work is solid/good/really excellent.

(c) Decline to review the MS, because I know I'd be biased, and while no review is entirely impartial, this might be a bit too close.

(d) Decline to review the MS, because I'm so hyper-aware of my biases that I fear I'd overcompensate on the side of critiquing more harshly than would a less interested observer.

(e) Review the MS, because even though (c) or (d) may apply, most subfields are fairly small, and we're all going to end up reviewing each other's manuscripts sooner or later.

(f) Pretend I never got the request.

(g) Other.


Sulpicia said...

Mostly e, because my subfield is tiny (though that's symptomatic of a problem in itself), and people have trouble finding reviewers within it. For my wider field, I'd be more likely to say no, but unless it's a single blind request, it would also be far less likely I'd recognise the work. Requests in the subfield might as well be single blind, usually.

Curt Emanuel said...

For me there's a critical difference between friend and friendly acquaintance. If this is someone I've run into at a conf a couple of times and maybe had a beer or two with, I review it - we all know who each other are anyway. I wouldn't review a friend's though. Too easy for objectivity to be questioned.

Anonymous said...


Because I'm stuck as a young woman in an old boy's network, and I once heard a prominent senior male say, "Referee reports are where you punish your enemies and reward your friends." Everybody has bias, and if all the women are selecting out because of ideas of fairness, that's hurting their friends.

Not that I would accept something terrible, but none of my friends write terrible stuff. (Or rather, the ones that do have gone into industry.) If they are aiming for a general interest journal with something not of general interest, I can still write a strong review with suggestions of which field journal to aim for.

I don't punish my enemies though. Instead I make their work better with my reports, if the paper is high enough quality.

Sapience said...

G: I'd probably send a response back to the publisher saying I'd be willing to do the review because I think I'd be unbiased, but they should be aware of the connection, and if they want to retract the request, that's fine too. I think that deals with all of the options that don't involve rejecting the request outright.

ProMedievalist said...

B. No brainer. You're absolutely not the first person to review a friend's book. And anyway, I guarantee you'll be more scrupulously fair minded about it than many.

ProMedievalist/Longtime Lurker

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Like Sapience, I would advise the editor of my interest and ask how the editor would like to proceed.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

And reviewing a MS pre-publication is different from reviewing a book. Like ProMedievalist, I'd go ahead and review something already published, but if a journal is trying to do blind reviews, then I don't think it's my place to subvert that effort.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm off for a day of galumphing around Puddletown, so just one quick comment/question addressed to Nicole and Maggie:

a) That's awful! Yes, it probably operates to some degree in many (if not most) fields, but to have it be such a recognized feature that someone would say it right out loud? Gah!

b) To that second part of your first paragraph: What if my friend is not a woman?

squadratomagico said...

I have reviewed manuscripts composed by people with whom I'm friendly. In one case, I reviewed an article and gave pretty detailed feedback, then suggested a revise & resubmit. However, I also offered a lot of encouragement. The person did indeed resubmit; I was asked to re-review, I greenlighted it and the piece was published.

Looking back, I think I was able to help a friend in this way, both by being a sympathetic reviewer AND by being an honest reviewer. In the end, I believe the piece that was published was stronger as a result of the revisions I suggested. Because I was a friend, I was able to communicate my criticisms in a gentle way that encouraged the resubmission and hinted that there likely would be a favorable outcome the second time around.

An unsympathetic reviewer, by contrast, might have communicated the same substance, but in a more discouraging tone that might have scared the author away from that journal. Since it was a prestigious one, I'm glad I was able to play a part in helping my friend through the process.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Not that I do this anymore, but: I'd incline towards (b) or (e) (never (f)!), or maybe Sapience and Dame Eleanor's (g). Norms may vary from journal to journal/editor to editor, and with the specificity of the subfield, so throwing it back to the editor makes sense.

I also agree with Curt Emanual's distinction between friend/friendly acquaintance - I kinda think that if you're in this profession long enough, everyone in your field is going to become a friendly acquaintance, so if you declined to review on those grounds, you won't review much.

However: aren't these requests supposed to be blind? Is the journal telling you who the person is, or do you know who they are based on the work submitted? I think if you'd actually seen the work submitted in a previous form - like, you read an early draft for a friend - it would be necessary to decline, but if you knew it was X's work because you know X is the only person who works on [whatever], that's no problem (again, the longer one's in the field, the more people one can ID that way - I don't think long experience in a field should limit one's opportunities to review. If that makes sense).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

In answer to New Kid's question: I'm not sure what my friend's review request said, and I've never been asked to review a book manuscript, only articles. But my own book review was blind, rather than double-blind; in other words, they could see me, but I couldn't see them. I've had two requests to review journal articles, and one was blind, the other double-blind. So I imagine there's a great deal of variance.

Historiann said...

All book ms. that I've reviewed had their authors revealed to me and so were single-blind (until I signed the review, that is.) All journal articles I've reviewed have been double-blind, until I signed the review and made them single blind.

My BFFs in the profession include only one early Americanist. The other two are a medeival Europeanist and a modern U.S. historian, so I'm not in danger of being asked to review anything by those folks. The particular cross-section I work in is very small, so I'd probably review manuscripts by just about anyone else in my field/s.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hey, I'm not junior anymore! *laughs uncomfortably*

But seriously, I think if you think your relationship with the person might affect your review, you decline, or at least warn the editor. But OTOH, I realized about a year ago that I am friends or friendly with most of the editorial boards of two of the journals in which I am most likely to publish. And given the sorts of things that my friends have said when I've sent them drafts, the comments have always been thorough and thoughtful. Presumably it's more likely to be a case of R&R than something totally crap, so maybe thinking of yourself as a friendly editor, no matter the author, would help?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the natural sciences, it is completely routine to peer review grants and manuscripts of people you are quite friendly with. Those personal relationships that are considered to present conflicts of interest are (1) family relationship, (2) financial relationship, (3) collaborative relationship, (4) shared institutional affiliation, (5) direct scientific competition for the same experimental goal, (6) severe scientific dispute.

Anonymous said...

(g) with Sapience and Dame Eleanor. I have had this, albeit not for unpublished work but for a book by someone I'd worked for and like a lot. I told the editor this, after dithering, and by then they'd already assigned it to someone else anyway. Problem solved, sort of (in as much as I then had to buy the book). With this, I think I would see it as a chance to do some good, but I would very much feel that the editor needed to be told.

Mind you. Anything I'm actually qualified to referee, I will almost certainly be able to tell who the writer is! There's really very few of us.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Ah. I have only reviewed articles, so didn't think about books! (And I think I have heard that those are single-blind - or not blind, if the reviewer chooses to reveal.) That makes sense!

C said...

My general feeling is that editors expect that you are at least acquainted with most people in the field and tend to trust your judgement. It all depends on the person and your opinion of hir scholarship, no? That said, I think if you're worried, simply notify the editor.

As a side note, I've never blind-reviewed unpublished material, but I was wondering what your thoughts (and other folks') were on signing reports. My feeling is that it's considerate to sign, especially for an r&r. For the one article I published, all but one reviewer revealed hir identity. I'm curious, because I've never faced this dilemma: what would be your reasons for not signing?