The Fourth Reviewer: Help! A reviewer just contacted me directly.

It's worth your time to open up your Rolodex (TM) and recommend some reviewers — but give the choice some real thought. (Flickr: Ged Carroll)
It’s worth your time to open up your Rolodex (TM) and recommend some reviewers — but give the choice some real thought. (Flickr: Ged Carroll)

Tim Vines is an evolutionary ecologist who found his calling in the process of peer review. He was Managing Editor of Molecular Ecology from 2008 to 2015, he launched The Molecular Ecologist in 2010, and he’s the founder and Managing Editor of Axios Review. Now, Tim is also The Fourth Reviewer, taking on your questions about peer review and publishing. Got a question for the Fourth Reviewer? Send us an e-mail!

I’m just working through submitting a manuscript for review, and I’ve come to the page where the editorial system asks me to suggest some possible reviewers, and name any who would be inappropriate. Apart from collaborators and others with conflicts of interest, I don’t know of anyone in my field who shouldn’t review this paper. But I’m always a bit nonplussed by the request for suggested reviewers — it’s easy for me to pull up some appropriate names, but I feel like even making the suggestion taints their opinions with the perception that I think they’ll give a favourable review. Do editors actually use reviewer suggestions from authors? — Conflicted Contacts List

This is an endless source of discussion and dispute, both outside journals and within them. Some journals really like to use suggested reviewers, and even require that authors provide them at submission. Other journals won’t touch them with a bargepole.

The crux of the matter is that Editors can never really know how close authors are with their preferred reviewers, particularly when they’re on different continents and have never published together. Maybe they’re part of a secret cabal that gives members positive reviews? Maybe the ‘non-preferred’ reviewer is a sleeper agent, whose endorsement of the paper could count double with the Editor? Journals are right to be paranoid, not least because hundreds of papers have been retracted because the authors’ preferred reviewers turned out to be fake reviewer accounts for the authors themselves (e.g. here).

Journals are also suspicious of author suggestions because some authors suggest completely inappropriate people — ranging from lab mates and their former advisors to the last three winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Sorting through these suggestions only to find that they’re practically useless just uses valuable time and annoys the editor.

Suggested reviewers work well when the Editor can a) see that the authors have made a genuine attempt to recommend suitable people, and b) the Editor uses these as a starting point to find people among the suggested reviewer’s close colleagues. So, yes, suggested reviewers are useful, but only if the Editor can feel confident that the authors aren’t trying to pull a fast one.

I recently submitted a paper for review, and it’s been out to the reviewers for about a week, as near as I can tell from my obsessive refreshing of the “manuscript status” page on the journal’s website. But yesterday I got an e-mail, completely out of the blue, from a colleague who says that he’s reviewing my manuscript, and he has questions about it, and would I mind answering them? I’m a bit taken aback — it isn’t someone I’d recommended. More importantly, I’m not sure how to handle correspondence with a reviewer outside the editorial system like this. What do I do? — Surprised By Pers. Comm.

Well, they’re clearly waiving their anonymity by getting in touch with you, so in theory there’s nothing wrong with writing back to answer their questions. Use your common sense though: is it likely that this person is actually reviewing your paper? Are the questions sufficiently detailed that they could only come from someone with access to your manuscript? I think there’s enough evidence of dirty tricks in science publishing these days that we all need to be a little bit paranoid about who is contacting us and why.

If you do decide to write back to the reviewer, please be sure to cc both the Editor and the Editorial Office – the former will want to know about the conversation, and the latter will make sure that the Editor is reminded about it when they come to make their decision.

I’m a graduate student, getting ready to (finally) defend my dissertation later in the year. Today I’ve just received a request for a review of a manuscript for the very first time. The paper is on a topic closely related to my research, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pull together and submit a couple of chapters of my dissertation as manuscripts already, so I know the process. But I sort of feel like this is attributing expertise to me that I haven’t officially earned yet. (The automatic e-mail from the journal even called me “Doctor.”) Can I really review a paper before I have my Ph.D.? — Amenable But Doubtful

I’ve definitely seen late-stage graduate students acting as reviewers, ABD, and they’re generally as good at commenting on a paper as other early career researchers. (Which makes sense, because the only difference between a late-stage graduate student and a postdoc is a grueling presentation and a night of drinking.) That said, if you do get a review request as a grad student, I’d recommend emailing the journal to a) tell them you’re still doing your Ph.D., and b) offer to show your completed review to your advisor (or equivalent) before sending it in. Most journals should agree to this, and you’ll get valuable experience as a reviewer, and Brownie points from the journal for being conscientious.

If you have a question about peer review or scientific publishing for The Fourth Reviewer, send us an e-mail. Questions will be presented pseudonymously, and may be edited for space and grammar.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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