Thursday, April 05, 2007

Too Close For Reviewing Comfort?

Today a colleague with whom I've collaborated at various times over the years told me he was asked to review one of my manuscripts on a topic completely separate from anything we've worked on together. He declined to review it because he felt it would be a conflict of interest given that we've collaborated on other research projects. A few months ago I wrote about a situation in which I didn't feel I could give an objective review of a proposal, and there certainly are situations in which lack of objectivity requires that one refuse to review a paper or proposal.

I must admit, though, that I have mixed feelings about this situation. I realize that one interpretation of my colleague's refusal to do the review is that he really doesn't like the work and didn't want to be involved in a negative review of a longtime colleague, but I don't believe that is the case here. I think he would give the manuscript a thorough, thoughtful, and overall positive review. And even if he had negative comments and was worried about how I'd react to them, he doesn't have to sign his review, so there would be no risk of my taking any negative comments personally.

I have seen many close and semi-close colleagues review each other's papers. In some of those cases I didn't think that was appropriate, but if we all declined to review the manuscripts and proposals of people we've worked with at one point, the reviewing system would collapse. That, or we'd only get reviews from people who disagree with us. So, where to draw the line?

The colleague who declined to review my manuscript is a very honest and sincere person, so I respect his decision. Part of me can't help feeling regret, though, that the 'old boy' network never seems to work for me.


Mr. B. said...


Having wrestled with this question I suggest not reviewing the work of friends or co-workers. Either you are too tough, bending over backwards not to give the author a break, or if it is a really good paper and you can't give much criticism, you feel badly about not being tough enough.

I know - plenty of old boys violate this rule and take advantage of the system.

But in the end, you have to have your own standards. The system won't crumble and they can get another reviewer if you explain your reasons for declining. I think the editor will respect you, also.

A perhaps old-fashioned Mr. B.

Female Science Professor said...

I agree with you, alas -- my colleague did the right thing.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Maybe you have gotten breaks from close colleagues in the past (OBN) but not known because the review was not signed. And maybe this man would make the same decision about reviewing work of another colleague who was male. While I definately think women get shut out of the OBN, sometimes it's nice to assume otherwise, especially on a Friday. :)

Professor Staff said...

I've turned down such opportunities many times for similar reasons. Sometime the editors don't like it, but it always (to me) seemed the right thing to do. Is "old boys network" defined as people who review their friends' papers and give them hall passes?

(FWIW - I am male and so were most of the colleagues in question)

I was once asked to review my own NIH grant proposal! (they initially ask by simply providing the abstract without PIs -- the SRA was extremely embarrased when I pointed out the "conflict")

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, the story about being asked to review your own grant is hilarious! And quite indicative of how overly focused science has become. No one else was qualified, eh? =D

Seriously though, you could look at it either way.

1- The system will not collapse. Get over yourself, there are plenty of qualified people out there, science is getting bigger and bigger all the time.

2- The system is already a mess for precisely this reason- papers being reviewed by totally unqualified people because all the qualified people have selflish or paranoid conflicts of interest.

The 'peer' review system is outdated and no longer makes any sense. We've got to chuck it and go with a totally open review system like PLoS ONE is using. It's the only way that makes any sense.