Last month we published a blog post with some tips on selecting preferred reviewers for your manuscript. It was hugely popular (if you haven’t read it yet you can do so here), so we have decided to follow it up with some advice on identifying NON-preferred reviewers (or Author Opposed Reviewers as they are now known on ScholarOne).
Unlike preferred reviewers, you are not required to identify non-preferred reviewers when you submit your paper to Methods. However, in certain cases this option is can be very useful for your manuscript. It is important not to overuse or misuse this feature of the submission system though and the below tips will help you to avoid doing this.
The Golden Rule: Always Explain Why!
It can often be difficult to decide whether to identify someone as an author opposed reviewer. While there are some guidelines that journals can (and do) offer, a lot of the time authors find themselves in the grey area between these. We understand that it is unlikely that every question you have will be answered by our guidance (although we hope that we can address at least a few of them), but there is a way around this: explain why you have made a person a non-preferred reviewer.
The explanations that you provide don’t need to be extensive – a sentence or two is usually sufficient – and should appear in your cover letter. You should have some information on why each non-preferred reviewer has been selected (although you should try to keep the list as short as you possibly can) and you should avoid inflammatory or aggressive phrases.
Your explanations of why someone is listed as an author opposed reviewer are absolutely essential to the Editors. It gives them the information that they need to make a decision on whether or not someone would be an appropriate referee. Without an explanation, the Editors have no way to differentiate between reviewers who are on the list for a good reason and those who should still be in the reviewer pool. Remember, your list of non-preferred reviewers are suggestions; the Editors are not restricted from inviting any of those people. However, if you can provide a legitimate reason why someone should not be invited to review your paper, the Editors will not approach them.
People to Consider Identifying as Non-Preferred Reviewers
Obviously we can’t give you a list of individuals to ask not to be invited to review your paper. What we can do though is give you some criteria to consider. The overarching reason to consider someone as an author opposed reviewer is because, as David Ketcheson succinctly explained, they “may have personal or subjective reasons to react negatively to your work, regardless of its scientific content”. This doesn’t mean that we want a list of everyone that you’ve ever fallen out with or annoyed though. There’s no need to list people who are outside of the field of your paper, as they would not be considered as potential reviewers anyway. In general, we wouldn’t expect to see more than one or two non-preferred reviewers per paper.
If you choose to identify someone as a non-preferred reviewer for personal reasons, we would expect the circumstances to be severe enough that you suspect they may cloud a person’s judgement and/or scientific integrity. In general, this should have some form of previous evidence, for example a clearly biased review in the past or a harassment suit of some description (as opposed to just a gut feeling).
Selecting non-preferred reviewers because they may have subjective reasons to react negatively to your work should be fairly rare. We would only expect this sort of an issue to arise if there is a scientific debate over a fundamental element of your article that one side of the debate would dismiss out-of-hand. If you know that someone is likely to recommend rejection without fully considering your manuscript due to an assumption that many in the scientific community may accept, you may wish to make them an author opposed reviewer. Please note, this is NOT the same as someone who would disagree with your methods or conclusions after having considered the paper.
Finally, you may wish to make someone a non-preferred reviewer if they have already seen a version of your manuscript. If you have included them in your acknowledgements, this is not necessary (as people in the acknowledgements of your manuscript will not be invited to review). However, if they have not done enough to warrant inclusion in the acknowledgements, but have put enough work into the paper that they may have a bias in favour of your work, you might want to think about listing them as an author opposed reviewer. In general, people will come forward and disclose this sort of a conflict of interest, so if you are unsure it’s best to leave them off the list.
People Who Shouldn’t be Non-Preferred Reviewers
There are a few people who you may consider making a non-preferred reviewer for your paper, but who should remain in the reviewer pool. We see a lot of authors including people as non-preferred reviewers for the below reasons. If you ask for someone to be considered as a non-preferred reviewer for an insufficient reason, it can sometimes encourage the Associate Editor to approach them for a review. This is because it is often important to receive a review from someone on the opposite side of a debate. The following are not good reasons to ask for someone to be removed from the pool of reviewers:
- They disagree with you: It can be tempting to ask that someone who you know will disagree with your conclusions not be considered as a referee for your article. However, some of the best reviews come from reviewers who disagree with the manuscript they are commenting on. If someone disagrees with what you are trying to argue, they are more likely to find the weaker parts of your paper and highlight them for you. They will also bring up many of the criticisms that you may face after publication and give you a chance to address them. It can make for a more difficult set of revisions, but it will almost certainly benefit your manuscript in the long-term.
- They have given you a negative review in the past: If someone gave a previous paper of yours a tough review, it does not necessarily mean that they should be excluded from reviewing your manuscripts again. As mentioned above, tough reviews are often some of the most constructive. The exception to this rule is if the review you received was unprofessional (i.e. displayed clear bias, was aggressive or derogatory, or suggested rejection for non-scientific reasons).
- They have a minor conflict of interest: For example, someone who you have worked with on a previous, unrelated paper or someone who you studied with at an undergraduate level should not be excluded because of a potential conflict of interest (positive or negative). We would not expect connections of this type to be an issue in the review process and, in the vast majority of cases, if someone who would fall into this category feels that they cannot provide an objective review, they will contact us. In small sub-disciplines this is more pertinent than in large ones. There is also no need to list people who are based at the same institution as you as author opposed reviewers; they will be excluded from the reviewer pool automatically.
As noted above, identifying someone as a non-preferred or author opposed reviewer does not prevent them from being invited to review your submission. This feature and the preferred reviewer feature simply allow you to make suggestions of who should or should not be a referee for your paper. The Editors are still able to invite anyone who they feel is an appropriate reviewer for the manuscript and reserve the right to invite people who have been identified as non-preferred if there is not a good reason to remove them from the pool of reviewers. However, if you have given clear legitimate reasons why someone should not review your paper, the Editors will take these into consideration when inviting referees.
Finally, it is important to note that one unfairly negative review of your paper showing clear bias against you does not necessarily mean that your manuscript will be rejected. The Editors read and consider all reviews before making their decision, but they are not obliged to agree with or follow the exact recommendations of the referees. If inappropriate reviews are received, the Editors have the opportunity to reject, ignore or find a replacement for them.
Is it good/bad/indifferent to record as non-preferred reviewers people who have conflicts of interest that editors would generally be unaware of? For example, if I’m submitting a paper on topic X, and I’m also collaborating on a different project with someone who is not a coauthor of that paper and not at my institution (or those of my coauthors) and who is an expert on topic X, should I list this person? The only benefit would be to save an editor the potential time of contacting that person and that person replying with I-have-a-conflict-of-interest-and-can’t-review-this-for-you. Should I not bother?
In this sort of situation it would be best to flag this potential conflict of interest to the Editor, but make sure to explain it in your cover letter. We always try to review manuscripts as quickly as possible and notes like this can be very helpful in speeding up the review process.