Friday, February 22, 2013

Can You Contact Helpful Referees, and How?

An anonymous Smoker writes,

I recently received a real nice set of comments from a journal referee. Although the editor rejected the paper, the ref recommended R&R, and spoke very highly of the paper's potential and the theories and arguments I defend, even if it needed some substantial revision and repackaging. I suspect that I might know the identity of this referee, based on certain context clues and the suspect's status as one of the major figures in the area. This referee's comments have led to substantial improvements in the paper--they were really tremendous. Here's the thing: I would like to get in touch with this referee, in order to a) let the person know how grateful I am, and b) ask for feedback on the changes. Is this appropriate at all? What procedures should I follow? It would be really weird to just email the suspect, right? Would it be just as weird to contact the journal? Would doing this irritate the journal staff? Would they think I was wasting their time?

I'm not sure about this one. I've never done anything like this, although I have, on occasion, received comments that were so helpful that I wished I could have expressed my gratitude to the reviewer. I definitely think it would be a bad idea to just email the person and ask if he or she was the referee: it would be weird if you were wrong, and incredibly weird if you were right. I'm not sure about asking someone at the journal. They might get annoyed--I don't know. But I guess it couldn't hurt. (Could it? Could folks with experience working for journals weigh in here?)

Or, you might just email the person without revealing your referee-related suspicions, and ask him or her to read a draft. Of course, if you're like me (i.e. a nobody), then unless the person recognizes you as the author of that high-potential paper he or she R&Red a while back, there's every chance that the message will be ignored. Whenever I have contacted people I don't know for feedback, I never hear back from them. Even if we have a lot of mutual friends on Facebook.

What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

If the paper is in the suspected reviewers area, it wouldn't be out of the question to just e-mail them the paper (without revealing that you suspect that they reviewed it.) If they want to reveal to you that they reviewed it they might do.

Euthyphronics said...

I don't know about trying to get further feedback, but I think it is entirely appropriate to e-mail the editor with an expression of gratitude for especially helpful comments, and ask that the thanks be passed on. So long as it really is a once-in-a-while phenomenon, I sincerely doubt editors will mind at all.

(If it gets to the point that authors are always just e-mailing thanks to referees for politeness sake, then it becomes pointless, of course. So let's not let it get that far.)

Anonymous said...

"a) let the person know how grateful I am"

That's easy. You can email the journal and ask to have your thanks forwarded to the reviewer. This is not uncommon.

"b) ask for feedback on the changes"

I would say that you're out of luck on this one. Asking the journal for the identity of the reviewer would be wrong. Feel free to contact the person you suspect reviewed it, as it's not uncommon to send work to senior scholars for review. But if you don't know this person and have no (obvious) reason to send it to him/her, you may be ignored.

But also keep this in mind: the reviewer was writing for that journal. The suggestions for revision may have been made with that journal's editorial staff and readership in mind. If this person were reading for article for another journal, the comments may not be quite the same. My suggestion is, having revised the piece, send it out again, but don't try to contact the person you think may have reviewed it.

Anonymous said...

Uh...the answer to whether you should contact them or the journal is definitely "no."

If you want to show your gratitude, just do your job as a referee as good as or better than your referee crush did ;)

YFNA

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure things are nearly as absolute as YNFA suggests. My impression is that different journals (that is, their editorial staff) have different views about this. I don't know that it hurts to ask what that policy is.

In one case, a referee of a paper of mine that was accepted asked to have his/her identity revealed to me and the editor obliged. This resulted in a nice e-mail exchange and the exchange of further ideas.

Anonymous said...

I was a referee for a journal submission and ended up being contacted by the author. We had been on the same conference panel together in the past. I suspected that it was her paper (I even asked to not review it because I knew the author's identity, but the journal editor insisted because I happened to be one of the only scholars who had written on this esoteric topic). She told me about the comments and how the referee had mentioned that she cite my article on the topic (not sure how appropriate this is, but again this is a very esoteric topic). I think she expected me to disclose that I was the referee. I didn't. It just felt too awkward.

Popkin said...

Could those who think it would be inappropriate to email the referee suspect explain why? I can't imagine being offended by a thank you email from the author of a paper I'd refereed. Nor would I be offended if someone emailed me by mistake (I don't have a particular aversion for being thanked for things I didn't do).

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering about the flipside of this. I've been contacted by journal editors to forward thanks. But suppose you get contacted by an author who correctly suspects you. Do you reveal yourself as the referee, and get thanked by name? Is there any reason to keep up the anonymity at this stage?

Daniel Groll said...

I'm pretty new to the reviewing game, so my view might be idiosyncratic. But I wouldn't mind at all being contacted by someone whose paper I reviewed if they want to tell me how grateful they are! Perhaps that suggests a certain level of self-absorption on my part?

I also wouldn't mind at all if they asked for feedback on the revisions, mostly because I wouldn't hesitate to say "no" if I didn't want to do it.

I've recently reviewed two papers on which I offered what I think was pretty substantial and, I hope, helpful feedback. I would kind of like to know what happened to the papers.

I'm trying to imagine the circumstances under which I really wouldn't want to be contacted by someone who wanted to thank me for my work. Could those of you who answered "no!" to OP share your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

It's not that uncommon for referees to ask journal editors to identify them to the author (and journal editors typically agree), so I don't see why the author shouldn't ask the editor to identify him/her to the referee (AFTER the whole process is over), and leave it up to the referee whether to contact the author and reveal his/her identity. I'd just say, don't get upset or offended if the referee decides not to.

The only danger I see is that the journal editor might be irritated at continuing to get emails from you after your paper is rejected, but, really, sending an email to the referee ought to take less than five minutes, and this isn't the sort of thing that's going to happen on every single paper, so I think the editor would be unreasonable to be irritated.

Anonymous said...

To Daniel Groll's question: The norms of conversation require one to justify oneself if a peer attempts conversation with one and one wishes to decline. If a paper writer were to attempt to make contact with me after I have refereed a paper of her or his, I would have to justify my begging off. I don't want to have to justify my begging off. I wasn't trying to initiate a conversation by agreeing to write a report on a paper.

zombie said...

The appropriate place to thank anonymous referees is at the end of the paper, in the acknowledgments, when it is published. And then you just express "gratitude for the exceptionally helpful comments from an anonymous reviewer."

As a referee, and a junior scholar, I would not want to be identified by a journal, or personally contacted by an author. Being anonymous allows one to freely express opinions about papers. (Yes, I know that there are flaws in the blinding system, etc.) If the author gets useful feedback from me, I've done my job right and do not require further thanks. Referees are asked, when they submit reviews, if they would be willing to review an R&R of the same paper. So, resubmit the paper to the same journal if you want feedback from the same referee (assuming s/he has consented to reviewing it again.)

Honestly, many of the papers I review are so bad that I don't want to see them again. But I have occasionally said I would look at one again.

Alternately, as 9:38 says, you could reach out to the person without admitting you suspect them of reviewing your paper, and ask them if they would consider giving you feedback on your paper. Then it is up to the ref to reveal (or not) his/her identity.

Anonymous said...

YFNA:

Referees put a lot of time and effort into a paper voluntarily. You don't want to ask them to do even more work on your paper? Do you? Also, my journal editor friends continuously have to deal with emails, so you should contact them only out of necessity. There, that's why my answer was "no."

Anonymous said...

I don't see why it would be inappropriate to email the journal, expressing how helpful the feedback was, and asking if, now that the review is over, they would be willing to let you know who the reviewer was so you could express your thanks directly. I would NOT email suspected reviewers directly; it then seems as though you've spent time trying to figure out who the reviewer was without their permission, and given that reviews are supposed to be anonymous, that seems problematic, even if you have only good things to express.

Anonymous said...

No. Next question...

Anonymous said...

Emailing a suspected reviewer is a bad idea, if only because you could easily be wrong. It's inappropriate guesswork. And even if it's a correct guess, it's inappropriate. Don't do it. I mean, if you want to convey thanks, great, that's appropriate. This is best done in the article acknowledgements. But if you're itching to know the identity of the reviewer, drop it. That's really mucking up what little anonymity and gooodness the process has.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:34,

I certainly hope that any journal contacted in such a way would refuse to tell you who the reviewer was! IF they were to violate confidentially in the way you suggest, I am sure many of us would refuse to referee for them.

Anonymous said...

I've had an editor contact me (as a referee) with a request from the author of a paper I reviewed that I disclose my identity so that the author could thank me personally. The editor forwarded me the author's request (which included some very thankful praise) and left the decision up to me. In the process, the author disclosed their identity through the editor and since I knew and liked them, I allowed the editor to identify me. It all worked out nicely and led to some very pleasant exchanges.

The upshot: if you have a good positive reason for wanting to contact the referee, then you should approach the editor with that reason. But expect to be rebuffed.

Anonymous said...

When I review for a journal (I have reviewed for two), I am working for the journal, not for the author of the piece. That is, I review because I am invested in the journal. I have a desire to see the best work in the field in print. Sometimes, of course, this means offering advice to authors so that their work - which shows some degree of promise - can achieve the standards we hold for work we publish. And while, in a general way, I am invested in helping younger scholars to develop, that's not what I'm doing as a reviewer for journals. (That's what I do when I advise students.)

If I were interested in the development of a particular piece, I might indicate as such to the editor, and note my willingness to re-read a submission or work with the author further. In such a case, I wouldn't be concerned with anonymity. But in my capacity as a journal reviewer, I offer my advice and then, in most cases, I have no interest in pursuing that piece further. I have other pieces to review, and other work to do.

If the OP wants other feedback, the OP should turn to his/her own network.

Neil said...

I disagree with pretty much everyone else (and no one has actually presented an argument, so I suspect my disagreement is not unreasonable). No one should be forced to disclose they were a referee, and if the poster wants to contact someone they suspect was the referee they should clearly state that they are not sure so as to give the person the opportunity to graciously demur. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking. The referee (if it is them) can choose to waive anonymity, or not. There is also nothing wrong with sending papers to people in your field. Those who do not reply at all, as several pele here report, are jerks, though of course people, ay not have time to read your paper.

Anonymous said...

I have been on the editorial board of several journals, and refereed for dozens. This is not hard, and not uncommon.

Email the editor. Tell them that you valued the referee's comments, and you'd like to invite the referee to an open conversation, starting with your own name. Send along a few questions or comments along with your thanks.

The editor emails the referee, and says 'would you like to start a conversation with the author whose paper you commented on? They have invited you to do so. Their name is NN, and their address is NN@edu. Here are some more comments and questions they sent along with their thanks.'

The referee looks at your name and your comments, and decides whether they want to reveal their identity or not.

If not, it all stops there, and no damage has been done. If yes, then you have a conversation.

It happens. I can't see why any editor would be offended. If they are, then they are weird, but your paper was rejected, anyhow.

Anonymous said...

In my very small subfield, it's not at all uncommon for a reviewer to sidle up to someone she has reviewed at a conference and say, "I enjoyed your paper X that journal Y asked me to review. Whatever happened to it?" If you do have a social relationship with the person who you suspect reviewed it, you might drop a few pointed hints about how helpful the reviewers were for your last paper for journal Y, and see if she reveals that she reviewed it. Otherwise, I suggest you let it go.

Anonymous said...

In my very small subfield, it's not at all uncommon for a reviewer to sidle up to someone she has reviewed at a conference and say, "I enjoyed your paper X that journal Y asked me to review. Whatever happened to it?"

Huh. So your subfield doesn't practice double-blind review? Or is it just that reviewers search for authors' identities and aren't embarrassed to admit they do this?

Anonymous said...

6:23, there are plenty of journals that don't conceal the names of authors from referees. If the one or two leading journals in a subfield have this property, then it is quite possible for the answer to 'So your subfield doesn't practice double-blind review?' to be 'Yes'.

Anonymous said...

In a small subfield, one often guess with highly reliability who wrote a paper. Writing style and favourite arguments are pretty telling.

Anonymous said...

"no one has actually presented an argument"

Neil, when people say statements like "that is why" and "if only because," those are indications of what we call reasons for positions.

Neil said...

Anon 4;57: I was exercising interpretive charity. Clearly when people present vacuous reasons they don't really intend to be taken to be presenting arguments. Well, maybe they do, but it is more polite to pretend.

Dan said...

The OP says ' the ref recommended R&R, and spoke very highly of the paper's potential and the theories and arguments I defend, even if it needed some substantial revision and repackaging.'

Given this - especially the R&R which suggests the reviewer was interested in reading a revised version - I cannot see why the reviewer would mind be contacted. The method mentioned in 11.25am seems harmless.