Poll: have you ever contacted a reviewer about a review before responding to it? Or received such contact?

In a recent post, Stephen Heard noted that he signs most of his reviews because he wants authors to be able to contact him if they have any questions or want to discuss the review. Several commenters on Stephen’s post, and on Meg’s recent post on signing reviews, said they sign their reviews for the same reason (e.g.). And some of those commenters said that they have in fact been contacted by authors wanting to discuss the reviews.

All of which surprised me, because I’d never heard of this practice! The possibility of contacting a reviewer to discuss a review before responding to it had never even occurred to me, even though I’ve been an author and reviewer for 20 years now.

I’m still mulling over what I think about this practice. On the one hand, the reviewers who do it are trying to be helpful, and I’m sure the authors who contact them appreciate the help. On the other hand, that authors appreciate it is potentially a problem–I worry that the practice creates the opportunity for unethical quid pro quos. I’m not the only one who worries about this. So I dunno.

Anyway, I’m curious how common this practice is, and what ecologists as a group think of it. So below is a quick 3-question poll.

Note that the poll is asking about author-reviewer correspondence outside the formal review process. I’m not talking about journals that oblige authors and reviewers to engage in a back-and-forth discussion.

Note as well that the poll refers only to author-reviewer correspondence after the reviews are in but before the revision is submitted. I’m not asking about authors contacting reviewers after the paper is accepted, or rejected without possibility of resubmission.

Looking forward to discovering just how unrepresentative my own anecdotal experiences are on this. 🙂

19 thoughts on “Poll: have you ever contacted a reviewer about a review before responding to it? Or received such contact?

  1. I would be interested in hearing how editors/journal offices feel about contacting people outside the formal process. I had the impression that they like things to go through the formal route, but it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about that! I once had a question for an AE (where I knew who the person was), but still contacted the journal office before writing him (via his regular email address) to make sure it was okay to contact him that way. The question was about a specific suggestion he had made in his recommendation letter regarding a chance we should make to a figure. I didn’t fully understand the suggestion, so wanted to contact him to get more information.

    • This was exactly my thought Meg. As an EiC I really like correspondence to go through the official system and be tracked. It doesn’t happen often but I do end up dealing with accusations of not giving appropriate credit, publishing incorrect papers etc. And through the Council on Publishing Ethics (COPE) there is a fairly formal process to go through. I definitely want to know every correspondence around a paper.

      • And FWIW I do think it is entirely appropriate to contact the AE directly as an author (they have a much better clue what is going on than the EiC) – just do it through the Manuscript Central system (or whatever the publisher uses) clunky though that may seem.

  2. I don’t buy the argument that signing reviews allows people to extend further help. That can be done through the subject editor while retaining anonymity. All correspondence should be going through the subject editor anyway, for obvious reasons.

    • I agree. I also think its entirely possible that the reviewer could be “giving help” that is effectively steering in a direction the associate editor doesn’t want ( or more likely completely irrelevant to the changes the AE wants)

      There is much to be said for letting the AE handle the steering of the author.

      • What Brian said (I just had the same thought this morning). As an author, if you have questions about how to respond to the reviews–or frankly, even if you just want clarification on what the reviews mean–you should ask the AE. The AE is the person your revisions need to satisfy, not the reviewer. And as a reviewer, you shouldn’t be usurping the editor’s job.

    • The one time where I contacted a reviewer who had signed, it was part of a rejection and so the handling editor was out of the picture and the reviewer was acknowledged and put on the list of people not to review when we re submitted (so there was no possibility of inappropriate quid pro quo).
      For context, the reviewer recommended a completely revised statistical approach which really helped the paper but I wouldn’t have known what to do without further explanation.)

      • Yeah, when it comes to analytic methodology, the “advice” can very quickly become far too detailed/personalized for what can just go in a review. I think this is one clear place where communication between a reviewer and author can be really huge in terms of benefit. Stephen definitely did the right thing and for the right reasons. For a non-rejected MS, perhaps a simple rule like, “keep the handling editor cc-ed” would be sufficient? But for methodological stuff, a 1-way exchange or an exchange entirely mediated through an editor can get really tedious and be unhelpful. I say this as an anonymous reviewer who went through this once, and it was a very frustrating experience on all sides that a phone call or skype chat could have resolved quickly.

  3. Even though I never sign my reviews, I was a “yes” vote for the question “As a reviewer, have you ever been contacted by an author about your review? I an author correctly guess I was the reviewer, receiving an email “Hey Chris, were these your comments on our manuscript? (pasted below). I was wondering if you had thought of …..”

    I wasn’t very happy about it. I didn’t complain about it although I was careful to copy the AE in my reply.

    Jeremy, you posed your questions, “have you ever.” Good to keep in mind that a “yes” vote means it happened at least once, not that it was commonplace. Re Meg, I suppose it could vary by the journal’s personality, but I’ve always thought it perfectly acceptable to write to the AE directly. Correspondence I get in that role (or send in author role) is almost always over deadline issues. I can’t imagine someone dropping me a note in my AE role and saying something about their submission, like,”I was thinking of revising my article thusly, what would you think of that?” (Just send it in and I’ll you know. My role is editor, not advisor). Meg’s comment gets at an issue that if there’s a dispute, the journal’s editorial office would like to know that they have the full record, and if communications are external to the process they won’t. I used to try to avoid this my limiting communications to those through the manuscript submission system (ScholarOne in my case), but the software is so clunky it didn’t seem worth the trouble and I gave up. Not ideal.

    • “Good to keep in mind that a “yes” vote means it happened at least once, not that it was commonplace.”

      Yes, I know. I intentionally asked what fraction of people have ever done this, rather than trying to determine (say) what fraction of all submissions involve author-reviewer correspondence, mostly because the former seemed easier to ask about and more likely to give accurate data.

      Re: authors possibly dropping the AE a line asking for further guidance on how to revise the ms, I’ve heard of that being done and as an AE I’d be fine with authors doing that. Ok, as an AE I’m not going to tell you exactly what to say in your ms–it’s your ms, not mine. I can’t revise it for you. But I can give you guidance on, e.g., what I see as the most important issues to address, or how to deal with two reviews that gave contradictory advice. Of course, as an AE my letter inviting the revision should already have given you guidance on such matters. But if you need clarification or further guidance, I’d be happy to provide it.

      As both an author and a former AE, I don’t like it when the AE’s decision letter is just a form letter that says nothing but “Please revise the ms to address the reviewers’ comments,” with no guidance as to what the AE sees as the most important issues, whether the AE even agrees with all the reviewers’ points, etc.

  4. Ok, with 100+ votes in only about 11% of respondents have ever contacted a reviewer to ask about a review. Same for reviewers receiving such contact from authors. So it’s definitely a minority practice, but not a vanishingly rare one.

    I’m a bit surprised that only 46% of people so far say that as authors they not only have never contacted reviewers but would never do so. Thought that would be higher.

    Feelings about this practice are pretty mixed. So far, 51% of respondents say they aren’t sure it’s ok/have mixed feelings/etc. Among the others, “yes it’s ok” is running just slightly ahead of “no it’s not ok”.

    p.s. this wasn’t the focus of the poll, but I’m interested to see that about 2/3 of respondents never sign their reviews. And I bet most of those who do at least sometimes *only* do so sometimes, such as when the review is positive or when they know the author personally. Those who would prefer open review to become the norm have their work cut out for them…

    • And now with 260+ votes in, I note with interest that people who think it’s not ok for authors to contact reviewers are about 20% of all respondents, solidly outnumbering people who’ve engaged in such contact as either authors or reviewers. (ok, that’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison, but still)

  5. Interesting topic and thanks for bringing it up. I was once contacted by an author, after I asked the AE I would like to remain anonymous. The AE gave the author my contact information! It worked out ok because the author had a very germane question about an alternative statistical approach I suggested that would allow them to get more out of their data. But, I was shocked the AE did this without contacting me. In hindsight, this author was sincerely interested in the approach I suggested and actually modified their analysis. In cases were comments are technical corresponding with a reviewer could be beneficial the author, especially if they’re a student.

    I do like having the opportunity to ask a reviewer a question about reviews, but I feel it should be through proper channels that include the AE. At times I have had comments that I didn’t understand stand, or were in direct conflict with the second reviewer. It would have been useful to ask for clarification. In one instance two reviewers had the same vague comment with a similar suggestion for fix the issue. I addressed the issue as best as I could on resubmission, but the manuscript was sent back to me weeks later, primarily because both reviewers were unhappy with my edits. While the reviewers suggestions were similar, neither liked my approach of combining their suggestions. So now this manuscript is in review again.

    • “The AE gave the author my contact information! ”

      WOW. That is totally inappropriate, obviously. I’m shocked and appalled that any AE would do that. Did you contact the AE (and cc the EiC) to complain about it? Is it possible the AE just made an honest but really egregious mistake and thought you had signed your review (maybe because the AE was going by memory)? And so thought it was fine to pass on your contact details to the authors?

      • I had planned on contacting the AE and EiC about sharing my info, but after I started corresponding with the author I honestly forgot to do that. Then too much time passed and I let it go. I’d like to think it was an honest mistake and that they misread my statement of wanting to remain anonymous, which I double checked to make sure I did state I wanted to remain anonymous.

        I should have contacted the AE and EiC. At the time I was new to reviewing for mid-tier journals and was a little intimidated and thought maybe this was a common occurrence, which I found out later was not! Prior to this I reviewed for trade journals which at least in my field are strict with this standard.

  6. My first first-authored paper was very mathematically technical and beyond the scope of my mentors/co-authors. I had two awesome reviewers, including the handling editor, who really *understood* what I was doing and gave really good thorough reviews. I contacted the reviewer who signed his review for clarification on one thing that he wrote. I *thought* I understood it, but I wasn’t 100% sure. That back-and-forth made me confident that the (fairly in-depth) extra modeling work I needed to do was really necessary. I would have hated to have wasted a lot of time because I hadn’t fully understood a reviewer comment. The process was awesome, and I now always sign reviews. I try to make my reviews clear, but there’s always the chance for miscommunication. I’m very solidly on the reviews-should-be-open side of the fence.

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