The New York Times had an op-ed piece from Margaret Sullivan, the NYT Public Editor, “For Reviewers, How Close Is Too Close?” The title caught my attention. Alas, she was not talking about scientific peer reviewing, but rather book reviews. Still, it is a good question to ask for JGR Space Physics.
We apply several filtering levels to rule out potential reviewers. Firstly, we never send a paper to people at the same institution. Secondly, if the assigned editor knows of a close working relationship between the author and a potential reviewer, then that person will also not be considered. Thirdly, I will often look at the author lists of recent papers by the corresponding author to get a feeling for close collaborators. It’s not a perfect filter but it’s pretty good and I am not about to institute the NSF rule of every coauthor identifying every collaborator from the last 48 months. Perhaps I should apply the Facebook “close friend” filter, but I don’t.
The definition of “close collaborator” is rather subjective. I tend to think of it as “coauthor on the other person’s first-author paper in the last couple of years.” Even this definition has the qualitative words “last couple of years” in it, which could mean two or four or ten in this context. I tend to lean towards the “two year” definition of “couple of years” but other editors can apply this a bit differently.
My definition above doesn’t pass muster with U-M’s promotion letter writer regulators, though. For them, “close” includes the authorship lists in which both people were coauthors on a third person’s paper, or even presentation…for the last ten years. Oof da. That’s strict. I am not going to apply that definition to JGR Space Physics.
As much as I would love to have a drink with all of you and get to know your stories, I don’t (yet!) know everyone in the field. Plus, I cannot (will not!) spend all of my time doing editorial tasks, so I can’t investigate every possible conflict of interest or potential bias. I usually, although not always, honor your requests for potential reviewers to whom I should not send your manuscript. To a large extent, I have to rely on you, the potential reviewer, to self identify potential conflicts of interest, both positive and negative. I want you to be an objective evaluator of the paper; if you do not think that you can do that, then please just recuse yourself from the task. It’s okay to say no to a review request for which you don’t feel like you can be unbiased.
Of course, whenever you say no, providing a few names of other potential reviewers is always helpful to us.