Apparently, there are some editors of academic journals who will readily send manuscripts out to “non-preferred reviewers” — the specific people that authors specify who they don’t want to receive the paper for review.
I think this is all kinds of messed up.
Is this a simple, clear-cut issue? Well, no. There are a lot of factors at work on the surface, and a lot going on under the surface that the involved parties might not be aware of. However, notwithstanding the complexity of the issues at hand, it’s hard for me to imagine a circumstance where this kind of action would be advisable (and I’d like to be clear that this is a practice that I do not engage in).
To try to make sense of how and why this might happen, I’ll break down what I see as the potential motives that authors have for listing non-preferred reviewers, and the motives that editors might have to disregard these requests. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive.
Author motives for excluding certain reviewers
Competing research agenda: If more than one lab group is working on the same research question, then letting another lab have access to the work before it is made public may put the interests of the authors at risk. (Yeah, “open science” folks are just going to say this problem is fixed by “post a preprint.” Fine. Sure. Then this isn’t a problem for you folks.) I’ve heard stories from multiple people how they think that other labs have intentionally sat on their papers in review, while the reviewer’s group rushed out papers on the same topic first.
Antagonistic personalities: It could just be that there’s someone in your field who is a jerk — either in general, or specifically to a small number of people. Someone who will intentionally tank the success of others because that’s what they do. For example, there are some people, I’ve learned through experience as an editor, there are some toxic people who I will never ever want to subject authors to again. If authors have this kind of information — or even a very solid hunch, this could be a motive.
Negative personal history: There can be bad blood from prior collaborations or other personal involvements. And, of course, sexual harassment and sexual assault is an epidemic in academia, and many authors have been targeted by powerful people in their field. Such malefactors obviously should not have this form of authority.
To avoid a cabal: There is no shortage of sub-subfields that are run by an old boys’ club. They often review one another’s papers, and they may collaborate together, and they will have a set of ideas about what is true and what is not, what works and what doesn’t work, and what is acceptable and what is not. If you’re a researcher who is working on topics related to such a cabal, then you don’t want to get burned by treading on their territory.
To avoid a review from someone whose work is being criticized: If work in a paper is critical of ideas expressed by authors of a prior work, then I can see how an author might want to avoid having their work reviewed by the author subject to their critique.
To avoid a challenging review: It could be that an author is aware that someone in the field writes reviews that are particularly detailed and offer cogent challenges to the ideas in the papers they review, and they’d want to avoid this kind of review.
To avoid a well-informed review: If there are particular weaknesses in a manuscript that the authors are aware of, and the authors believes that this weakness would only be identified by a small number of people in the world, then they might to avoid this criticism by listing these people as non-preferred reviewers.
Maybe there are some reasons I’m missing out on. I think the latter three are unacceptable reasons. In my experience, nobody has ever actually stated explicitly that they’re just trying to avoid a challenging or well-informed review, or review from the person whose work is being criticized. But sometimes people will list some names and then not provide an explanation, even though the manuscript submission systems provide space for an explanation and one is expected. Is avoiding a cabal of entrenched and experienced reviewers a problem? Well, that depends on the details in a situation. And one of the factors here is what the relationship is between the editor and the members of the cabal. If these are people who have known one another for a long time, it’s quite possible the editor might have a more charitable interpretation of the motives and perspectives of the cabal than those with more distance.
One thing to keep in mind is that plenty of authors might have some highly legitimate reasons for wanting to exclude some reviewers, but also have highly legitimate reasons for not wanting to divulge these reasons to editors. An editor is not a therapist, the submission form is not a confessional, and authors would be wise to not trust in the confidentiality and good judgment of all of the editors that handle all of their submissions. There are lots of fallible editors out there. So if a junior scientist doesn’t offer a great reason, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have one.
Okay, now let’s consider the reasons that editors might have. Here I’m trying to represent a viewpoint that I do not hold, but I’ll try to present them as clearly as possible.
Editor motives for sending manuscripts to non-preferred reviewers
The editor overestimates their capacity to judge if a review is unfair or biased: Good editors don’t take reviews at face value — we need to take into account that reviews have different realms of expertise, and also may come into the review process with different priorities, convictions, and biases. Considering we know who the reviewers are, what they’ve published in the past (and maybe something more about them as human beings), we can contextualize what they say and what they don’t say in the reviews to come to our own evaluation of the manuscript. In short, reviews are advisory, and any decent editor exercises their own judgment. A question that I think is fair to consider is: if a reviewer is intentionally biased against an author, can they be effective at obscuring this from the editor in the form of criticisms that can appear unbiased to a savvy editor? (I think the answer is yes.)
The editor dismisses the veracity or validity of the rationale: I guess it’s possible that an editor simply might not believe the reason provided by an author.
The editor dismisses the validity of the rationale: It’s possible the editor might understand the request to exclude a reviewer, but disagree that the reason is a good one. I imagine this crops up most often when the manuscript contains work that critiques or contradicts work by another author. In this case, I think it’s just fine for a scholar to review a manuscript criticizing their work prior to publication. I think the editor will be need to be well versed to be able to parse the legitimacy of arguments from both sides — and that’s why editors have been selected for the role!
The editor thinks the reasons for picking a particular reviewer supersede the concerns of the author: I guess it’s possible for an editor to believe the person has a valid reason to request that a certain person not review their manuscript, but it’s just that the editor might have other reasons that they feel take precedence over the expressed interests of the author.
The editor assumes that the author has an inadequate reason for their request: This is the one that I’ve seen other editors pull out as an
excuse explanation for their choice to send a paper to a non-preferred reviewer. If the authors don’t provide an explanation, and they list multiple people who are well established in the field, then it possible that the editor might conclude that this person is simply fishing to game the system by avoiding what might be well-informed and challenging reviews. Without an explanation, then an assumption is required. Under what circumstances are these assumptions reasonable?
So there the editor’s reasons are, though maybe I’ve missed some.
How should an editor proceed?
I’m not here to tell you what to do, as I work to avoid dispensing general advice. I’m just saying what I think and how I handle (or would handle) situations. Adopt these opinions as you see fit. So, with that caveat out of the way, here’s the first question I always ask myself when faced with one or more non-preferred reviewers listed by authors:
If I don’t send the manuscript to the non-preferred reviewers, is this manuscript still capable of receiving high quality reviews from experts with the knowledge required to identify substantial weaknesses or flaws that should be part of a decision to reject or to revise?
If I can answer “yes” to that question without reservations, then I’m just going to go ahead and honor the request of the authors. If I can get great reviews that would address what needs to be addressed, then why fuss?
On the other hand, what would I do if I think that one of the non-preferred reviewers is necessary for a proper assessment of the manuscript? That’s a stickier situation. I think this scenario is a genuine possibility — in some specialities, there might be only a few people in the world who would be aware of some potential flaws or weaknesses, because of their intimate knowledge of the system. For example, if someone is doing an experiment on the biology of some particular organism, it would make sense that at least one of the reviewers has direct experience working with that particular critter. But sometimes, that is a very short list of people. And those people might be direct competitors, or enemies, or whatnot.
So, then, how would I handle a situation where one of the non-preferred reviewers is one of the necessary reviewers? Well, I think that depends on why they’re a non-preferred reviewer. If there is what I consider to be legitimate reason, then I’d have to honor this, and do my best to perform a robust review in the absence of that reviewer. I would make a point to read the manuscript even more carefully myself, and perhaps solicit a third review to cover what I think are the necessary bases. But I wouldn’t send it to a reviewer if the reason offered by the author is a good one.
But let’s say I think the author asked to exclude a reviewer and I think their reason isn’t a valid one, and at least one of those reviewers is important for a quality review process. What do I do then. Well, I think this is a very rare circumstance — I haven’t found myself in this position yet (though I guess I’ve handled under 200 manuscripts to date, far less than experienced EICs). But, this situation apparently pops up for some editors, who feel like they need to send a manuscript out to an author that was listed as non-preferred. (What reasons would I think are non-valid? It would be because the paper is critical of that person’s prior work. Or if they listed someone without a clear explanation.)
There’s no way I could just go ahead and send out a manuscript to be reviewed by a person listed on non-preferred. I think that’s a betrayal of any trust that an author would put in the editor, the journal, or the academic society running a journal. What I would do is open up a conversation with the author about the review process. I’d either have an editorial assistant or the EIC contact the authors to explain policies on excluding reviewers. They’d explain that the person handling the manuscript (the associate editor or the subject editor or whatever they’re called) may feel the need to submit the manuscript to a non-preferred reviewer if there isn’t a fair reason to exclude them. They then would have the opportunity to volunteer a more appropriate reason to exclude a reviewer, or to withdraw the paper.
Keep in mind I’d only engage in this conversation about non-preferred reviewers if, in my judgment, necessary for a solid evaluation. If this communication is not being done by the person handling the paper, then this would preserve at least some kind of fig leaf of anonymity during review. Though if a reviewer is necessary because of their particular experience or knowledge, then this would presumably come out in the review (and they might just sign it anyway). This is far superior than sending a paper to a person listed as a non-preferred reviewer against the wishes of the author and without their knowledge.
The bottom line is that sometimes authors have very good reasons for asking us to exclude reviews and they may feel that they are put at risk if they divulge their reasons to editors. There are too many bad actors out there, and even experienced editors might not know everybody’s dirty laundry. As a measure of precaution, I honor the wishes of authors, and if circumstances might compel me to consider not honoring this request, then this would never be without the author being aware that it’s a possibility.