Refereeing Papers About Your Own Work

A graduate student in philosophy writes in with the following query:

 Under what conditions is it appropriate to referee a paper that responds directly to your own work? 

Ravi Zupa, Sculpture (“Mightier Than” series)

The student elaborates:

On the one hand, it seems unethical to review such a paper, given the personal investment in the subject. On the other, it seems plausible to me that the conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily make a potential referee a less qualified reviewer than whoever would replace them, especially if the topic is a niche one or is highly technical.

I can see an argument for the idea that it might be unfair to the author (or bad for the subject) to “selfishly” refuse to contribute in cases where one’s expertise might make a relevant difference. (Though I suspect that there are very few cases in which the topic is genuinely as niche or technical as that.) It also seems worthwhile to balance concerns of the time required to find additional reviewers and the associated costs to both author and editor.

Finally, I’m unsure how I would draw a cutoff for papers that one shouldn’t review—speaking only for myself, I suspect that I would be more likely to be uncharitable to a paper that failed to engage with my work on a subject than with one that responded to it, for instance. 

I reached out to Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown), editor-in-chief the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal and former editor-in-chief of Public Affairs Quarterly for a response. She writes:

Referees are not chosen anonymously, and the editor can see that the paper responds to your work, so presumably in inviting you they decided this would not be a problematic conflict of interest. I think that unless you have a distinctive reason to not trust your own judgment, you should feel free to let the editor make this call.

As an editor, I never ask someone to referee a paper in which they are treated very harshly, nor one in which they are held up as an important hero, because it seems to me these situations create obvious conflicts of interest. More broadly, I avoid asking someone whose work is the main topic of a paper to referee it, because I figure they will be too close to the material. But quite often, I ask someone who is discussed less centrally in a paper to referee it. Sometimes this is because I am genuinely unsure if that person is being characterized accurately and they seem like the best person to ask. Sometimes it is because I am not sure who the experts are in the field and the actual content of the paper is a good source of experts. In such cases, I don’t think there is any prima facie reason for there to be a problematic conflict of interest, and indeed these referees are especially valuable to me. Importantly, I trust people I ask to referee papers to just let me know if they have a conflict of interest that isn’t apparent from the outside.

Responses from others are welcome.

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