How should you respond to requests to referee papers that are mainly about your own work?A philosophy professor writes in with the following inquiry:
As a mid-to-late-career philosopher, I regularly get requests to referee a paper that is substantially or even centrally about my own work. I have had a policy of declining because of the obvious conflict of interest. But I wonder if the interest journals have in finding enough qualified referees might have enough weight to override this. They will be aware of the conflict of interest and can factor it into their reading of my report. And, if done right, the assessment and, often, revision, based on response by the target author can also be a boon the quality of the journal and the eventual paper if it goes forward. I don’t think that the referee should be identified to the author, which might seem a natural suggestion (except, perhaps, once it has been accepted?). Having a paper rejected can be pretty upsetting, and without confidentiality it might be hard to report honestly.
One idea that occurs to me is to agree to referee conditional on the journal enlisting two other referees. But that obviously nullifies part of the advantage for the editor. They might still appreciate the input for quality reasons. On any variant, though, it risks contributing to insularity and stratification by concentrating power. Maybe that should settle it.
It would be especially good to hear from lead or associate journal editors (pseudonymously if need be).