Authors: Know Your Assassins

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS--Amidst all the drudgery, the manuscript submission forms of many journals ask authors a simple but surprising question: Are there any individuals you would like to suggest or exclude as potential reviewers? Many authors decline to answer--but maybe they should fill in the blank. Three studies presented here last week at the Fifth International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication suggest that selecting reviewers can significantly increase a manuscript's chances of being accepted.

Having a say over one's reviewers has benefits for authors: They may be more familiar than editors with who is best qualified to review their work and may have valid reasons for keeping sensitive results out of the hands of a close competitor. But authors also worry that such suggestions can make a manuscript appear suspect or that their responses may offend other scientists. As a result, many decline to suggest reviewers, and only a small percentage opts to reject.

That may not be smart, according to the new findings. When Sara Schroter of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Publishing Group and colleagues compared 788 peer reviews sent to 10 publications owned by BMJ, they found that, compared to editor-suggested reviewers, author-suggested reviewers were slightly more likely to recommend manuscript publication (55.7% versus 49.5%) and quite less likely to recommend rejection (14.4% versus 24.1%). Elizabeth Wager and colleagues at BioMed Central, an open access publisher of online journals, achieved almost identical results in a study of 100 manuscripts submitted to 40 online journals owned by the publisher.

Opting to exclude reviewers may have a more dramatic effect. A team led by Lowell Goldsmith, a dermatological geneticist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the editor of the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, looked at 228 consecutive manuscript submissions to the journal in 2003. The team found that manuscripts whose authors had excluded reviewers were twice as likely to be accepted than those whose authors had not. "Excluding reviewers ends up being very, very important," says Goldsmith. "People know their assassins."

So is this a good thing? R. Brian Haynes, a clinical epidemiologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and the editor of two clinical journals, says the findings suggest authors could bias the review system. But the opposite may be true, says Matthias Egger, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and an associate editor of the International Journal of Epidemiology. Some reviewers hold grudges or have conflicts of interests, he says, and taking them out of the equation may be warranted.

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