Cite Your Reviewers

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS--If you want to get a manuscript accepted, cite your potential reviewers. That's a common piece of advice professors pass down to their students, but is it more than just wishful thinking? Maybe not, according to a new study that indicates that reviewers referenced multiple times in a manuscript are less likely to recommend its rejection.

The unusual study was inspired by a journal editor's concern that his reviewers might be influenced by citations to their own work. "I myself get a bit unhappy when our contributions aren't cited," says Matthias Egger, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and an associate editor of the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE). "As an editor, I wondered if there might be something to this."

So Egger and colleagues examined 2023 comments submitted by peer reviewers to IJE over the past 3 years. For each report, the reviewer had to make one of four decisions regarding the fate of the manuscript: accept as is, accept with minor revisions, accept with major revisions, or reject. While the researchers didn't notice any clear trends for the first three categories, they did observe that reviewers cited multiple times were 30% less likely to recommend rejecting a manuscript than those who were not cited. One reason may be that reviewers are flattered by citations, says Eggers, who presented the findings here last week at the Fifth International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication. In addition, higher quality manuscripts tend to include more references, he says, and these papers are more likely to pass peer review. And, he adds, older scientists are often cited more because they've been around longer, and they tend to be less strict in their reviews.

The results are "surprising," says R. Brian Haynes, a clinical epidemiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. "Perhaps this indicates ego enters into the process." But David Nordstrom, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis cautions that the findings may not be generalizable to other publications. Regardless, he tells his students to cite the work of those likely to review their papers. "We do this to avoid a failure to reference important and relevant work," he says. "It's not about kissing up."

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