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The peer review system is in general single blinded: The reviewers will not be known by the authors of a paper by default. One reason for this is to guarantee that the reviewer can write his opinions on the paper without expecting any drawbacks whatsoever. However, I can imagine situations in which the reviewer may think about disclosing his identity:

  1. The reviewer is not d'accord with the editor's decision. This happened to me once - as author: the reviewer wrote some kind of open letter to the the editor and put me and my coauthor in the cc. Basically, the reviewer complained that the editor weighted some other (unqualified) review high enough to not accept the paper.

  2. The reviewer has ideas for further research based on the paper and thinks that a collaboration would be a very good idea. He could think about contacting the author directly but this would disclose his identity (in the case that the paper is not available as a preprint - which still happens sometimes). However, waiting until the paper would be published would be a waste of time.

Since I experienced 1. myself and I am thinking about 2., I would like to hear anwers to this question:

Under what circumstances (if any) should a reviewer disclose his identity to the authors of a paper?

Edit: A small clarification for point 2.: First, the submitted paper is not publicly available and hence, writing to the author would disclose the reviewers identity. Moreover, it is not about improving the actual paper (and wishing to become a coauthor) but about further work inspired by the paper.

In view of the current answer, I would also like to expand the current question a little bit (which is not worth a whole new question, I think):

... and what are arguments against disclosing the reviewers identity?

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You should discuss this with the editor. – Bruce Westbury May 29 '12 at 21:01
I have heard of a reviewer doing this to cut out the editor as a middle-person for simple expediency. The reviewer however, is quite senior and reasonably immune from any of the possible negative consequences. – BSteinhurst May 29 '12 at 21:09
They made an episode of NOVA about FLT and Andrew Wiles. There was one referee per chapter. One of them says, on camera, that he did nothing that summer except go through line by line, emailing Wiles at stumbling blocks. Eventually there came a day when several contacts with Wiles did not result in a workable fix of a gap. I can't seem to remember the referee's name. – Will Jagy May 29 '12 at 21:18
I think there is no "should" on this topic: It is a personal preference. I only review nonanonymously, which I find inclines me to care and to courtesy, whether the report is positive or negative. – Joseph O'Rourke May 30 '12 at 0:05
I think it's fine to disclose your identity eventually; however, I don't think that it is ok to tell the author your identity before the journal has made a decision on the paper (unless, of course, the editor gives permission). Indeed, I could imagine it causing problems for the author at certain journals -- the editorial board might feel that it compromises your objectivity and thus be less likely to take your advice. – Andy Putman May 30 '12 at 22:47

Anonymity is the referee's right (or privilege), not an obligation. I think the referee should be free to disclose his/her identity to the author.

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I agree completely. – Igor Rivin May 30 '12 at 23:27
I have always just assumed this is right. I almost never do tell an author, and I can imagine special situations where it would even be unfair to the author if I did. But I never thought there was any general rule against it. – Colin McLarty May 19 at 16:29

On a somewhat practical -- and frighteningly co-incident -- note, just this morning a reviewer revealed his identity to me on the grounds that his own as-yet unpublished work overlaps my paper that he is currently reviewing.

As a reviewer, encountering a draft which overlaps your current project would be a bit of a nightmare scenario for a variety of straightforward reasons; I think a frank discussion with the author is mandated in such a situation so that the simultaneous development of common ideas can be properly expressed and clearly cited.

This is one situation where it seems as though the "do it blind" idea is extremely dangerous and counter-productive. You really wouldn't want to end up in a situation where you are accused of stealing ideas from unpublished work (that you were reviewing!) and then rushing your own eerily similar draft to a journal with quicker turnaround time so it gets published first. It is much better to explain the situation to both the author of that work and the editor of the journal so that everything gets sorted out transparently and amicably.

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I think the reviewer here has acted wrongly. If your work was available elsewhere (on the arXiv say), they should return your paper to the editor and contact you directly. If your work was not available then they are unlucky, and should just suck it up. One defence for a reviewer would be be to adopt a policy that you only referee papers that are posted on the arXiv. – Chris Godsil May 31 '12 at 16:06
As much as I adore the arXiv, it is downright silly to start hunting for online preprints of each paper you are reviewing. And what's worse, often the arXiv version is not the same as the draft that reaches you. – Vidit Nanda May 31 '12 at 19:46
@Chris Godsil: what would in your opinion be the correct way to proceed if the situation would be slightly different in that the referee submitted their work slightly before the person whose overlapping paper they are now refereeing [and assume neither is available]? Pretend their own work does not exist? Reject on the grounds the result is overlaps with existing work? Neither of theses extremes seems particularly good to me. – user9072 May 31 '12 at 20:28
In a slightly different direction personally I find the idea to return the paper (with a factual explanation of the situation or just so, btw) and then to pretend towards the author one just happened to have found the paper a bit odd. Since, here, one tries to get some advantage out of knowing the paper because one was (asked to be) the referee and does not even make this explicit. Or is the idea that one then says one would have been the referee. But then this seems to me like disclosing referees identity. As evidently if one would write a joint paper one would not stay referee either way. – user9072 May 31 '12 at 20:38

I think PaPiro's answer is entirely correct, based on my own experiences as author, referee and editor.

One principle is that the referee is carrying out a task at the request of, and for, the editor. I would say that the the referee's task is to supply information to the editor, who will use this to decide what should be done with the paper. The standard is that the referees are anonymous, and if you agree to referee a paper you are accepting this constraint by default.

All correspondence between the referee and author should go through the editor. This provides the referee with protection from the author - I recall one case where an author was very vexed by a positive report, because it was felt that the report was not positive enough. It also provides the author with protection from the referee's requests, which are not always guided by the pure light of reason.

If the referee provides a substantive improvement to the paper, the authors are free to propose via the editor that the referee be added as an author. They are also free to decline. My own view in this case is that the editor does not have a right to insist that the improvements be added, and that the final decision should be based on the submitted paper, not on what it might have been. (Dealing with this sort of issue is why editors are so well paid, of course.)

If as referee you are unhappy with the way an editor has handled a paper, you are free to contact other members of the board.

As for Will Jagy's anecdote about Wiles, I appeal to the adage "extreme cases make bad law".

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When reviewing however, be prepared for your anonymity to be compromised. I once got three reports from an editor which were PDF files labelled Smith.pdf, Jones.pdf and Bloggs.pdf where Smith, Jones and Bloggs (not their real names) are people known-to-me working in the area. Unless the editor was having fun, for example, by getting a grad student to write a report and then giving it the filename Gowers.pdf before sending it to the author, I now know the identity of the three referees. (Luckily all reports recommended acceptance!) – Gordon Royle May 30 '12 at 2:59
@Chris. " why editors are so well paid ..." is a joke. Isn't it? – Denis Serre May 30 '12 at 5:39
@Denis Serre: Of course. – Chris Godsil May 30 '12 at 12:46
In reference to Gordon's comment, as a referee it is always a good idea to write your report as though the author will find out who refereed it. This will improve the tone of the report. Note though, that from I have seen authors are not good at guessing who the referee was. – Chris Godsil May 30 '12 at 13:09
Just one word: never. – Papiro May 31 '12 at 14:28

I think there are ethical issues here that other people have not brought up, even after the refereeing job is done.

By letting the author know about your (very positive?) referee report, they may feel more likely to "repay the favor" in the future. This seems potentially problematic to me (although in many cases it won't be). Obviously, if you recommended rejection :-( or gave an isufficiently glowing report, this seems less problematic from an ethical perspective...

That said, I have revealed that I'm the referee of various papers in the past. Although usually because something came up in conversation and it seemed natural to mention this (ie, "I know what you are talking about, I refereed this paper of yours a while back and had a conversation with you about this topic through the editor"). To me this could still be problematic although perhaps still can be good/ok.

For example, in one case I revealed I had been the referee of a paper to the author after it had been accepted but before it had been published because I wanted to exhort the author to put the corrected version of the paper on the arXiv (to replace the existing version with some misleading mistakes).

Finally, in another case I revealed my identity to the author after getting permission from the editor during the referee process. This was a case where the editors were not looking so much for my opinion of the paper in terms of quality (it was a birthday conference proceedings), but wanted a detailed report on correctness. I asked the editors if it was ok to contact the author directly to speed up the process.

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@Karl: Are you saying that birthday conference proceedings papers need not be interesting? – Igor Rivin May 31 '12 at 0:56
Certainly not! (and in many cases they have higher overall quality than the journal they are published in) However, in this particular case the editors expressly told me that they were only looking for correctness. – Karl Schwede May 31 '12 at 1:39
Perhaps I'm mistaken, but the impression I have is that the reason some birthday conference proceedings have such fantastic papers is not because the referees are asked to keep things at high standards, but instead because the authors want to submit very good papers to the proceedings to honor the focus of the proceedings. – Karl Schwede May 31 '12 at 1:43

If you are sent a paper to referee that is not publicly available, I believe it is your duty to provide your report and then pretend you have never seen the paper, at least until it appears somewhere public. You shouldn't be thinking about proving any conjectures made in the paper or generalizing its results. You shouldn't be contemplating collaborations to extend the work. The author has chosen not to make his or her results public yet, and has the right to have this privacy maintained throughout the editorial process. So I think contacting the author in situation (2) of the original post is highly inappropriate.

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I really can't understand why...It seems very silly to me to waste the opportunity to further develop the frontiers of current mathematics just because an author wants to keep the ideas for himself for a while. We cannot afford that! Mathematics should be considered universal patrimony of human kind. That kind of attitude from an author should be discouraged; it is also very narrow-minded in my opinion. – godelian May 30 '12 at 20:23
@godelian: An author submits a paper to a journal in confidence, and it is forwarded to the referee(s) in confidence. If the editor accepts the paper then the journal has the write to publish it; no-one else does. I know of at least one case where a very senior and highly regarded mathematician was very annoyed because details of their work leaked out. I do not understand why they did not want their results released earlier, but it's their choice. – Chris Godsil May 30 '12 at 21:53
@SamuelReid I was not aware that Erdos was a paragon – Yemon Choi May 30 '12 at 22:23
I see no objection to providing ones ideas anonymously as part of the referee report. It seems part of the referee's duty to make improving comments, but not to ask for credit for them. In the dark ages when I was young it was fairly common for an author to acknowledge helpful improvements from an anonymous referee. I see no problem with foregoing credit for unsolicited improvements to a project in which I was not a requested collaborator. But i feel kind of like a cranky old dinosaur for saying this. I apologize for that musty odor of formaldehyde and self righteousness. – roy smith May 31 '12 at 1:46
<whinge>Roy Smith's remarks reminded me that I refereed, not that long ago, a very demanding paper where in one place (not really the heart of the main problem) I found a way to streamline things slightly. I duly mentioned this in my report and it was implemented by the authors. However, although the published version thanks the anonymous referee for "hard work and useful comments", it doesn't actually say "The original version of Proposition X was longer, and the current version is based on a suggestion of the referee".</whinge> – Yemon Choi May 31 '12 at 5:33

This is more of a response to @Chris. The FLT case is actually useful, in that for many papers of sufficient magnitude, the author will know who the referee is, and even for papers of insufficient magnitude, getting emails saying: hey, I was looking at your preprint, and the proof of lemma x.y.z eludes me is usually a hint. Sending such email through the editor slows down the process by orders of magnitude. The suggestion to be co-author (in my experience) tends to come from the editor, not the referee, and is sufficiently often a bad idea that I think it should never be done (having it come from the authors, as Chris suggests, is a good idea, but has not happened in my experience as author, referee, or editor).

As for the OP's question:

point 2 seems moot: why should the author care that you are the referee. Just write about your great idea, and suggest a joint paper. The author may object that the paper is already submitted, but then saying that you are the referee sounds like blackmail.

point 1: This sort of action seems totally pointless. Both the referee and the author should just take note, and never submit anything to the journal as long as the bad editor is on the board.

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I knew of a case where the editor slowed things down ridiculously. Paper was submitted. Somehow, I knew the author and referee. Paper was withdrawn. I found out, told the referee. Editor never told the referee the paper had been withdrawn. – Andrés E. Caicedo May 30 '12 at 0:39
Since an author can post the paper on the arXiv, thereby establishing priority, I do not feel that it is a great problem if a week or two is lost to preserve the referee's anonymity. Since the delay is caused by difficulties in the paper, there seems to be no grounds for complaint. Responding to @Andres Calcedo, I suspect we can all offer up horror stories of sufferings at the hands of editors. I do not see that this has a bearing on the general principles. – Chris Godsil May 30 '12 at 2:01
@Chris: "A week or two"? You must be living in some other, much speedier, universe. – Igor Rivin May 30 '12 at 2:37
@Chris: the slow part is usually the editor, since editors usually handle a lot of stuff, in addition to (sometimes) having lives, so if they are organized, they deal with this sort of week at regular intervals (say once a week or, more likely, once a month), which means that by the time the referee gets an answer, he has forgotten the question. Again, I very much hope you have had better experiences. – Igor Rivin May 30 '12 at 3:18
@Igor: I don't quite understand why you say that "point 2 is moot." As I understand Dirk's scenario, the paper in question is not available to the general public, and the referee's ideas are prompted by the ideas in the paper. Writing to the author about the ideas then automatically discloses the referee's identity. – Timothy Chow May 30 '12 at 14:33

For question 2.

According to the instructions given to referees by certain journals ... the submitted material is to be treated as privileged information. And (one consequence) you cannot use it as a basis for your own further research. Of course, once the paper is published, or the author otherwise releases it as a preprint, then of course you can use the information. And in particular you could then contact the author about a collaboration. (You need not mention that you were a referee.)

So I reiterate one of the other responses: do not do it without the approval of the editor who sent you the paper for review.

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