Thursday, June 07, 2007

Attack Paper

Further adventures with reviews and ethics..

This week I was asked to review a manuscript on a topic that is near and dear to my academic heart, so I agreed to do the review even though I'm a bit overloaded with reviews right now. It turns out that this manuscript is on basically the same topic on which I have a paper in press, in the same journal that asked me to do the review.

When I saw the subject of the manuscript to review, I felt very relieved that my group's paper is already in press, especially since my co-authors and I did not rush to submit our paper -- in fact, it took many years for us to do the work and think about what it all means and write it up. In the meantime, I gave numerous conference presentations on the topic, and this other group has been well aware of our work for years, including the specific data we obtained.

I suppose that it's both good and bad that I am so close to this subject: there's a fine line between having expertise in a topic and being unobjective. Even so, the editor is the same person who dealt with my recent paper, so he knew what he was doing when he requested the review from me and presumably will filter my review comments accordingly. Since I don't have any particular stress about being scooped on this topic, in theory I can be magnanimous about this manuscript, except..

.. except that the manuscript is a bizarre and obnoxious attack on my group's work. It is bizarre because their results aren't significantly different from ours, yet they work really hard to find things not to like in some earlier papers by my group on this topic. It's nice that they reproduced our results (old and new), but they discredit themselves by being so unprofessional in their manuscript, which reads more like an hysterical comment written by insecure and cranky people.

It puzzles me that this group didn't do a more thoughtful job with their criticisms. It is entirely possible to write a critical paper without descending into aggressively weird attack mode. What bothers me more than the personal attacks, which have no place in a manuscript anyway, is that this other group seems to have lost sight of the science. Ideally, a scientific paper will focus on the questions being addressed and the things being discovered. Criticism of other work can be succinctly and clearly stated within the broader scientific context.

In any case, the editor can sort it all out -- in my review, I will try to focus on the substance of the manuscript.


Anonymous said...

I have one "colleague" who always looks for disagreements between their work and others', and elevates them to significant discoveries proving everyone else is wrong. Even when they basically agree, they manage to find trivial differences that they make the main point of the paper. On top of that, they often ignore previous work in the field, work that I know for a fact they are aware of. Fortunately, over time, I have seen this person's reputation sink to the level I feel it deserves.

The sad part is that the person is, in many respects, a talented and productive scientist. If they could get rid of the chip on their shoulder they would be more successful and probably a happier person.

Anonymous said...

huh, I thought this happened mostly in the fluffier sciences. We just had this exact thing happen. Very bizarre. Complete mischaracterization of earlier work including deviously incomplete quoting. A subset of us (not including me) wrote a response, and their response to that was to argue what you are saying. That *we* had lost sight of science. I wonder if I am that blind to my own biases, except I am not that invested in being right (I'm rather junior). Puzzling.

TW Andrews said...

In any case, the editor can sort it all out -- in my review, I will try to focus on the substance of the manuscript.

I dunno, it seems as if the editor is giving you an opportunity to say something along the lines of what you said in this post, i.e. the science is solid, but the tone is poor. Not so much because you're personally offended, but because it detracts from the thoughtful, critical paper that they could write.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, I'll definitely give my opinion on those aspects of the paper, but I don't want to appear so territorial and offended that I can't also give a reasonable evaluation of the content, such as it is. Getting the tone of my review right will probably take just as long as writing the comments..

gs said...

...there's a fine line between having expertise in a topic and being unobjective.

A lucid formulation of a subtle point. I can readily believe you got those teaching awards.

estraven said...

Funny. I am now precisely in the position of the authors of the paper you are refereeing: I have a paper with results similar, but in my opinion better, than those of another group who has submitted some time ago, and whose results we knew about and used as motivation.

So what we did is: before submitting, we sent a preliminary version to the other group, asking them to check our wording and make sure they get proper credit. We took two weeks working it out until we found a formulation we could all be happy with.

And then they asked us to submit the paper to the same journal, writing a joint letter to the editors and asking that, if accepted, the two papers be published back-to-back.

Maybe we are just better behaved in my field? Maybe it helps we're all friends of each other? You make me feel so lucky.

Orhan Kahn said...

The contents of the manuscript is what intrigues me. (sorry if you've mentioned this before.. I'm new around here)

Female Science Professor said...

estraven, I am impressed. That's how it should work!

Ms.PhD said...

Ack. I'm sorry people like that exist. And that the editor bothered to send the paper out instead of just rejecting it outright and telling them they lost sight of the science.

On the other hand, pretty cool that the editor sent it to you first, so you have a chance to squelch it or at least politely point out to the editor which parts you think are inappropriate.

Sounds like most editors in your field (and estraven's) are your friends, or at least decent/smart people. I wish I could say the same for mine.