A manuscript that I have been reviewing/editing was sent back to the author for revisions, the author and I corresponded about the revisions, and then recently I got an email from someone at the author's institution informing me that the author had died unexpectedly. This manuscript, if published, will therefore be the Last Paper of this scientist.
Too bad the Last Paper is kind of awful. It is also too bad that there aren't any co-authors who can fix it up and make it good.
I never met the late author, but I am familiar with his name from his publications over the years. In his correspondence with me, he was very nice and was not at all upset about the extensive revisions required for further consideration of his manuscript. In fact, he seemed quite pleased to sink his teeth into the work and improve the paper.
The deceased person's co-workers want the manuscript to be published. I doubt if they know that it isn't a good paper, and are seeking only to honor a colleague they admired.
I have never rejected a dead person's manuscript before. If the author had lived and had not revised the first version of the manuscript, I would have rejected it. The only difference between that situation and the current situation is that the author's excuse for not doing the revisions is a very good one.
Should editors lower their standards for the dead? If we do, I doubt that large numbers of people will want to take advantage of this route to getting their manuscripts published. Therefore, publishing mediocre/bad papers by dead people from time to time is unlikely to set a dangerous precedent.
My concern isn't actually with standards in this case. If I accept this not-so-great manuscript, I can 'live' with myself [apologies for insensitive word choice]. It makes me sad, though, that this scientist's Last Paper is so lousy. Would I want my Last Paper to be like this or would I want an editor to be unsentimental and reject it?
However sad it is for one's Last Paper to be awful, the alternative isn't so great either. If someone dies just before publishing an outstanding paper, they wouldn't be around to enjoy the experience of stimulating new discussions, ideas, research etc.
The publication of this manuscript seems to mean a lot to the late author's students and colleagues, and I will probably accept the manuscript after doing what I can to fix the writing without altering the content of the paper. It's disconcerting, however, to know that the author won't be checking my editing.
So, the manuscript will probably eventually be published as this author's Last Paper. I guess that's OK -- no one would judge someone's overall scientific legacy on the quality of the Last Paper. The late author had a long career and published quite a few papers, and ultimately no one will care which paper was last. I hope.
8 months ago