It is time for the Evil Reviewer anecdote to which I alluded in a post last week.
Colleagues and I submitted a manuscript about our Transformative Science to Awesome Journal. We were pleased to make it to the review process in a journal that summarily rejects most submissions.
We waited. And waited.
The reviews came back. The identities of both reviewers were very clearly stated in the reviews. Famous Scientist 1 loved the paper. Famous Scientist 2 hated the paper. We were allowed to revise the paper.
We revised the paper, taking into account the more rational of Famous Scientist 2's comments and providing a rebuttal to those we considered unreasonable.
The paper was re-reviewed by the same reviewers. This took a long, long time. Nearly a year had gone by before we received the second round of reviews back.
Famous Scientist 1 loved the paper even more. Famous Scientist 2 hated the paper even more. The paper was rejected.
The primary author (not me) protested. In fact, he was enraged because FS2's comments were rather inflammatory and his most serious criticisms were demonstrably untrue. One comment was that the questions we addressed were not of interest, and the methods we used were flawed.
We argued against the criticisms and other comments that could be demonstrated to be untrue, using citations of recent papers about the ongoing, unresolved debate on the topic of our research. The editor agreed to send the manuscript to a third reviewer who would have access to the previous reviews and correspondence.
Reviewer 3 (whose identity is not known to us) could not believe that FS2 would deliberately shoot down the paper unless he had solid, scientific reasons to do so. The editor's decision to reject the paper (again) hinged in large part on this belief that FS2 was an "honorable" man.
In the meantime, FS2 was busy. He reproduced our results, addressing the same questions (which he had stated were of no interest to anyone) and using methods he had criticized as flawed in our work. He submitted his own manuscript on this same topic to another journal. This fact came to our attention by chance.
What to do?
My colleague, now even more enraged, was able to document the existence of this "new" manuscript, complete with date of submission, showing that at the very same time FS2 was taking an unusually long time with the review of our manuscript, he initiated research on the same topic, submitting his own manuscript soon after his second, savage review of our manuscript. My colleague wrote a long, detailed letter to the editor.
The issue remains unresolved, but it is unlikely to have a happy ending for anyone.
Fortunately, in the case of our beleaguered manuscript, none of us authors are at a career stage that hinges on having a high profile publication. We think the science in the manuscript deserves publication, and we think we deserve credit for the ideas and applications in the paper, but it doesn't really matter where the paper gets published.
It is difficult for me to understand the level of ego? enmity? selfishness? depravity? that would drive someone to say that our research was worthless, and then immediately turn around and work on that same topic using the same methods (and !surprise! get the same result). We have all lost respect for Famous Scientist 2.
This episode made me wonder:
Was it really worth it to him to do this just so that he could be "first" to publish these results?
What am I supposed to think about the other papers by this Famous Scientist? I don't doubt that much of his existing work represents his own ideas, although now I wonder if he has ever done something like this before. I have met him and I know him to be a very smart and creative scientist. He doesn't need to steal the work of others.
Do they have "responsible conduct in research" workshops at his institution? Does he attend them and feel gnawed by guilt at his unethical conduct or does he glaze over in boredom at the case studies of postdocs in biomedical labs, thinking that none of this relates to him?
How open should I be with other colleagues, students etc. about this situation? Assume that there is no reasonable possibility that we misinterpreted FS2's actions and that there is solid evidence for the scenario outlined here. Being silent about the situation might allow him to continue in his evil ways, potentially doing real harm, but openly accusing someone of dishonesty (however much documentation I may have in my files) sets up a situation of "Which person do you believe?". The answer might well be "Famous Scientist 2" (as we saw in the review process).
Is FS2 pleased with himself that he was apparently successful at getting our paper rejected, or does he feel any discomfort at all about his tactics? Or maybe it is all just a game to him, and he feels satisfaction that he has apparently "won" this round?
I don't know. In my career, I have seldom experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate associated with a manuscript review, so I prefer to think that this is a relatively rare situation. I regret that I can never again contemplate this Famous Scientist's work without a hostile suspicious feeling.
I hope that our paper will eventually be published and appreciated for its interesting science, primarily the work of my colleague, who deserves full credit for his creativity, hard work, and persistence.
6 months ago