Wednesday, May 09, 2012

That's Not What I Meant

As an editor of a journal, the feedback that I give to authors of publishable papers varies from:

optional advice, along the lines of "I think your paper would be improved if you added/deleted/considered X, but this is just a suggestion for you to use or reject. I'm accepting the paper anyway, so whatever you decide is fine" (although I don't word it exactly that way);

to

make these changes or else, along the lines of "Reviewers (and/or I) found the following errors that must be fixed. Most of the paper is fine and quite interesting, so I'm inclined to accept it but you have to do a very thorough revision or I will not hesitate to reject the paper" (although I don't word it exactly that way).

I always think that I am being unambiguous about whether I am giving friendly (optional) advice or a do-or-die editorial command, but I can tell from some author responses that they are reading between the lines of my editorial decisions, even the friendly ones.

This possible case of reading between the lines was particularly troubling to me:

In a paper that I thought was quite likely to be acceptable after moderate revisions, the authors did a good job with the revisions, but the manuscript needed re-review because the revisions were rather extensive. The reviewer (who had also reviewed the first version) liked the paper, but made a few more constructive suggestions to improve the paper; these did not require additional work or $ (other than thought/time) -- the reviewer (and I) just thought the authors should give some more thought to a few things that would potentially broaden the readership of the paper. In my decision, which clearly stated that I was going to accept the paper whether or not the additional changes were made, I explained why I thought these suggestions were worth consideration. 

The revised revised paper came back with a few changes, but the most significant one was the addition of at least 4 new references: all to papers on which I am a co-author!!

Did the authors think my advice was somehow code for "I want you to cite my work more?" If so, this is disturbing, as this was definitely not my intention and quite a stretch to interpret this from my words or actions. As it happens, the citations are relevant, but the paper was fine without them.

It is sad if the authors were so cynical as to think that I would only be satisfied if they cited my work more. I had already told them that I was going to accept the paper, so it would be very strange (and deeply disturbing) if they thought my decision hinged on their citing my papers. One of my colleagues thinks that my general instruction (based on the reviewer comment) inspired the authors to read more widely in the relevant literature, whereupon they encountered some of my papers and decided that these would be good to cite. Maybe, and that might explain 1, maybe 2 new citations, but 4? Strange.

The paper was accepted, as originally decided, but I involved another editor in further interaction with these authors, as I was no longer comfortable dealing with this group alone.

Have you ever deliberately cited the work of an editor (not a possible reviewer, but specifically the editor), hoping it would increase your chances of having the paper accepted? At what stage did you do this: in the first version (if you knew the likely or certain identity of the editor) or during a revision stage? Do you really think it matters? This is either a test of your cynicism level or of my delusion/naïveté level.


24 comments:

Anonymous said...

That has NEVER occurred to me! But in my field, Editors almost never read the manuscripts.

MathTT said...

Not quite the same thing, but there's a great piece of writing by a mathematician that contains the following advice:

"Give Lavish Acknowledgments

I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else. One day I tried an experiment. After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment I decided to cite a few papers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper to see what might happen.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field."


Full text of the article here: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~nbalacha/rota_ten_lessons.html

zinemin said...

A similar thing happened to me yesterday. I got a revised version from a paper I had been reviewing.

One of my comments had been:

"You seem to find xzy. Other people (A et al., B et al., C et al.) have found the opposite. Please make a comparison to their work and discuss."

They write back: "We cannot do this comparison due to differences between our approach" (which are minor and which is really not a good excuse not to make the comparison.) However, they ware probably convinced I must be involved in study A, B or C, and so they included completely irrelevant and detailed discussion of this work in their introduction, where it really did not fit.

I found this behaviour quite aggressive, and I also got an aggressive vibe from the behaviour you describe above... It seems to say: "ok, we'll cite you, and then you'll shut up, right?" It is quite offensive.

Anonymous said...

I'm siding with your colleague, just because of a paper I'm currently writing. I'm sending it to a fairly generalist journal that nevertheless has developed a niche for itself in covering a particular topic. This journal has had three special issues in the last five years that relate to this topic in one way or another, and in my paper, I refer to all three of those special issues (the entire issue, not just a paper in it). It feels weird, because it could look like a brazen attempt to flatter the editor. But it's not. I've tried to justify eliminating at least one of those references, and I just can't.

Alethea said...

I have! Reviewers were anonymous, but one reviewer said essentially "you haven't given adequate consideration to the results in papers X and Y" which were by the same author and then proceeded to describe the methodology in these (very tangential) papers in detail. So we rolled our eyes and cited them.

It may be that you aren't the problem, but that people have had experiences like mine and figure that's what the reviewer wants.

nicoleandmaggie said...

If the editor has relevant work that unintentionally got omitted, then why not? If it's only tangentially related, then that seems a bit odd.

Though I have had editors suggesting I cite their tangentially-related work. And I do. Because once I'm in the R&R stage I'm perfectly happy to collaborate with the editor and reviewers so long as the end product isn't embarrassing.

EliRabett said...

Yes, but because he was obviously the reviewer, he had something of a case, but in the original paper it was strictly a matter of selecting between hundred of papers. In our interaction with the editor we explained that, yes Dr. X had done important stuff, but everyone in the field thinks they own it including us, and since the reviewer had a case, we thought it would be fine to mention it.

The editor understood and on thinking about it, adding the additional references and a few words marginally improved the introduction in giving the reader a better overview.

a physicist said...

Heck no, I've never considered adding citations to an editor's work. 98% of the time I am unaware of who the editor is, nor do I think they examine the references in my manuscripts. (The fact that you noticed this, for example, is surprising to me.)

One pattern that I do fit, though, is when I'm doing a catch-up literature search I might think of an author and realize, oh yeah, I'll bet F. S. Professor has published in this area and I should look to see what else she has published. So often my references will suddenly expand by 3-5 papers from the same person.

Anonymous said...

It bugs me when authors attribute some egotism/maliciousness/stupidity to completely reasonable review comments. It happens a lot, though.

There has been a lot of discussion in my field lately about the state and quality of peer reviewing, but none of it ever addresses the fact that many authors simply do not appreciate criticism or advice or are unable to take it at face value. And we now have so many venues for publication that most reasonable papers will eventually show up somewhere; it's very easy to feel that the work we do as reviewers is nothing more than a roadblock.

Anonymous said...

On several occasions I have actually had section editors specifically suggest that I cite their work even though in the end it turned out really to be only tangentially related. If I was a savvy author, I would have guessed who would be assigned my paper and then just cited them ahead of time (again, even though their work was not overly relevant). So, in short, I think that you, FSP, are morally scrupulous about how you handle these things and many other editors are not and it serves novice authors well to know that that is a possible reality when they submit their papers.

plam said...

I used to take some time to be sure to cite papers by relevant program committee members when submitting to highly-selective conferences (computer science: conferences are more visible than journals). I haven't quite done that so much recently.

Morgan Price said...

I don't even think about who the editor is, but in my field editors mostly just select the reviewers and act as a moderator for their responses.

DrDoyenne said...

Only once has an editor insisted on having me cite his work in my paper. In that instance, I was able to slightly modify my statements so that the cite was relevant. But I did not cite his work exactly as instructed, which would have been inaccurate. My impression was that this editor viewed me as a competitor and would have used any refusal to comply as a reason to reject. My compromise seemed to appease.

I could have said no and submitted elsewhere, but the paper had sailed through with glowing comments from reviewers and was going to require very minor revisions. Also, I may have encountered more hostile reviewers or editors at another journal. Seemed like the best choice given the situation.

Anonymous said...

No

Plain and simple--never even thought about it

Mark P

GMP said...

I have never really cited the work of an editor (nor has it occurred to me till today). When I submit a manuscript, I don't know who the managing editor will be anyway, and after I receive reviews I have never been asked by an editor to cite him/her. However, it has been hinted many times to me by a reviewer that I should cite what I presume are reviewer's papers, and I generally do if they are at all relevant.

George said...

As a referee, I often suggest papers that the authors should cite. I try very hard to avoid suggesting a paper that I am a coauthor on, unless it is enormously relevant. I'd rather not have the authors guess who I am! Nor am I that much in need of citations.

Once an editor asked me to referee a paper and also to suggest other referees. I strongly suggested a particular person Dr. X who I knew would be very appropriate. Later, upon re-review I got to read the reports from the other referees. I did indeed find one referee report suggesting that the authors should cite four papers by Dr. X. I do think they were relevant in this case, but it was still funny.

Anonymous said...

No, but i was once in the awkward editorial position of having to note that my own work needed to be cited.

i tried to finesse this by offering the authors a couple strategies for a successful revision, one of which involved my work (along with that of my collaborators), and one which drew on different research traditions. But it was truly awkward.

Renee said...

I think authors are becoming increasingly more eager to please as the struggle to get into some journals is as much of a tug-of-war to see who has the longer stamina than a scientific discourse.

Never cited an editor because they never asked, but if I think it will only marginally improve my chances to be accepted I'll happily cite referees if they so request.
I hate what has become of me...

Anonymous said...

I once suggested that a paper of mine be removed from a reference list because it wasn't relevant. The authors removed it. I wonder if they thought I was trying to drive down someone's citations?

Anonymous said...

No. But I have made a point of citing papers published in the journal I'm submitting too, just to help make a subtle case that I've chosen the correct venue. However, I can totally see some of my colleagues doing this purely for the sake of brown-nosing...especially if the editor is a bigshot in the field.

plasmaphysicsmom said...

This is somewhat related-within the last couple of weeks I received a survey from someone trying to determine how common (and at what journals) the following practice happens: an editor requires an author to add citations for articles from that journal (not necessarily authored by the editor, just to increase the impact factor of their journal, i guess) before acceptance for publication. That hasn't happened to me either, but it is another odd practice.

Anonymous said...

I have seen a case that the editor has told the authors that he can accept the paper, but the authors should cite a few(!) of his group's papers. Side info: the venue is very respected, the best in its field. Such unethical editors may be the reason why the authors tend to cite more and more the editor's papers.

Anonymous said...

I haven't done this myself - I rely on the literature that I think is relevent - but there have been several times when *editors* have insisted that I cite their stuff. While in some cases I haven't been comfortable with doing this, I felt incredible pressure to include the citations (and, in all but one case, complied).

Anonymous said...

Kind of the opposite happened to me recently. I was editing a manuscript that was exactly in my field of expertise. The authors (especially the first author) did not come from the same field of expertise. It was an interdisciplinary study but with a weeker representation in one discipline (mine). When editing the manuscript I found a strange set of citations that one would not use if you really know this area. You know what I mean? For some statements an expert would cite certain typical literature. But if you see that the authors used "unusal" citations, you realize that they probably searched the databases for keywords and cited what showed up first - but what was not necessarily the original work or the most popular work in this field. So in this case I found that the auhors left out several important literature -including my own. So I adviced them to read this missing literature (including my own) and consider citing them, because I thought if they don't they will probably not be taken seriously by experts in this field. I felt weared adding my own paper to this list, so I told the authors that I am not asking for his, because I want to increase my h-factor, but because I really thought that this work was missing. I still wonder if it was he right thing to do, but if I was not me, I would probably have said the same.