Thursday, April 22, 2010

To What End?

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.


Anonymous said...

it doesn't really matter where the paper gets published.

But it matters that this person is exposed as a criminal so that they do not harm others in more sensitive stages of their career. Fight this with everything you have, not just for yourself but for everyone.

Becky said...


Just . . . wow.

Can I ask why all of the correspondence was forwarded to the third reviewer? Was that a requirement by you or the editor, or is it standard procedure when asking for a new reviewer?

Anonymous said...

This is a truly awful tale... very depressing. I have heard a similar story about a Famous Biomedical Scientist who has on different occasions told his lab "you have two weeks" to reproduce some poor sod's Nature/Science manuscript. While I don't doubt these stories, I also question whether Famous Scientists really need to do this. A couple of sympathies for the devil: 1) they had a similar project, new MS arrives, they get their skates on (unethical as they shouldn't review the paper), 2) they are enraged by how "wrong" you have got things that they decide to test it themselves, when they get the same result, well they have to publish it don't they?
But whatever way you look at it. This is cretinous behaviour.

James Annan said...

I think in writing this post you must realise that you have a responsibility to the wider scientific community. Next time he does it, the victim may be more helpless than you are. Based on what you say, I don't think you can simply rely on the journal to deal with it (and perhaps brush it under the carpet, as they choose).

mOOm said...

This is blatant plagiarism. People have been fired for that. Did you write to the editor of the journal where FS2 submitted his paper? In my field (economics) I almost always put a working paper up on the web in an official archive when submitting. Some people think putting unpublished stuff on the web invites plagiarism but I think the opposite. But in some fields you aren't allowed to do that and then get published.

Klaas said...

I think you are in your right to email all your science friends to tell them about FS2. If it happened to me, I think I would actually start a physical fight at the next conference I saw this guy.

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc, and I've been scooped like this twice by senior scientists. I was in the submission stage once and less than a month away from submission another time. (In the latter case, the other scientist started work on the same hypothesis immediately after I had shared my results.) I heard a story similar to yours about an acquaintance in physics. I recently completed an ethics course too and wondered if maybe the 'plagiarism' examples could use some real-world refinement.

Anonymous said...

I hope the editor is able to make the right decision here and accept your paper. I agree that it would be very hard to directly accuse FS2. Maybe just discussing this incident with collaborators would be a start. Warning people not to discuss unpublished data with this person or to suggest him as a reviewer might help others avoid the same situation. But still, ugg, that is horrible.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This just makes my blood boil. I respect your decision to keep things anonymous here, but I hope that in the real world, this thing gets blown wide open. What he did was theft, pure and simple.

Plus: what a jackass.

Anonymous said...

At least you know the identity of reviewer #2 / famous scientist. More open to abuse are the cases where there is review blinding, because you can never be certain who is screwing you over, even if you are 99% certain. In that case, all the onus falls on the editors to follow up and make sure no one is stealing research. And editors are busy busy people...

David said...

This is incredible.

You could publish (on the web, I mean) his reviews, making clear the chronology of "his own" paper. I suspect the academic community loves a good gossipy drama like every other community seems to.

In the end, I don't know how satisfying it would be though. For whatever reason, people might be skeptical. Or it might just connect you and your colleagues to an unpleasant situation in people's minds.

Interested to know how you deal with it.

Ann said...

This makes me realize what a blessing the physics internet archives are. In theoretical physics community recognition and citation of original works comes via the unmoderated archives, and refereed journal submission is merely done as a formality to satisfy hiring and promotion committees.

Phillip Wei said...

Isn't there a way to shame the FS2? Just blast an email to their department; find out who funds/payrolls FS2 and directly mail them? I know this involves effort and putting oneself on the line, but I can't imagine rolling over is emotionally viable.

There are a lot of hear-say accusations of intellectual thievery that are often a lot harder to prove, but this seems like open-shut. I understand that the ego/competition in the academic sciences is going push people to this kind of behavior but if you can't slap the wrists of the people stealing from the cookie jar when you are watching then the situation is totally broken.

Anonymous said...

that is so sad, disgusting and horrifying i don't even know what to say!

Anonymous said...

none of us authors are at a career stage that hinges on having a high profile publication...

Except for the poor grad-student/post-doc that was the first author?

Carlie Bucket said...

Unfortunately, this doesn't surprise me.

I know of someone who visited a high profile group on a postdoc interview, was told about a project that the group was planning to tackle, then 'stole' the idea and completed the project as a postdoc in another high profile group.

It is a shame, because as FSP mentions, this person is a perfectly capable scientist who has established a good name for h--self at a high profile university and doesn't need to 'steal' ideas. I too have lost all respect for this person.

But to retaliate in any way other than properly composed letters to editors would be stooping to the level of these people, which I believe is unacceptable behavior as well. Unfortunately (again, everything is so damn unfortunate), the 'right' way to do things never seems to be the way that actually produces the desired result.

On the bright side, at least you have a legitimate reason to list this person as 'reviewer to be avoided' on future manuscripts.

Female Science Professor said...

Exactly what part of "none of us authors are at a career stage that hinges on having a high profile publication" don't you understand?

Jenski said...

If FS2 had truly been working on a similar question, my training would have told me that he first should have mentioned this as a conflict of interest to the editor and second suggested publishing back-to-back in an issue if feasible.

As a new post-doc, and particularly because it sounds like you feel secure in your career/research program, PLEASE get this straightened out for all the more junior people who would be (and probably have been!) too afraid for their careers to address these issues. Any chance to communicate with the editor of the journal again? Discuss your concerns without naming names with program directors associated with your research, later naming names if necessary? This should be received in the same manner as if FS2 made up data or plagiarized words. It is totally unethical and makes a HORRIBLE example of science and for trainees. Trainees can be told that science is open and collaborative, but clearly that needs reinforcement and support from journals and funding agencies when issues like this are clear.

Carolyn said...

Wow. This is so wrong. I'd heard stories like this before, but usually in the campfire-ghost-story kind of way. It's pretty disheartening to hear of a situation from someone I know!

Kevin said...

I had a similar situation when I was an assistant professor many years ago. I was in a small field dominated by one research group. The only journals publishing in the field were edited by the head of that research group. He rejected one of my papers (after giving it to his students to referee), then 2 years later big chunks of the paper appeared in a paper by his student and him (it took them 2 years to do an incompetent implementation of my work). I complained to the journal, but they just forwarded my complaint to the editor who stole the work.

Luckily I did eventually get tenure, and immediately left that field. I can compete on an unlevel playing field, but not when the competitors steal my work. My new field has been more fun, more relevant, and my competitors/colleagues are much nicer people---I'm pleased to share ideas with them.

a physicist said...

FSP, you're an editor: what would you do as an editor if this had happened at your journal?

I am not an editor, so I have no real clue other than to guess that most editors are very busy people. But I have a fantasy that it would be fun to publish a "case study in reviewing ethics", where you publish manuscript version 1, referee comments, manuscript version 2, referee comments, etc. and then point to the paper published in the other journal.

I'm sure there's all kinds of reasons (maybe legal?) why this can't be done, but it would be awesome.

Donnie Berkholz said...

If you do nothing, aren't you implicitly endorsing his actions and thereby encouraging him to repeat them in the future? This is completely inappropriate behavior and needs to be dealt with.

Rumor-mongering clearly isn't the right approach, but there are a few people you should contact about this:

- Famous Scientist #2, to explain your POV and ask what happened. It's always possible that he was working on the same problem and chose to submit to a lower-impact journal (so the results were of the proper importance for it). If this fails to clear things up, then:

- The editor of the other journal, as a commenter suggested;

- The office of research integrity at his university; and

- The office of research integrity at his funding agency

If this happened to a postdoc depending on one major paper, it could well put him out of a career in science.

Charlie Clarke said...


I'm one of the econ nerds visiting from marginal revolution, and I don't think the comments are really focusing on the relevant trade-offs.

You have a chance to go public. You will produce your evidence, which I'm guessing is highly technical and will require a specialized person to understand. And there is probably some effort that expert would have to expend understanding all the evidence you have and how damning it is. If this effort is too great, the reputational advantage of the famous scientists will win out and you may bear a social costs for accusing him of a severe academic crime.

Another problem to consider is that you may not be the best person to judge how strong your case as, as you are invariably biased. My advice would be to send all of the evidence you have to journal editor two. I would think that he would have to take an accusation like that seriously and examine your evidence. Is your evidence strong enough that the editor will quickly, overwhelmingly see the treachery? Would the editor have to get specialists to figure out who's right when the famous scientist responds?

Just trying to point out that the distinction is between his reputation and your evidence. If you really have him caught red handed, his reputation doesn't matter. But if who's right is too hard to observe even for two editors of prestigious journals, you probably won't win public opinion either.

Anonymous said...

"Carlie Bucket"'s comment raised a question for me: when you implement an idea someone else told you about, when does this qualify as "stealing"? The case you talk about is clearly unethical, but in Carlie's case it isn't so obvious (to me). If someone tells you about a research idea they plan to work on, why should you not be allowed to work on the same idea, too?

Of course, the original person might be annoyed by this, but is it really unethical? What if the first person never actually follows up on the idea or takes years to publish the results? How long do you have to wait before it is ok to try it yourself? Does the fact that the idea was shared during an interview (in Carlie's story) make it confidential?

Cranky Math Guy said...

This is a good argument for preprint servers, like they have in math & physics. If the preliminary version of the paper is posted on the server, then there is public documentation available for all to view.

Beth said...

This happened to my lab too- about 3 months after I joined the lab, the paper that was the basis of my project got scooped by our biggest competitors. One of the co-authors just happened to be someone that my boss had put on the "requested reviewers" list for the paper's original submission, which was held up and then heavily criticized in a way she thought at the time was unfair. As you can imagine, he's now off the "requested reviewers" list.

In this case my boss had actually given some talks about our data, so it's a less of a certainty that there was actually outright theft. Having access to our manuscript certainly wouldn't have hurt, since they could delay its publication indefinitely.

Anonymous said...

It's stories like this (though I've never heard one quite this bad before) that make me think that posting the reviews along with the papers is a very good idea. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (among others) does that and I think it lifts the tone of the reviews. Most folks are more reluctant to simply say things like "This is wrong." when they know that it'll be out in the open for everyone else to see. (ACP does have anonymous reviews, it's just that the reviews are posted.)

Anonymous said...

I also think you have an ethical obligation to be public about this, precisely because you don't think it's career damaging for you. But, you do need a disinterested observer to examine your facts, and you do need to know which of your pieces of information are actually public. You talk about the known identity of R2, but is that official? or is it deduced?

I also think that people stealing "ideas" is always complicated, and generally am unwilling to get into those arguments unless there's pretty clear evidence that intellectual property was stolen, and not just "ideas." Specific text, specific protocols, well lain out plans of attack, perhaps. "Why don't we try using guava juice extract to treat glaucoma?" no. And, yes, I hope I'd think that even if a billion dollar business results from my comment here ('cause, it turns out, guava is a fabulous treatment for glaucoma). I'll just be pleased that I've contributed to the welfare of man.

I've heard of this kind of dealing, and I was shocked the first time I heard of it, because it's not something that can happen in my field. I don't think anyone is required to destroy their career, and their ability to do science to fight this battle (no fist fights at meetings, please). But I think tacit acceptance of this (and other similar) bad behavior eats away at the foundations of science.

Anonymous said...

I almost had a similar thing happen to me, though the actual perpetrator was one of my supervisor. I know they should get credit for things but if I had let her take every credit for it, my career would have effectively disappeared. Luckily for me I recognised it early on. I don't honestly care about sharing info as long as my reputation/future is not in jeopardy, as I'm only starting out. Reputations and standards have to be firmly rooted in the first few years of a scientific career and so, these kind of things are unfair, especially to those much junior than the perpetrators and that will subsequently seriously undervalues someones work. I know it is a lot of hassle but for the sake of more junior researchers out there, please help us out a little and at least let the community know who ar frauds...

Anonymous said...

Wow. At the very least, I would let FS2 know that you know, that will give him something to think about.
I would also make a formal complaint to the journal - chances are they have had a similar complaint in the past, or will in the future

Alex said...

Being in a career stage where you and your co-authors apparently have fewer job security worries than some other scientists, I think it behooves you to do something about this jerk rather than passing the buck to the next unfortunate author (who may be in a less secure position). He'll probably do it again, and even if he won't, a message needs to be sent to anybody else thinking about doing something like it.

That's my professional take. My personal take on what should be done is far more brutal and cannot be posted on a family blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Donnie! Confront the one you think is perpetrating the crimes. He may come clean. He may not talk to you. He may try to convince you that he didn't steal ideas when he did. He may not have stolen anything and be able to convince you of that, too. Any of these options is better and will give you more evidence one way or another than not talking to him at all. I know this isn't how things are usually done since you maybe aren't SUPPOSED to know this is all going on, but it is a good way to try to find things out.
If you are completely convinced that your work was stolen, involving the ethics people relevant to the situation is the right way to go.

bethann said...

Been there and done that. My PNAS paper was held up by a 'famous' scientist for 8 months who was the editor - not even a reviewer!
He saw our work at a conference and said he would be a great advocate for it if we submitted it to PNAS. He held us up until he could publish his work in in Journal of Neuroscience 6 months later AND had us take out data that conflicted with his developing story claiming it was 'superfluous'.
And, no, don't fight it with everything you have. Nothing good will come of it. It will consume an enormous about of time, you will be declared a bitch and they are so famous they and their buddies will hurt you in ways you can't yet imagine. Just sayin'....

Anonymous said...

If you and the author haven't already, can you shoot an e-mail to the journal, FS2's funding agency, and FS2's university and put together the evidence you've stated here?

Even if the chances aren't great that the paper will get retracted and yours published, it may not be the first or the last complaint like someone else said.

Also, is it possible to get more information from FS2's other colleagues or from others in the field about his practice? Maybe one person thinks he's honorable, but I can't believe that is the opinion of the majority? You don't have to be accusing or start battles, just inquisitive because of your particular situation...

Anonymous said...

This needs to be followed up through whatever "proper channels" are available. Can you go to the funding agency and ask them to investigate? They funded YOU to do the work, so they have an interest in you getting proper credit. There is a Federal Policy on Research Misconduct. If the journal editor is unhelpful, is there an editor-in-chief, or can you contact the publisher? Can the PI's institution get involved? They surely have an interest in seeing credit given where due. Good luck -- as you see, EVERYONE wants to see this addressed!

Chris said...

I think there is a whole plateful of blame to be set at the feet of the journal editor too. Evil reviewers need the help of incompetent editors to inflict their damage.

Carlie Bucket said...

@Anon 9:57:

I see your point but never thought of it that way.

This was not a case of 'interviewing group mentions idea in passing and then interviewing group and postdoc candidate independently arrive at same/different conclusion via two different routes.' Both the interviewing group and the postdoc candidate specialize in the same exact area in a small subset of this particular community, therefore it seems like a stealing of ideas to me.

Or maybe it's just me. I am too honest. I could never pass something like that off as my own idea because I would feel too guilty about doing so. I'd much rather focus on my own ideas, which of course I think are fantastic. If my ideas work, that's great and I get a nice ego boost, but if they don't, I find the lesson in the failure and move on. That's just how I operate...but we'll see how long I survive in academia with this attitude!

Douglas Natelson said...

Wow. Horror story. I doubt I'd be able to restrain myself from contacting FS2 under those circumstances, but I don't know for sure. To those crying "plagiarism", this story contains multiple (alleged) unethical actions, but plagiarism isn't one of them. Plagiarism has a relatively narrow definition operationally. Unless FS2's paper uses the actual language or figures of the submission, it's not plagiarism per se. I also think that you'd have a very tough time making some institutional office of research responsibility do anything about this.

Anonymous said...

Advice from my phd advisor: good ideas should be worked on regardless of who came up with them. Good ideas are also a dime a dozen, so you shouldn't feel all that self-righteous about protecting them. That said, If you didn't want people to work on them you should not talk about them until they are submitted.

Once a paper is submitted though, stealing the ideas is downright dirty and i hope FS2 gets all the bad karma she/he deserves.

If I were FSP and her collaboratorS I probably wouldn't go through all the BS necessary to expose this guy to the entire community, but that is mostly because I would selfishly prefer to not have a bunch of peopl pitying me and/or thinking of me as a whiner.

Anonymous said...

You should have one of your students beat him up so that he doesn't dare to do this again.... of course i am kidding :)

Anonymous said...

"Exactly what part of "none of us authors are at a career stage that hinges on having a high profile publication" don't you understand?"

Perhaps direct your anger at the Famous Scientist instead, and not us? It is so easy for senior scientists to assume that a postdoc/grad student is not affected by things like this...

Female Science Professor said...

Sorry for the ambiguity and continuing confusion, but no postdocs or grads were involved in the research at all.

Ms.PhD said...

Fascinating to read these comments. I think a lot of the supportive reaction hinges on your assertion that you know the identity of FS2. When I tell these stories from the "blind review" perspective, people accuse me of being paranoid.

I know someone who works in one of these labs. The advisor is famous and routinely pulls these tricks, but in every case, the truth is that they had already started the project and he just didn't believe the results until someone else tried to publish them in a high-impact journal.

So it's probably true that he really didn't believe the results in the paper until he saw them reproduced in his own lab.

I think to me the most sickening aspect of the story is one that no one is emphasizing: the decision of the 3rd reviewer as apparently largely biased by the reputation of FS2 as an "honorable man".

If not for that, the paper probably would have gotten in, based on the editor's decision and having an independent 3rd review who could actually provide an informed opinion on the science.

Instead, the way you wrote this sounds to me like 3rd reviewer actually really just didn't know what to say, and deferred to FS2 (maybe out of fear, maybe out of ignorance, who knows). To me, that's the major crux of peer review FAIL.

I think this is not a rare exception. I think this happens all the time. It happened recently to a friend of mine, and she is still trying to get her paper published.

When it happened to me that I couldn't get my paper published because of an FS2 (identity unknown), I went the route of pitching a fit and insisting that my paper be published somewhere else, and sooner, rather than risk being scooped by one of these assholes. I'd rather have my work out there first than regret it later.

Either way though, we both lost, whether we got scooped or just ended up losing "impact". Neither one of us has gotten credit for our work, and neither one of us has been able to get a job based on that work. And we can't talk about it unless we want to people to say we are paranoid.

Anonymous said...

This happened to me, too. I submitted to a journal. It took a longish time for reviews to come back (6 months). R&R, paper is accepted. While this paper was in press, another paper on the exact same topic came out in a different journal with COMPLETE SENTENCES directly lifted from the original and unrevised version of my paper. I believe that the (no longer anonymous) reviewer's grad student (the 1st author) plagiarized me, AND I got scooped because their paper came out first. I highlighted the synchronous text in both papers, sent them off to my editor with a formal complaint, and my in press paper was moved up the queue to come out in the next issue.

Ten years later, and I'm an editor and a frequent grant reviewer now. I haven't had a chance for revenge yet, but my time will come.

The Lesser Half said...

This kind of behavior is par for the course in my field. I've watched Famous Jerks turn their graduate students into a clones for many years, so I know it will continue for another generation.

I recently changed universities and the rules at the NewU are even more lax: Nothing is off limits, do whatever you want, to anyone (even junior colleagues), just keep the publications rolling.

I suspect that the lack of repercussions are part of the problem. Of course, if everyone responded like Genomic Repairman . . . hmmm, I wonder how many repeat offenders would there be.

I'm not advocating violence, I'm just saying that Genomic Repairman was hanging out with me all day on the date in question, your honor.

Rosca Zimmerman (Pseudonym) said...

Dear FSP:

I think that you owe this to young people in academia like me to bring this to its logical conclusion, which is to have FS2 exposed as a plagiarist.

Also, I don't know about your field, but in my field, IEEE is the organization which publishes most of the reputable journals and they have a very strict policy where people can be blacklisted for an extended period of time for such unethical acts. If this had happened to me, and if it were related to IEEE and I was not a lowly early-career academic, then I would have gone on to file an official complaint with IEEE and have FS2 essentially shut-off from the publication scene. Not sure though if you have something similar available to your disposal. I understand that most of the journals in Sciences are managed by independent bodies, making it perhaps difficult to shut FS2 out of journals other than the one where this incident happened.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

Here is what I think I would recommend.

1. Assemble the evidence. Send it to a trusted peer, someone who you trust to tell you their views straight without watering it down to make you feel better. Ask them for their judgement: how clearcut a case is this? Make clear you want their judgement, not their sympathy. You are too close to the situation to have an unbiased view.

2. Send a letter of complaint to the editorial board that published FS2's paper (not just the editor that handled that paper; send it to the Editor-in-Chief or the editorial board at large). Send a letter of complaint to the editorial board that rejected your submission (not just the editor who handled your submission; the Editor-in-Chief or editorial board at large). In the letter, ask for them to investigate.

2a. Write a 2-page letter with a summary of the situation. Assemble appendices with all of the evidence. Do not send the letter.

2b. Do nothing for a week.

2c. Come back to the letter and revise it. If you are like me, you will inevitably find places where you need to tone it down, make it less emotional, and stick to the facts. Now send it.

2d. If you are lucky, after a long period where you hear nothing, the boards may blackball that reviewer, and they may even withdraw the acceptance of FS2's paper.

3. Do not take this public. You will gain nothing. You will look like a whiner or someone trying to trash a competitor. It's unfair that people will judge you in this way for raising a valid complaint, but they will. People will think, these kind of serious allegations should be handled "through channels" rather than raising them publicly. If the journals egregiously mishandle it and you've exhausted all private channels for resolving this, at that point you could consider whether to go public, but you have to demonstrate that you have tried to exhausted all available channels.

4. Do not send this to the funding sponsors of FS2. That's dirty pool. Start with the bodies who are responsible for ensuring appropriate behavior of their reviewers and authors: the two journals.

5. You could consider sending a letter of complaint to the department chair or dean of FS2. However this is a high-stakes move. I'm not sure whether I'd have the guts to do it, even if it was the right thing to do. (Confession: If FS2 was not a famous scientist, but a nobody, I would do it in a New York minute. My reluctance is based entirely on the fame of FS2.)

I do not know whether to recommend that you contact FS2 directly first. You will know FS2 personally and might have a better sense of whether that's likely to lead anywhere positive. If you do, lean over backwards to assume the best. "I want to raise a concern with you.." "From my perspective, this raises an appearance that..." "I hope you can help put my mind to rest on this.."

Lev Reyzin said...

would posting your paper to before submitting to a journal have helped?

Anonymous said...

The posts focus on the egregious behavior of Famous Scientist 2, and rightly so. The journal deserves some blame as well. Journals need to hold reviewers to reasonable deadlines. All requests for reviews I receive have an associated deadline and a statement that one should not accept the request to review unless the deadline can be met. If a reviewer holds a paper well beyond that deadline (as it sounds like happened here), the Awesome Journal should delete that person from the reviewer databank and perhaps should refuse to consider manuscripts submitted by that person.

Kea said...

This makes me realize what a blessing the physics internet archives are. In theoretical physics community recognition and citation of original works comes via the unmoderated archives ...

Hah!! Gee, you are naive ... Theoretical Physics has blind reviewing, and many people are banned from posting on the arXiv. Not that it matters, because there are plenty of sites to put up papers, but ...

Anonymous said...

Wow, judging from the comments, it appears that the issue is far more common in academia that one would think! And it looks like this shit has been around for a while too.

As FSP said, it clearly does not matter to her career, but if this happens to early-career peeps, god help them!

Anonymous said...

I know there are already a lot of "this happened" to me, but I hear too many of these stories without any repercussions for the scientist who stole another's ideas. What can we do???

I was also blatantly plagiarized. As an undergraduate I worked hard for 2 years in a lab working with little bit with Foreign Graduate Student. I wrote my undergraduate thesis, but I left thinking it was fine for undergraduate work, but not worth publishing (my advisor did not encourage me to publish it). 5 years later I find my entire thesis published as 2 papers with Grad Student (who is now a professor back in his home country) as first author and my name no where to be found. When I contacted my advisor (who was listed as co-author), he told me to forget it. Presumably because his career was on the line if I complained to the right people. The GS turned Prof. First Author claimed first that he repeated the measurements (he magically was able to repeat the noise too!) and that his home culture did not normally give undergraduate students credit for their work and offered many other excuses. I tried to fight, but as a grad student at the time, I didn't get very far. Fortunately, it has not affected my career too much (now FSAsstP) because I am in a completely different field of research now.

It still bugs me that they all got away with it. And that it caused me to lose respect for my undergraduate advisor. I just hope Grad Student First Author still feels guilty about it and has never repeated the action again.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Oh he certainly is smart, alright! (smart enough to see an oppotunity to exploit and waste no time doing so.) As for 'needing' to steal the work of others, perhaps he doesn't "need" to now but that was how his career has been built so it's an ingrained habit by now. I have seen people for whom taking advantage of others to get ahead was a knee-jerk reaction, even though it certainly wasn't "needed." You can never have too much, seems to be their motto.

I am outraged at this, but sadly not surprised.

I personally wouldn't trust anything coming out of FS2's lab anymore. I would view anything he does with suspicion. I would not hesitate to spread this story about him to colleagues in the field by word of mouth. It is not gossip mongering if it is TRUE, with hard evidence, correct??

Anonymous said...

This seems like a monumental failure on the part of the editor. Though the reviewer's role seems more inflammatory, it is the editor who gives this person power. By allowing the process the take so long, by assuming the reviewer's criticisms to be well founded simply because the person is famous, etc.

An editor at a Awesome Journal who helps create a subpar peer review process is more of an issue than one famous plagiarist.

Kevin said...

"If this had happened to me, and if it were related to IEEE and I was not a lowly early-career academic, then I would have gone on to file an official complaint with IEEE..."

Dream on! The editor who stole my work was for an IEEE journal.

S & O said...

I’m also appalled that you experienced this, and unfortunately, I am not surprised this happens in academic science.

A very similar situation happened last year with a paper from the group I’m in. The manuscript was sent to well known journal in the field, and it took almost a year to get the reviews. One of the reviewers was from our peer in the field, and he did not agree with the interpretation of the results. The adviser and other co-authors made changes, but stuck with their findings. Again, the reviewer was slow to respond and continued to disagree with the findings. Finally, the adviser took this to the editor, and s/he agreed that this reviewer had a conflict of interest, and let the manuscript be published. Ironically around the same time, that same reviewer published a similar paper but with a different interpretation of the results in a different journal. It was always known that this other group was working on something similar, so they were not ‘scooping’ us but it was clear they wanted their results out first. And, once the manuscript from my adviser was published, the reviewer (and his group) wrote a comment arguing about the interpretation.

DrDoyenne said...

Just a note of caution to those correspondents who are outraged at this story...

Unless you are absolutely positive of unethical behavior, be very careful about sending anything accusatory in writing to a journal (and certainly not to someone's employer or funding agency)...and even then, it's probably not a good idea.

If it turns out that you are wrong or your "proof" doesn't hold up to scrutiny, you could end up being sued for libel....and FS2 would end up being the aggrieved victim.

Several respondents have mentioned the responsibility of editors. I agree, and as an editor I pay close attention to the tone of all reviews I receive (and I certainly don't allow papers to languish--I will replace a tardy reviewer if necessary).

However, readers should know that most journal editors are reluctant to dismiss a review just because the authors disagree with the comments and look with great skepticism at complaints by "enraged authors". They are even more reluctant to accuse someone of unethical behavior, because this would potentially lead to liability on the journal's part.

And there is always another side to the story...

I was once reviled as a reviewer (although my comments were impersonal and not that critical, and I recommended publication). The lead author guessed who I was and wrote a scathing condemnation of my anonymous review, making all sorts of personal accusations regarding my expertise, motives, etc. The editors, however, knew me as a dedicated, fair reviewer (from many years of interactions) and came to my defense. They were so appalled at the author's behavior that they banned him from making any submissions to their journal for a year (and this was a major journal in our field).

My point is that there are many sides to such situations. I'm not defending the actions of FS2, which sound quite unethical, if true. I'm just recommending caution in dealing with such problems.

You are always better off taking the high road...and try to remember that most of your colleagues are honest and strive to be fair in their reviews.

Rosca Zimmerman (Pseudonym) said...

@Kevin: Sorry to hear that but I guess you did not read my comment carefully; it seems to me that at that time you were where I am currently: An early-career academic. In that case, I would dare not pick a fight with an 800-pound gorilla. But I am sure that if you are a famous, late career person like FSP, you can easily manage a case.

In addition, I am not sure if IEEE had at that time the plagiarism policy but they do seem to have one in place ( Finally, to be honest, I think that your case would had been much harder to prove as the paper was rejected and *scooped* paper appeared 2 years later. IMHO, you could have easily managed to publish the results within those 2 years in some refereed conference or even as a technical report. On the other hand, FSP case is totally different, as she is on one hand hearing these comments from FS2 and then at the same time FS2 is doing research on this topic. One can argue about having a change of heart in 2 years but it is hard to justify a change of heart from when one is reviewing to when one is working on the problem.

Hope this makes some sense. At the same time, as I wrote earlier, I don't live in a dream world and completely understand that IEEE is not an ideal organization either; it is marred by all the politics as well. The only point I was making is that in the case of IEEE, if (and this is a big if) one can make his/her point then that shuts the doors to a number of good journals, whereas that might not be the case for other fields.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

DrDoyenne, your comments are well-taken.

Regarding libel: I agree with you. I think if it were me I would write a letter asking them to look into it, laying out the evidence available to me, say that it provides at least the appearance of impropriety, and asking them to investigate to determine whether the matter was handled properly.

Regarding there being two sides to the story: Agreed. FSP should seek out trusted colleagues who weren't involved in the story to look over the evidence and see whether they too find it truly damning or equivocal, and proceed only if it appears clearcut.

Kai Lampka said...

Sad, but this happens everywhere. I had similar experiences at a conference and I am still battling to get ideas in this direction published. Surprisingly any over publication of mine which does not touch this direction of research have been quite successful.

Anonymous said...

I think you should confront the FS2. I hope you don't just sit back quietly and hope he decides not to do this again. It's all very well for you, being established and safe in your career, to just not bother about it, but you owe it to your junior colleagues, who are more vulnerable than you are, to at least try to put a stop to this person's behavior because this can really damage a more junior person's career if he were to do it to them.

Who knows how many careers he has already damaged or ended this way, that you don't know about.

I say this because as a postdoc I have seen - many, many times - similar instances of misconduct by the senior more established people or by junior faculty in their desperation to get as much as they can. I have been the victim of scooping and plagiarism by more senior colleagues and so-called collaborators (who turned out to be my scoopers). Both when it came to manuscripts as well as grants that I wrote. One of my senior colleagues knew I had submitted a grant, and he contacted the program officer whom he was buddies with, got my grant rejected, and then submitted it under his own name to another agency and got funded for three times the amount I had asked for in my origianl proposal. Without funding, I had to leave the lab because my time was up.

I now trust no one. No one. At the time, I could not say or do anything to protect myself because the people screwing me over were all much more senior to me. Who would believe me, my word against theirs?? Even if they did believe me, why would they choose to take my side? I told my postdoc advisor - he jsut shrugged it off and was like "oh well, what's done is done." He did not want to rock the boat for fear of being left out of future collaborations (which is a source of funding for him). He was in a safer position than I was, yet he did nothign because he didn't want to lose even a fraction of what I had already lost. I lost a lot of respect for him.

Thus, I really get upset when I know that senior established people do nothing about their peers' misconduct especially when such misconduct damages or ends junior colleague's careers. if you don't stand up and stop this, who will????

Anonymous said...

I went into something really similar, got my paper stuck for 4 months, and then with 2 editors (one from a different journal) and 4 reviewers just got rejected exactly at the sime time one of our suspected reviewers publish something quite similar in another journal.....

How frequent is this?!!!!

John Vidale said...

I don't see that there's much to do. Certainly complain to one's friends that the review process yet again seems to have gone off the rails.

One could post the manuscript, reviews, and a mild commentary on your web page - but I've only seen this done once or twice, and without constructive effect. Writing to the other journal might well help, and could easily delay the copycat paper for a while or derail it entirely.

Most cases of enraged authors mostly bring to mind authors losing perspective about their own work, and most reviewers who redo work that they've already viewed consider their contribution to be finally doing it right.

In this case, FSP has enough cachet, especially with the readers here, to be considered the objective party, but this situation runs against the grain of the usual case, in which flaws in the original work or misidentification of the reviewer or reasons for the delays make the complaints inaccurate.

As is usually the case on the internet, I am continually amazed that many commenters hear one side of the case and are willing to adjudicate without hesitation.

Anonymous said...

I am an editor, and I would strongly advocate two courses of action and against one suggested by some commenters here.

1. Complain formally to the journal and ask them to investigate. This may be difficult if the paper by the person who reviewed yours is not yet published, but should be do-able. They are in a position to know exactly when they sent him your paper, and it should be a matter of record when his arrived at its journal destination.

2. Copy the formal complaint to FS2's head of department, or if he is a department head to the dean, university president, or whoever is his boss. He should not get away with this behaviour.

3. Finally, I really would not advise making everything public, e-mail everyone you know, or in any other way exposing yourself to the risk of being counter-accused.

Good luck! Often the wisdom o those in the know eventually recognizes who did the original thoughtful work and who jumped on the bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

Find a reputable online journal (PLos ONE, perhaps) and go for speed. Include in your submission a footnote to the effect that this work was originally submitted and rejected from Awesome Journal - presumably you can handle the "embarrassment" - and include submission/rejection dates. Request that FS2 not be a reviewer.

Your online paper comes out first, you get to feel partial vindication and minor satisfaction from stopping FS2 from cheating you to the line.

Then, and only then, start to consider what you might do about the particular behaviour of FS2. As many have pointed out, it could blow back. So take the win first!!!

Mohammad said...

It seems there are thieves out there in the research community. The sad part is, some of them are "famous". I have had first hand experience:
During the last year of my Ph.D. I wrote a paper and submitted to the highest journal in the area. I had not published the paper anywhere nor had send it to anyone else.
Out of the blue I get this e-mail from the "famous" scientist in the area, whose result I had improved. He says: "I have happened to have seen a copy of a recent paper of you in which you do.....
However, Lemma X in that paper has a bug.
A few colleagues of me and I can see how to fix that lemma and are offering you to be a co-author of such paper if you are interested".
Needless to say, I was outraged to the highest degree, and so was my supervisor. The fact is, he must have been the reviwer of the paper as it was the only way of having seen the paper.
I was in the middle of applying for jobs and doing interviews and really didn't find the time to sit down and think how to fix that bug. Besides, there was a chance that even if I fixed the bug they might submit the paper at the same time and a good chance that he becomes again the reviewer of the paper and shoots it down for whatever reason.
At the end I ended up being a co-author of the paper which really should have been mine.

A few years later, when sharing this info with a colleague, I learned that the same bastard had done a similar thing to him (and his co-authors).
I can do everything I can to spread the word about this "famous" scientist which apparently has zero level of ethics when conducting research.

Anonymous said...

The first thing to do is always: contact the editor and present him with evidence.

Then if ignored or dismissed, contact the editor-in-chief.

Contacting department chairs and/or granting agencies is useless. No one will care.

Anonymous said...

With the paper trail accessible to the Editor, it is incumbent upon her/him to contact the physical sciences equivalent of the NIH Office of Scientific Integrity, and, if an investigation confirms the essential timeline outlined, that FS2 be banned from receiving federal grants for a few years - if this kind of behavior is allowed to pass, it will certainly continue.

I agree with others posting who think that, if you can muster the energy and stomach for it, you should aggressively push the journal editor to bring it to OSI, lest FS2 continue.

I am outraged on behalf of Science, scientists and society.

A Neuroscientist

Mark Reitblatt said...

Most professional scientific societies have an ethics committee whose sole job is to address instances such as this. I'd suggest contacting the relevant society in your field for advice on how to proceed. Even if they're not the proper venue to "name-and-shame", they will be able to advise you in an informed way on the ethical proceedings. I'd hesitate to take it public before contacting them.

Just my 2 bits.

Anonymous said...

I am a senior biomedical scientist and an Editor-in-Chief of an Index Medicus indexed journal. I agree that this seems to be an out and out case of scientific fraud that should result in serious sanctions if a complete neutral investigation shows that all is true as you (reasonably) surmise.

All journals try to teach new reviewers about ethics and responsibilities of being a reviewer. This sounds like a blatant example of what NOT to do -- if it becomes public we might well use this as a teaching example.

As for how to proceed -- many of the suggestions are good. The editor-in-chief of the original journal should take this case very seriously (I would) as it is a serious ethical lapse in the activities of the reviewer for the journal.

The editor-in-chief of the 2nd journal would at least want to be sure that journal #1 is dealing with this.

There are undoubtedly people in your university who deal with scientific integrity issues (if nothing else, to be able to deal with allegations of such against people in your university). They would be a good resource as to how to proceed.

The scientific societies of your field would also be a good resource. The funding agencies in your field also almost surely have offices of scientific integrity.

In all cases you could contact them first about a "hypothetical" and after finding out more about the process then choose whether to go ahead with a full disclosure of all the facts in your hand.

In the end, exposing such blatant practices is an important responsibility of senior scientists in any field. It is not pleasant, that's for sure. One of the good things (believe it or not) in your case, is that there is so much paper trail. Often when there are inappropriate ethical practices they are very hard to document. Thus, this case should be pursued with a full neutral investigation and let the chips fall where they may

Candid Engineer said...

Awful. I'm sorry you and your colleagues had to deal with this.

BrownieCentral said...

Please keep fighting this. Is there a way to send the evidence / information to an ethics committee at FS2's institution? I feel it should be brought to the institution's attention, in addition to any correspondence with the journal(s). We have to make this unacceptable in science!

Kea said...

A simple bit of advice for all those innocent young scientists out there: when submitting, ALWAYS make sure to show your work to a few other people. It need not be public, if that is not the standard in your field, but you can make it public knowledge that a number of people have seen your work. The easiest way to stop this kind of behaviour is to make it too risky for them.

Anonymous said...

FSp, please do something about the unethical reviewer. Your post didn't indicate if you were intending to take any action, you had only indicated that you are hoping that your paper still gets published anyway and being fascinated with his unethical behavior. Please don't just be a bystander or a victim who gets up and brushes themselves off and goes on their merry way, please be proactive. People who see injustice and do nothing, are enabling the wrongdoers to repeat their actions maybe to less fortunate victims in the future.

Female Science Professor said...

Certainly both journals are aware of the situation. The other parts of our efforts are more complicated, in part owing to the fact that we are all on different continents (authors, reviewers, editors), but it would be incorrect to assume that nothing is being done. How successful we will be, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone consider that perhaps FSP ==FS2?

KK said...

You should bring this to the notice of the magazine / journal the FS2 is trying to publish his paper in and also to the editor on first journal, the institution at which FS2 works and everyone you can think of.

DO NOT back down!

Anonymous said...

i would tell everyone I know. I would be careful not to exaggerate or embellish the story, but I would tell everyone at conferences in the coming years. People should know.