Saturday, August 31, 2013

August 31, 2013 update on the nasty review saga

The short update to the saga of the nasty reviewer is that another member of the editorial board reviewed our paper and it got rejected.  The fact that the paper was rejected is of minor significance compared with how the process was handled as well as the implications to my former students as well as to all my readers.  You could be next!

In my case, a rejected paper is a small delay in a long career, and its marginal impact small.  However, I have an obligation to make sure that the system remains fair, especially when my former students are being targeted, placing them at a disadvantage.

My letter below speaks for itself.  After reading it, please take the two-question survey by selecting the link below.  I spent a couple minutes designing the survey, so apologies for its unscientific design.  I am interested in getting feedback, either by a quick click of the survey page or by leaving a comment here on my Blog.  Thanks for reading and giving me all your input as a sanity check.  It is gratifying to see that a couple thousand of you have read these posts.

If you are so inclined, please pass a link to this page along to coworkers and colleagues.

Happy Labor Day weekend.  Today my students are coming over for a cookout.  We are wishing three of them the best of luck as they move on in their careers with their newly minted PhD's.  Good luck to them!

Take a web survey by clicking here.

Previous post as background, click here.

Dear Editor-in-chief,

I thank you for your time and effort on the issue of our manuscript.  Now that email communications between various authors, editors and staff have settled down, this is the time to calmly focus on the important issues that go beyond the fate of any one manuscript.  As I made clear in my first email, I wanted to decouple our paper from my broader complaint, but the large volume of chatter distracted us from this goal.

First is the issue of reviewer integrity.  It is inexcusable for a reviewer to recommend rejection of a paper on the basis of personal attacks.  This behavior is even more egregious when it is found that the same reviewer may have recommended that the paper of my former student be rejected, also without basis.  This brings up the issue of the integrity of the editorial process.

In the case of my student's paper in THE OTHER JOURNAL (I was not a coauthor), the editors immediately recognized that the review was inflammatory and technically baseless.  As a result, the editor discounted the review as unreliable and sent it to another reviewer.  In contrast, your editor concluded that our paper was wrong based on the vitriolic reviewer's assessment, totally discounting the positive review.  Even upon casual reading, a non-expert will conclude that the positive review was based on the technical contents of the paper and the other one was personal.

I am grateful that you have offered to act as the editor of our future papers that are submitted to your journal to insure that the process is fair; but, don't all authors have the right to a fair process?  The editor is responsible for upholding the integrity of the review process by mediating the discussions between the two parties, and I do not believe that this is possible unless that editor can publicly stand behind his or her decision.  Keeping confidential the identity of an editor who is deciding the fate of a manuscript, which appears to be your policy, is a bad idea.  Based on the tone of the editor's decision, many of us are under the impression that the reviewer is the editor or someone closely associated with the editor.  A more transparent system would avoid such suspicions.

Finally, the review process that followed our complaint was not objective in its execution, though I am sure that the editor who supplied the review did make an honest effort reading and understanding the work.  Discounting the nasty review, we have one positive review that recommends publication and a review from a board member, who made positive technical comments but felt that the paper was not suitable for Your Journal.  In reality, then, there are two positive reviews but a split decision of the suitability criteria.  The paper should have been sent to an independent reviewer, giving the editor two reviews to use in rendering a judgment.

Several questions remain unanswered.  First, the editors of THE OTHER JOURNAL informed me that they had contacted you to determine if the same reviewer was involved in both papers.  If so, this is irrefutable evidence that this individual has hijacked the review process for a personal vendetta and should be censored.  In the present model used by many physics journals, the reviewer's identity remains anonymous.  I believe that an individual who has repeatedly shown such extreme unethical behavior loses his or her right to anonymity so that future problems in other journals can be avoided.

I have a moral obligation to assure fairness to my past students, and I would hope to all young people who are starting new careers.  A lunatic reviewer who is out to sabotage the publications, grant proposals, and tenure packages of past students associated with a particular research group could ruin the career of a young person in a tenure track position.  While placing this reviewer on a do-not-use list is a good first step, it does not go far enough.  Reviewers should know that they must stick to the science when reviewing a paper and that there are consequences if they don't.

Secondly, we deserve closure on the actions of the first editor.  What steps have you taken to determine what failed in the editorial process and what safeguards are needed to prevent recurrence?  At minimum, I believe that the identity of the editor should be reveled and that his or her relationship with the reviewer disclosed.  In addition, we deserve an explanation from the editor of why he/she made the decision he/she made.  Assurances that all is well without disclosure perpetuates the problem.

This kind of behavior if ignored can seriously damage our field.  Unethical behavior by even a small number of individuals tarnishes our collective reputations, and being apathetic is inexcusable.  I have waited until the fate of our paper was determined to respond to your email to make it clear that I am not motivated by trying to get a paper published, but rather to contribute to the integrity of the process that I hope will benefit us all.  I was a topical editor at JOSA B for 5 years, and withstood the wrath of many angry authors and reviewers.  But in the end, I stood by my decisions not through a veil of secrecy, but through open discourse.  I would be comfortable if my editorial files were made public.  I hope that the editorial board at Your Journal can say the same in our case.

Please feel free to call upon me at any time.  I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.



The review below of the second board member is fair.  The individual clearly read the paper and knows about some to the topics.  Because the points are made clearly and logically, we would have been able to make a compelling case for publication.  Unfortunately, this review was not open for debate and was intended to close the door on this chapter of our paper.

I found this to be an interesting paper but I do not think it is suitable for Our Journal. Here is my full report.

The purpose of this paper is to compute the response to an applied electric field of electrons confined to connected one dimensional quantum wires under a wide variety of two dimensional geometries. The authors introduce the calculation in the context of nonlinear optics however it seems to me it would have been better to introduce the paper in the context of quantum chaos and periodic orbit quantisation.

The model is purely Hamiltonian. Real nonlinear optical  systems have dissipation and the approach of the paper ignores this entirely. Ignoring dissipation and dephasing assumes that the wires are in the ballistic regime in which only single particle states are excited in the conduction band.  This single particle regime ignores the possibility of Coulomb interactions resulting from multiple excitations and also phonon-electron scattering.   I assume this assumption is justified if the applied electric fields are kept weak? The authors should have made some comment on the physical applicability of the model.

Despite this idealisation the authors do obtain some highly non trivial results for optimal  second and third order susceptibilities using a novel methodology, he “star graph motif”.  I assume these optimal results must also bound what might be possible were dissipation included.

he analysis is very comprehensive, perhaps too comprehensive. One begins to loose sight of the key physical insights for example, that optimal response is usually associated with an effective three level structure. This is of course well known in nonlinear optics.  In the context of this paper I would have liked to have seen a connection made to the underlying periodic orbit quantisation: for example what are the conditions for which a three level model in quantum wires is appropriate?

There is also no attempt to link the results to possible experiments for example, the response of GaAs/AlGaAs confined wire structures to microwave driving.

In view of the rather restricted physical assumptions underpinning the model and the lack of any link to an experimental context, this paper is not suited to the Our Journal in my view. It is unlikely to be accessible to the broad readership of the physics community that Our Journal seeks to address. The authors should seek a more appropriate technical journal. Alternatively they could extract a  smaller more compact paper that addressed some key physical principles, such as links to periodic orbit quantisation or possible experiments in ballistic electronic systems with microwave driving.


  1. Hi Mark,
    This is an interesting story. I hope it doesn't happen again! I hope the mean reviewer was scared by the other journal.
    Your letter is polite, fair and kind. By the way, there is a mention of the Our Journal's real name at the end :) maybe you want to remove that.

    1. Thanks for the comments and catching my error!

    2. It appears that the nasty reviewer was not scared off because we now got him/her again at a thrid journal! The reviewer has toned down his vitriol, but says the same thing. This makes me believe that he/she may have been warned by the second journal's editors. This is becoming a horror movie!