I sent a letter on 8/1/13 to the journal editors of our paper, which is reproduced below, with all names removed, except mine:
I am writing to you in your capacity as editors of the JOURNAL X. This communication is not an appeal of an editorial decision, but to report what I believe to be gross misconduct of an anonymous reviewer and an endorsement of this review by what appears to be an anonymous member of the editorial board. I request that this complaint be kept separate from our manuscript file, which we are appealing through the normal channels.
One of the reviews borders on libel, stating "...they bend and distort basic procedures in perturbation theory and throw in out-of-context concepts and other spicy statements without the slightest concern for the basics and in fact the ethics," without supporting evidence for this serious allegation. All statements by this reviewer that are specific are totally off the mark and oblivious to the actual contents of the paper. More egregious is the statement from the anonymous editor that (s)he agrees with a review filled with personal attacks, flippant comments and unfounded accusations; and, chooses to ignore the positive review that accurately describes the technical details of the work.
A review should focus on pointing out specific scientific issues in a manuscript rather than being a ranting blog that attacks the reputation of the authors; and, the editors are responsible for upholding the integrity of the process. Shame on the editors and JOURNAL X for this unprofessional behavior.
I look forward to hearing the results of your investigation of this incident and the actions that you plan to take to avoid this unacceptable outcome in the future.
Mark G. Kuzyk
As of the date of writing this post, I have not heard from the editors of this journal. I next sent a letter to the editors of both journals on 8/5/13, shown below:
A potentially serious issue with the review process has come to my attention in which the evidence shows that a referee is rejecting papers based on the associations of the authors, independent of the quality of the science. This does not appear to be an isolated incident, but is an intentional and systematic campaign to undermine the work of any researcher that is or has been associated with my research group. Such inexcusable behavior undermines the integrity of the peer review process.
My former PhD student, Great Student, and I have noticed similarities between a reviewer's comments (attached) on one of his manuscripts, submitted to JOURNAL 1, and our paper (below), submitted to JOURNAL 2. In particular, the referee(s) uses the same wording and makes similar complaints, attacking the character of the researchers without evidence. Comments about the science are nonspecific, using colorful language and ranting rather than well reasoned arguments. I have attached both reviews so that you can form your own conclusions. At minimum, I would hope that the editors of both journals will share the identity of the reviewer(s) to determine if they are the same individual or related individuals, and if so, to take appropriate action to prevent recurrence.
A referee that systematically undermines the review process needs to be censured to ensure that this type of behavior does not become common practice. I am deeply disturbed that such reviews passed through the editorial process. I await the results of your investigation.
Note that I sent a letter to the editors of the JOURNAL 2 on Friday before Dr. Great Student alerted me to the review of his JOURNAL 1 paper.
Mark G. Kuzyk
On 8/9/13, I got a letter from the editors of the journal that is considering the paper of my former student and junior colleague.
Dear Dr. Kuzyk, I am writing in response to your recent email regarding the referee report on XXXXXXX "Great Paper" by Great Student et al. Let me first thank you for bringing this issue to my attention. Of course you know, the referee process can only really function if editors, authors and referees all act professionally and in good faith. A breakdown of that professionalism is of course very disturbing and warrants our immediate attention. I feel strongly that an author has the right to see all reports on his/her manuscript. Regardless of what an editor might think of a report, it is still information that plays into the editor's decision on a manuscript, whether consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, I do feel very strongly that no report should be suppressed 100%, although I have edited reports in the past to remove inflammatory statements. In this particular case, there was no way to edit the report. However, the quasi-form letter I sent that accompanied the referee report did indicate that a new referee would be consulted. As you hopefully appreciate, editors are not "vote counters" but try to carefully weigh all evidence before rendering judgment on a manuscript and will often essentially discount a report (as I am willing to say I will in this case). With regards to this particular report, I am in agreement with you that the tone of the reports are similar, as well as the language. I have written an email to be sent to the editors of the OTHER JOURNAL, sharing the referee report on XXXXX and your recent email, and requesting the name of that referee. Please rest assured that I will investigate this situation and, if I suspect unethical behavior, I will pass this up to the appropriate people within ORGANIZATION XXX. Again, thank you for bringing this unpleasant situation to my attention. Sincerely, Reasonable Editor
I responded that same day, as reproduced below:
Dear Dr. Editor,
I fully agree with your analysis and the course of action that you are taking. This gives me complete confidence that JOURNAL 1 will continue to be a journal that I can trust will treat all manuscripts fairly and make decisions based on the science.
I thank you for taking quick action in this matter and look forward to its resolution.
Mark G. Kuzyk
I believe that the silence of the of the journal that rejected our paper based on the nasty reviewer speaks volumes about that organization. Rather than immediately acknowledging that there is a problem and to let us know that they are investigating the procedure that lead to this unacceptable outcome, they appear to be stalling while deciding how to save face. I hope that I am wrong.
As usual, I welcome your opinions.