Thursday, September 19, 2013

The survey results are in!

My previous posts have described a reviewer who continues to trash our papers not on the basis of the science, but motivated by a personal vendetta.  These attacks are not limited to just my papers, but also to those of past students; I may get annoyed when this happens to me, but I go ballistic when my former students are treated unfairly.

I have several former students who are now young researchers starting promising careers, some of whom are angling towards faculty positions.  A few negative paper reviews and a declined proposal can be the difference between tenure and unemployment.  If their work is inferior, fine, they don't deserve tenure.  However, if a reviewer harms a career by maliciously rejecting papers and proposals solely due to association, this goes well beyond unethical behavior; it's criminal.  In such cases, the reviewer should be punished to the maximum allowable degree.  Since the editor stands at the divide between the author and reviewer, (s)he should be proactive in taking action to punish misdeeds and prevent further infractions.  As head editor, I would convene an investigation of the editor and reviewer.  If my editorial board determined that malicious intent on the part of the reviewer was highly likely, I would move to reveal his or her identity to the authors.  As the acting editor, I would support this move.

To get your opinion on this matter, I prepared an unscientific survey.  While the results are still trickling in, the responses continue to be similar, as I report below.

Given that it is unusual for a journal to keep secrete the identity of the editor, it is surprising that less than 15% of you thought that the identity of the editor should be revealed.  I expected 100%!  Below are your responses to the question about the head editor's actions against the acting editor.

Since the actions of the reviewer are unethical and I believe criminal, he or she should loose the right to anonymity.  The review process demands that the reviewer act in good faith and make every possible effort to be unbiased.  If a reviewer's actions cross the line into actively campaigning against a group of individuals, his/her identity does not deserve to be kept confidential; not just to punish him/her, but to prevent future attacks from behind the blanket of anonymity.  Without knowing the identity of the reviewer, how can this individual's unethical and vitriolic behavior be prevented from spreading to other journals where we publish and funding agencies?

Why did only 20% of you think that the reviewer's name should be released?  What kind of reasons do the other 80% of you have? Are you concerned that the names of conscientious reviewers might be too easily released by pressure from whining authors?  Do you think that the privilege of anonymity trumps all, including the sabotage of a career?  Do you feel that you might be guilty of similar behavior, but perhaps to a lesser degree?  I would be interested in hearing your arguments pro and con on this topic.

FYI, the survey results with regards to the acting editor are shown below.

Let me know what you think.


  1. I believe your survey has a loaded answer, which is the one that the majority of people chose. By further investigating the incident(s), you still leave all other options on the table without the need to immediately jump to a conclusion. As most people interested enough in this topic to take the survey are scientists themselves, it would seem like the expected outcome. Also, given all the evidence presented, some may wonder if this is truly the entire story, and again, as scientists, we like to have as much evidence as we can get our hands on.

    In all, I think the DO NOT USE option is the simplest solution without the editor stepping on toes (he/she can't very well upset this person without that person taking him/her to the cleaners at some point down the road too). So, I would think people posing as an editor may want to act behind the scenes in what would be akin to scientific espionage. People nearing the end of their scientific career would probably have a higher chance of just coming out with the referee's name. It would be interesting to see the correlation between answers and stages in careers.

    I'm sure my opinion is biased.

  2. Though scientists should be skeptical, my question was intended to ask how one would respond IF the facts were as presented. I agree that my survey was not well designed.

    One solution that would protect all parties would be an option in the submission process where one could say "manuscript #xxxxx that I submitted to Journal XXXXX had a reviewer that was deemed inappropriate." It could be computerized in a way that the journal editor could pick reviewers as usual, then send it through software that strips out the name of the bad reviewer. The process could be designed to be anonymous so that nobody knows the reviewer's identity except for the journal at which the incident occurred. Of course, any system can be gamed.