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Communications of the ACM

Computing ethics

Where Review Goes Wrong

Where Review Goes Wrong, illustration

Credit: Scott Norris Photography

I am a researcher twice accused of professional misconduct in the publication process. The first incident happened when I was a junior professor submitting the definitive paper from my Ph.D. research to a journal. The second happened quite recently. Despite these accusations, I am a successful researcher and teacher. This column is my appeal to reviewers and editors for caution and moderation.

In the first instance I went through several rounds of reviews, revisions, and resubmissions. All but one of the reviewers accepted the paper, and the paper was eventually rejected. I resubmitted the paper to another journal. Unbeknownst to me, the reviewer who had previously rejected the paper was contacted as reviewer again. The result was that the editor, in an email sent to all reviewers, charged me with knowingly submitting a paper with incorrect results. It had never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong. I felt scared, helpless, ashamed, alone, and confused. It took a while to dig out proof that I had checked the veracity of the paper. I forwarded to the editor all previous reviews and my responses. I also forwarded my email correspondences with a mathematics researcher who had helped me verify proofs and address the reviewer's concerns. The review process was restarted with the same set of four reviewers; as I expected, the paper was rejected. I rarely submitted to a journal again because I was terrified of being charged with trying to "shop" a rejected paper.


Gunnar Wolf

Thanks for the interesting read. As a newcomer to the academic publishing world (I dare not say "a young academician" anymore), I think there is an extra point you are missing here: Language. English is the lingua franca of scientific publishing, and while many of us also publish in other languages, English is clearly the way to reach most readers.
It is very clear to me as a Mexican to feel an "accent" when reading English papers submitted by people from cultures with a different language structure - Mainly Arabic, Chinese, Indian. I am sure that, no matter how careful I am when writing, my native Spanish thought structure can be felt in my writings; it is sometimes harsh to read a reviewer says (as it happened to me recently) that "the authors obviously did not take the time to proofread their draft".Our field is quite prone to intercultural blindness, and the language-imposed barrier of entry also takes its toll for those of us in non native English-speaking countries.

Igor Schagaev

Dear Elizabeth, all you have described is painful and ... true. But still is not the greatest pain.

How about behaviour of EC R&D system when they receive your project proposal, reject it and then resubmit though their friends very similar one to fund? My former colleague from China did spot quite a lot of thing like that. Or when MIT refer your paper and then easily copy a semantics of few paragraphs from it, i.e. - why worry we did cite you! Same is everywhere - India "researchers "do copy even pictures of your papers, simply putting their names instead of yours; - Russian "experts" re-patenting your patents claiming novelty after they have learned from you every bit for months.

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