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So, last week I refereed a paper for a journal. The paper in question is a reply to a previous paper by a different author: it points out a serious problem in the original paper and then proposes a solution. The evaluation I sent back to the editors is that, while the problem is real (to the extent that a different researcher has independently identified it), there are a number of reasons why the proposed solution is not going to work.

Over the weekend, I started thinking about the paper in question again and suddenly realized that I know how to solve the problem (in a nutshell: you need to use a technique originally developed to solve a mildly related class of problems, but which nobody had yet thought of applying to this particular domain). Right now, I have a bunch of handwritten notebook pages with everything I need to write a paper, and all I have left to do is to find a couple of hours to sit in front of my computer and type it up properly.

The question is, how should I proceed now? On the one hand, given that I've developed my own solution, I'm not plagiarizing the paper I refereed (in fact, I intend to give it proper credit for discovering the problem). On the other hand, if I hadn't been asked to referee this paper, I wouldn't have put enough thought into it to come up with my own solution. More generally, to what extent is it acceptable to write a paper that directly builds on a paper you've been asked to referee?

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Is there a preprint of the paper available, or any other way how you could have learnt about their work beside being a referee? –  Arno Jun 13 at 14:15
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I'm not sure why you think this is a special case? Had you read the paper in pre-print and come up with the same idea would you have a problem then? I'm not sure where you think the issue lies? –  Jack Aidley Jun 13 at 15:18
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The issue lies in the idea that you can't cite to a non-public source. If there were a pre-print on the web, you can cite to that as the source of your inspiration even if the pre-print turned out to be wrong. On the other hand, you have a duty of confidence in an article you receive for review. It doesn't really exist outside the review process. –  Bill Barth Jun 13 at 15:28
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@JackAidley: There is also the ethical concern that the OP gave what amounts to a negative evaluation of the paper (a measured one, but the way these things work one presumes the journal will not publish it), but at the same time the paper has turned out to be -- somewhat indirectly -- of real value to him. I think his instinct of inquiring how to behave honorably here is a good one. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 13 at 17:00

3 Answers 3

up vote 54 down vote accepted

I think there are two questions that need to be answered first.

  • Is it important to you (e.g. for career reasons) to publish solo, or would you consider publishing with the other author? Keep in mind that publishing jointly may have extra benefits: the two of you together might come up with an even better solution, or it may lead to future collaborations on other projects. Or do you perhaps not care about getting credit at all?

  • Is the manuscript public? Has it been posted as a preprint on arXiv or a similar server, or on the author's website, etc?

Depending on the answers, there are a few cases:

  1. You don't care about getting credit. Write your report on the paper: "The approach to agrobaric frobotzim via PDQ analysis is unworkable because of foo, bar and baz. However, this could be fixed by using QPM analysis instead. [Sketch your idea here.] Pending this fix [and any other suggested revisions], I recommend the paper for publication." Expect that when the paper is published, there will be an acknowledgement: "We thank the anonymous referee for suggesting the approach used in Section 5."

  2. You want to publish jointly. Contact the editor: "The author's approach to agrobaric frobotzim via PDQ analysis is unworkable, and as such I cannot recommend the paper for publication as it stands. However, I have some ideas about how to resolve the problem, and I would be interested in collaborating with the author to work them out. Would you be willing to put me in touch with her?"

    1. The editor says yes. Great!

    2. The editor says no, and the manuscript is public. Submit your report pointing out the flaws and recommending rejection. After a decent interval contact the author: "I saw your preprint, and had an idea to improve the results using QPM analysis. Would you be interested in working together on this?" Opinions vary on whether you should reveal that you were the referee; it is possible the author will guess anyway.

    3. The editor says no, and the manuscript is not public, but you know who the author is. Submit your report pointing out the flaws and recommending rejection. The next step is a bit controversial. Some would say you should wait until it is public, so as not to break the anonymity of the reviewing process. Others think it is fine to reveal yourself and contact the author directly to suggest collaboration. I am not sure what to say here.

    4. The editor says no, and the manuscript is not public, and you do not know who the author is (double-blind reviewing). You have no choice but to wait until the manuscript is made public (maybe until it is published somewhere else), since that's the only way to find the author and suggest collaboration. If you think you should give up on finding the author and publish solo instead, see below.

  3. You want to publish solo. Write and submit your report. Now, is the manuscript public?

    1. The manuscript is public. You may write your paper, citing the other author's preprint and giving her due credit for noticing the problem. This is ethical, but if you meet the author at a conference, don't expect her to buy you a beer: she was hoping to solve this problem but you beat her to it.

    2. The manuscript is not public. You may not proceed. As a reviewer, you received the manuscript in confidence, and to write a solo paper based on it would be to take unfair advantage of that access. You must wait until the preprint appears publicly. (This might be when it is published in another journal, or maybe never.) It's possible that in the meantime, the author will discover your solution independently; those are the breaks. This would be a great time to reconsider seeking joint authorship.

In case 2, if your field has a notion of "first authorship", that would be something you'd need to negotiate with the other author, based on your field's norms. (Mine uses alphabetical ordering almost exclusively, so this issue wouldn't arise.)

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I think the morals of this also depend somewhat on seniority. If the referee is more senior than the author, then 1 is definitely the right thing to do, and 3.1 would be pretty unethical. –  Noah Snyder Jun 13 at 16:10
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@NoahSnyder Why does seniority play into this? If the OP is a post doc or assistant prof and the original author is a PhD student, the ethical choice is to gift the younger author with a central idea for a paper? I'm not convinced. All in all, I think all of the above are ok from the point of view of research ethics. However, 3.1 may indeed not make you any friends. I would try to make 2.X work. –  xLeitix Jun 13 at 17:08
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Btw., super-good summary of a complex issue! +1 –  xLeitix Jun 13 at 17:08
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@xLeitix: It's pretty common in pure math for competing with a grad student to be viewed as unethical. There's an expectation that grad students will work on independent projects, and pressuring them to collaborate or coauthor could hurt their careers (by making it look like they weren't capable of independent work). As for giving them an idea, they should certainly credit it to the referee. But turning the idea into a paper is usually a far more substantial project than just coming up with the idea, unless it's an amazing idea or a mediocre paper, so this may not be an unreasonable gift. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 13 at 19:05
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@Koldito: I'd be careful about 2.3. If the editor refuses to put you in touch with the referee, then the editor may feel this is unethical (in which going ahead and doing it anyway could be a problem). 2.1 and 2.2 are much less ethically fraught. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 13 at 20:20

You really do have three options: 1) don't write a paper (ok, not an option), 2) write it by yourself (I don't think a great option), or 3) write it with the other person as a co-author. It depends a little on how your field assigns authorship.

Here is what I think I would suggest. Write the paper and when it is basically complete, email the author of the paper you reviewed and let them know you came up with a solution and have written a paper on it. Offer them an authorship on your paper and then send them your paper with a timeline of when to get back to you.

This way you are not burning bridges and you are collegial. Then they can decide if they want to be on the paper or not.

It is a tough position to be in but given their paper got you thinking it is probably best to ask if they would like to be an author.

BTW, if you are a student, discuss with your supervisor. :-)

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You wouldn't offer them authorship if their paper was published and you built on it; why should you just because their paper isn't published? –  ff524 Jun 13 at 13:10
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Because you reviewed their paper and shot it down. :-) –  brechmos Jun 13 at 13:11
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That has nothing to do with authorship –  ff524 Jun 13 at 13:12
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Why not do the whole thing together? Email telling them you know how to solve the problem, and propose to work it out together. –  Davidmh Jun 13 at 13:43
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It depends on how authorship goes in the OP's field and how collegial the original author might be. If the OP has already figured out the solution, then, my feeling is that the OP should write up most of the paper and then contact the original author. If the OP only has "an idea how toward the solution" but not the solution, then, sure, maybe contact the original author and discuss how they could solve it. But it sounds like the OP has the solution. It is a balance, no question there. –  brechmos Jun 13 at 13:46

Co author.... all the way. But don't ask if he wants to coauthor after you've completed the paper 100% because then you're not really asking, your telling him. Which is generous true... but in a sort of superior way.

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This is a good point. As an author, I'd be much happier to be asked "Would you like to work with me on the following idea? I've got some promising preliminary results, so perhaps we could write a joint paper." than told "I decided to work on the problem myself and have finished writing a better paper. Shall I add your name to it too?" –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 13 at 19:10

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