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My question is similar to this one

I am an editor for a lousy paper and I found a better algorithm than theirs. Must I share it with them?

although there are some small distinctions that (I think) make for a different question, which I write below:

I was a referee for a paper submitted to a high-caliber journal. For two cycles, I had recommended "major revision" because I felt like the problem was a useful one, but the writing was a mess and the methodology was needlessly complicated. After the third revision, I recommended "reject" because I worked through some analysis on my own, over the course of a couple of months, that the methodology was actually fatally flawed in a way that made the manuscript unpublishable for this particular journal. I shared this finding with the authors and they were understandably upset (and quite contentious about it), but they did not identify any flaws in my reasoning. The editor wrote me a note to thank me for an "extremely thorough and helpful" review.

In the time that has passed since then (just under a year), I have continued refining the analysis that I did, to the point where I now have a result of my own that is probably publishable in a lower-tier journal. The authors of the original paper have not made their manuscript available online, with the exception that the contents of the original paper are one of the chapters of the student co-author's dissertation, which is publicly available on the university's website.

Is it ethical for me to submit my paper to a journal, citing the dissertation and giving it credit for introducing the problem? On the one hand, the material that inspired me to study this problem has been made public, but on the other hand, I feel guilty for the amount of time that the authors spent on revisions that were ultimately fruitless, and this could lead to the original paper having a much more difficult path to eventual publication (somewhere).

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    I think the ethics here depends greatly on how much time has elapsed. Within a year is really soon. – A Simple Algorithm Jun 5 '18 at 5:26
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    One way to avoid the ethical difficulties might be to approach the authors and suggest a collaboration? (not sure if there are other ethical difficulties here - may depend on whether anybody doubts that the original rejection was in good faith) – Flyto Jun 5 '18 at 12:15
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Is it ethical for me to submit my paper to a journal, citing the dissertation and giving it credit for introducing the problem?

Yes.

On the one hand, the material that inspired me to study this problem has been made public,

Yep, that sounds like a winning argument to me. If it’s public, then anyone may use it as inspiration for new research. Credit must be given to the source of course, as you yourself say you intend to do. The fact that you came to learn of the ideas through your work as a reviewer a year ago is irrelevant and I see no good argument in favor of disclosing it. The ideas are now public, period.

but on the other hand, I feel guilty for the amount of time that the authors spent on revisions that were ultimately fruitless,

Guilt is sometimes a worthy emotion, but I don’t see what role it has to play here. As the reviewer, you did your best to shepherd the paper along on its route to publication in the hope that it will reach the threshold of publishability, selflessly investing time and energy with no expectation of getting anything in return. Sadly, things didn’t work out that way, but it sounds like everyone involved acted in good faith and no one is to blame, least of all you. It would have been very different if you had developed the follow-up research while you were reviewing the paper and intentionally sabotaged its publication in order to publish your work first, but that’s clearly not what happened.

and this could lead to the original paper having a much more difficult path to eventual publication (somewhere)

That is too bad, but that is life. For you to voluntarily refrain from publishing a good scientific idea just to leave elbow room to other people who may or may not ever want/need/make use of it, would be damaging to yourself and (presumably) to the scientific community.

As for the idea of offering coauthorship to the authors of the original paper, that sounds like a reasonable option to me, but based on your account I don’t see that you have any ethical obligation to do so. In fact, depending on whether you feel they really deserve that type of credit, that may itself border on the unethical practice of gift authorship. Whatever you end up deciding, in my opinion coauthorship should not be offered as an act of charity or for irrelevant (even if true) reasons like “PhD students need to eat” as someone mentioned in a comment.

  • In general I agree, but the inspiration was not because the paper was public (most probably the OP would not be aware of its existence) but because the OP reviewed the paper. I hardly see it as irrelevant, although it may seem more like a legal argument... – PsySp Jun 6 '18 at 7:12
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    @PsySp OP the research by the student and his advisor is public, and OP is aware of its existence, and came by that knowledge through legitimate means. That is all that matters. He has no duty to disclose to anyone if he found the student’s dissertation while googling for videos of dancing cats, or if he was told about it by a friend, or, for that matter, if he found out about it by being a referee of an unpublished paper. Again, the study is public, and OP has precisely the same obligations towards its authors that anyone else would have, namely to cite them. – Dan Romik Jun 6 '18 at 7:40
  • I do not disagree, that is why I said that the issue of relevance may sound like a legal argument. One (I am devil's advocate) might say that OP got a head start precisely because he was reviewing the manuscript. Still I do not see any problem, but some might do. – PsySp Jun 6 '18 at 8:33
  • Thanks, it was an easy decision to accept this answer since the others either made incorrect inferences ("You must have done a shoddy job reviewing the paper") or ridiculous conclusions ("You should have recused yourself after the paper was rejected, and you committed a thoughtcrime by continuing to think about the problem") – Chuck Newton Jun 6 '18 at 18:16
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You should have recused yourself from reviewing the paper once you started working on the same topic if you had an intent to publish.

To not have done so represents a conflict of interest. How would you like it if someone did the same to you? Probably you would be outraged, particularly if the opposing paper appeared first and "scooped" yours. The publication of the thesis may make it "look" better, but not if the submission of the manuscript follows closely on its heels.

If you had done the work only to show that the existing manuscript was flawed—with no attempt of publishing your own work later on—that wouldn't have been a problem.

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    Once you started working on a competing version of the problem, the COI began. The last review where you recommended reject is the issue, if you planned to publish your own paper. – aeismail Jun 5 '18 at 1:44
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    There was no "re-review". It was rejected, and then several months later, I started working on it out of mere curiosity. – Chuck Newton Jun 5 '18 at 1:51
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    Please don’t scoop PhD students. They need to eat. At least extend the courtesy of co-authorship so both parties benefit. – HEITZ Jun 5 '18 at 3:37
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    My reading of the question is that the only work the OP did on the problem while reviewing the paper was work intended to evaluate the paper's methodology. Only after the recommendation to reject did the OP start doing additional work, which now might have reached a publishable level. If that's indeed the order in which things happened, then I don't see that the OP did anything wrong. – Andreas Blass Jun 5 '18 at 3:44
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    @AndreasBlass, your reading is exactly what happened. – Chuck Newton Jun 5 '18 at 5:26
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I'd reach out to the original authors, explain the situation and offer them a co-authorship. Once you have the manuscript ready to submit, that is.

Your post leaves unclear whether you would've thought of this problem and solution if you had not reviewed the paper initially. I think you would not have (otherwise I don't really see whether the ethical problem is, and you would have also recused yourself from reviewing the article), so it makes sense to give credit where credit is due. This holds for your method of solving as well - would you have come up with this if you had not read their solution first?

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    With respect, I think your solution is slightly short-sighted though well-meaning. Some problems with it: (1) Considering that OP has previously shared some of the analysis, the authors may easily determine his identity as reviewer, breaking the blindness of review. (2) By extension, any time a reviewer can make an incremental addition to an article, he could reject it on some ground (instead of recommending revision) and contact the authors with a co-author ship request, thus securing a diluted version of gift authorship. – user153812 Jun 5 '18 at 14:32
  • Also, before it is stated that this isn't gift authorship since the reviewer has actively contributed, I'd like to state that reviewer contributions(to whatever extent) are voluntary and must be offered gratis in every sense. – user153812 Jun 5 '18 at 14:40
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    Of course when going this route OP would disclose his identity as reviewer - a price OP will have to pay anyway if (s)he wants to publish. I think your point (2) here is irrelevant as long as the addition isn't incremental. – Designerpot Jun 5 '18 at 15:11
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This is a tricky question, partly because there are so many different factors involved. At the crux of the matter, you are concerned with ethics. So you may ignore the fortituous fact that part of this is published in an open thesis. Your work was done before you knew of the thesis, so you may not use it as justification on ethical grounds.

Given the facts of the case as you present them, your first mistake is that you did a shoddy initial review. If you had the capability and time to do your own analysis, you should have done so in the first review itself (or if the writing was really bad, in the second review certainly).


EDIT: I do not mean to suggest, as some commentors interpret, that you should always do your own analysis for verification. But if you could do it in the third round, you could have done it earlier as well


By waiting until the third round, you didn't do justice to your role as reviewer, a role you voluntarily assumed. The resulting wastage of time and potential frustration for the authors could have been avoided.

The second ethical mistake would be publishing this analysis. Remember, you would not have had access to this idea had you not been entrusted with the review. (This is where it's important to ignore the later finding of thesis). The fact that you consider it 'probably' worthy of a lower tier journal should indicate to you that your contribution is not very significant; after all, you got the seed of the idea elsewhere, and you still didn't make it good enough to be published in the original target journal. Certainly you have made a contribution- but do you believe it is adequate to be published?

Remember, review is an honorary contribution. The 'thank you' from editor ought to be an adequate extra reward.

  • We do not know which field the author is from, but expecting the reviewers to repeat the analysis in a paper is in most cases wishful thinking. In an ideal world this would happen, however in reality, reviewers have to spend their own time on evaluating papers. The best these reviewers can do in these cases is assess the presented data for plausibility. Is this a good situation? No, but if reviewers are intended to reproduce the results, they will need the formal time and funds/resources to do so. – DetlevCM Jun 5 '18 at 13:47
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    I find it hard to express how strongly I disagree with this. Actually proving there's a fatal flaw in a paper is really difficult to do as a reviewer, especially when the paper is difficult to read in the first place. As for the journal tier to publish in - maybe this idea should not be published this high in any case? – Designerpot Jun 5 '18 at 13:52
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    @DetlevCM - Two points of clarification are in order : (1) Proving existence of a flaw/performing own analysis is not necessary and I never suggested this. (2) OP chose to do so anyhow, thus he had the time and resources. I don't then see why it could not have been earlier, potentially saving some rounds of review. – user153812 Jun 5 '18 at 14:21
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    Good observation of when should the reviewer start to pay attention; and the increasing interest in the matter over the review period is very problematic here. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth to shoot down a paper that gave you an idea that grew increasingly and then start to work on this idea which you wouldn't have without the review. Basically, a paper under review should be considered as if one is unaware of its existence. Ultimately, the question thus boils down to answering: Would the OP have looked for the student thesis without the review? – Captain Emacs Jun 5 '18 at 14:36
  • @Designerpot - I've responded to your first point in the above comment. As for the journal tier- it's not just the tier, but the ambivalence along with the lower tier that suggests that work may not be significant enough. In any case, that is left as an open question to OP since only he can decide that, not you or me. – user153812 Jun 5 '18 at 14:36

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