A biomedical research area is led worldwide by a certain research group in a particular famous university. They are very productive and advanced, with numerous postgraduate students worldwide, with whom they keep cooperating after their PhDs are finished. They also cooperate with other important universities that have entered their research area. They were basically the pioneers in their area, and put in the public domain some data that is a reference in the field.

Anyone submitting a paper in the same research area will:

  1. Use their vast data set (public domain).

  2. Have reviewers assigned that belong to, or have belonged to this group.

I accuse these reviewers of systematically rejecting the manuscripts they review, in order to:

  1. Bulldoze other groups' advances in the field, thus keeping their dominance.

  2. Get their own postgrads working on the ideas of the papers they are reviewing, where a strategy of taking too long to review (and reject) the papers fits well.

What can I do, in order to overcome this predicament?

Of course most of the magazines allow for the authors to list a set of people they would prefer not having as reviewers, but in this case this group contains many researchers, scattered around the world, and there seems to exist a great level of cooperative work and well established alliances.

  • 1
    Find sympathetic editors and work around them or find a new field. Welcome to science. – user120011 Apr 24 '20 at 16:11
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    It kind of sounds like you're posing an inherently unsolvable problem. "Assume the enemy is omniscient and omnipotent. How can we win?" Well, tautologically, you can't. But you might want to question those assumptions. – Nate Eldredge Apr 24 '20 at 16:52
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    Do you have evidence that this has actually happened or are you speculating that it might? – Buffy Apr 24 '20 at 17:51
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    Move to a side field and infiltrate from there. – Captain Emacs Apr 24 '20 at 21:47
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    I am surprised about all these comments that events like that are "rare". Yes, they are rare in the sense that a street mugging is rare, but these things do happen and people and careers get hurt if not in the in-group. I think dismissing the OP's predicament as rare/not evidenced/not really happening in that form is not helpful. In any way, it is a good idea to make a sideways move to an adjacent field where the publication is not controlled by said group. – Captain Emacs Apr 24 '20 at 21:52

The vast majority of scientists are ethical people. To claim that every single one in that group is unethical to the point that they gratuitously reject other people's papers does not comport with my view on my fellow scientists.

My approach to getting papers rejected is to make an honest assessment of why the paper was criticized, and then to set out to write better papers. Statistically, journals reject about 2/3 of all papers, so having a world view of "My paper was just not well enough written" is at least not incompatible with empirical evidence, and I find that a far easier perspective on life than to have to assume that all of my colleagues are unethical people.

All of this isn't to say that it never happens that someone behaves unethically -- it almost certainly does -- but that the assumption that everyone does is probably wrong and, moreover, that it's not productive to think that way because there is nothing you could do about your fate if that were so. A growth mindset in which you take setbacks as an opportunity to learn and do better -- regardless of the reasons for the setback -- is, in the long run, a more productive approach.

  • I had a comment about how this isn't unethical but I expanded it to an answer instead. – user120011 Apr 29 '20 at 16:46

What can the manuscript proponents do, in order to overcome this predicament?

Publish preprints to claim priority for your ideas.


There is a good reason to have a high bar to clear for work that isn't in line with the currently accepted scientific standard for a field. This behavior is not inherently unethical. It does, however, suck for people trying to get into a field. It is magnified by the pyramid effect that occurs when an entire subfield is incestuously related through a single major lab. Everyone from that group gets the benefit of the doubt on their work and you don't.

The way in is to find a sympathetic editor and get them to load a reviewer pool with people who are not from the monolith and will give you a fair shake. This is what networking at conferences is for, and doing so is your PI's job. You are not at the career stage where this nonsense is your problem. It isn't the fault of you or your work. It's the fault of your PI to have given you this project in this field they don't have a footprint in and no plan on how to fix that. They've been doing this long enough that they should have known how the science world works.

  • PhD students need papers published. In the relatively short project time span. Simple. The PI only can do so much about it in a wider grand plan of things – Duarte Apr 30 '20 at 22:30
  • The actual job of the PI is to have a plan. This problem you're having was very foreseeable (as a PI; as a PhD student you'd never have any reason to know about it). If the PI didn't have a plan they failed at their job and they failed you. There's not much a student can do when an advisor fails. – user120011 Apr 30 '20 at 22:59

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