15

Reviewers are expert in their fields who can understand your work but are also potential competitors if they worked in the same field as you do. How frequent is a bad review from the reviewers due to the potential competition with your work so they can stall your publication?

For example, if you were a reviewer, would you be excited to learn that I have published research that are superior to yours or prove that your research direction was wrong? Another extreme example, if you were an HIV researcher/reviewer, how excited/horrible would you feel if I publish a cure for HIV and will be nominated for Nobel prize tomorrow and you will be sitting down there listening to my talk? What incentive do reviewers have to give out good/fair review?

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    Probably going to be far less often than all the other reasons you get a bad review: Work is actually bad; reviewer missed the point; reviewer didn't read; reviewer didn't have breakfast. I'd say don't worry too much about it, and focus on doing good work. – Matthew G. Jan 15 '14 at 0:54
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    I would really hope that HIV researchers are motivated by the desire for a cure to exist and would thus be delighted if anyone finds one, regardless of whether they personally were at all involved in the finding. – Tara B Jan 15 '14 at 1:51
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    That's what the editor is for. If the editor is good, he or she will recognise if a reviewer is unfair/dishonest, and not weigh their review much in the final decision. Moreover, the editor knows who the reviewer is and if a reviewer pulls this trick too often, he or she will get a poor reputation. – gerrit Jan 15 '14 at 10:28
  • @gerrit: I really encourage you to write this up as an answer, because the final decision lies with the editor, who is hopefully less biased and who has an interest in the overall quality of the journal. Trylks mentions this aspect in his answer, but more as an appeal mechanism. – Doru Constantin Jan 15 '14 at 12:28
  • @DoruConstantin Answer added. – gerrit Jan 15 '14 at 13:30
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In my experience:

If the editor is fair, it doesn't matter terribly much.

The decision to reject a paper is not taken by the reviewers. The decision is taken by the editor. The role of the reviewers is to give a recommendation, upon which the editor takes a decision. If a reviewer recommends rejection (or acceptance, for that matter), the editor is free to ignore this recommendation (this has happened to yours truly). If the editor suspects that a reviewer recommends rejection because of potential competition, or for any other improper reason, then the editor should not weigh this recommendation heavily. This is one of the reasons why there should always several reviewers — at least in my field (atmospheric remote sensing), I've only come across cases with two or three reviewers.

Secondly: The editor knows who the reviewer is. If a scientist makes a habit of recommending rejections for improper reasons, he or she will get a reputation among editors. Editors are usually well-known colleagues in the field, so you really don't want to be known as the envious guy (or gal) who will reject major works of research because it was not invented here. In the best case, they won't be asked as reviewers any more. In the worst case, it may harm a scientific career.

Perhaps the scenario described above is somewhat naive, but in those cases where I've either been a reviewer, or been corresponding author, it would apply. The same for open review papers (such as the geophysical journal, published by EGU, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics). It might be different in other fields, this I don't know. I hope that even in other fields, the editor does more than copy-paste and blindly follow whatever reviewers recommend.

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    With all due respect, I tend to think that no editor is so omnipotent that s/he can always see through any malicious intention of reviewers, regardless of how cleverly hidden they may be. I do think that it matters even if we assume that editors act fairly in good faith. Even a perfectly fair computer can give biased output if input is biased. And I'm not so sure that it's always easy to detect unfair referee reports. Besides, I think that the meaning of "fairness" is already somewhat ambiguous and may not be completely objective. – Yuichiro Fujiwara Jan 15 '14 at 13:42
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    @YuichiroFujiwara It doesn't have to be malicious. The editor can carefully look at each of the three reviews. Papers should be rejected in case of serious scientific errors, or if the work is not interesting enough / off-topic for the target journal. If one out of three reviewers rejects a paper based on serious errors, whereas the others don't, the editor should at least consider if he/she agrees. If a reviewer rejects based on work being not interesting... well, if the editor agrees it doesn't sound like highly competitive research either. I admit my experience is limited, though. – gerrit Jan 15 '14 at 13:48
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    I'm not going to get involved in a discussion. But here's some points: 1. I don't understand where you pulled off that number 3 about how many referees an editor uses; there are many cases where a single referee is used. 2. Even if multiple referees are used, they may all be biased due to malicious intent, jealousy, etc. 3. I don't think editors always read papers in detail or have abilities and expertise to judge their quality. If anything, that's one of the reasons referees are necessary. Sometimes editors aren't even academics (e.g., editors of high impact journals like Nature and Science). – Yuichiro Fujiwara Jan 15 '14 at 13:57
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    Not perhaps. It is different from field to field. Or more like journal to journal. There are high profile math journals that may use a single referee, and others try hard to get multiple reports. In physics, Phis. Rev. A uses a different number of referees depending on the type of submission. But the policy is different in other Phis. Rev. series. (cont...) – Yuichiro Fujiwara Jan 15 '14 at 15:03
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    This can achieve the goal of stalling your research, which is what OP is talking about — if it delays (rather than stops) publication, does it really delay the research? If it's major, don't researchers already communicate findings earlier through press releases, conferences, etc. — such as with the Higgs Boson, discovery of Earth-like exoplanets, or other major events? Research is usually already a bit old anyway by the time it's published and printed — does a delay in publication really delay major research that much? No papers means no funding, but are delayed papers a major problem? – gerrit Jan 15 '14 at 15:16
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How often is a bad review from the reviewers due to the potential competition with your work so they can stall your publication?

Clearly there is no hard data on that, but I would wager much less than people think that it happens. I can only echo Matthew G.s sentiment above - In my experience papers in my field (software engineering) are rejected because of (roughly in order):

  1. Bad method
  2. Bad writing
  3. Bad reviewer
  4. Bad idea
  5. Actively malicious reviewer

Of course, when people get a reject, it is much easier to conclude that bullet 3 or 5 happened than 1, 2 or even 4. However, that does not necessarily make it so.

In my experience, the way to achieve modest success in science is to do your best work, and accept that occasionally bad things will happen to you. Achieving success in science is a bit like playing poker. There are hands that you play well but another player gets undeservedly lucky, but over the course of an evening (or career), the bad players usually lose and the good players usually win.

7

It happens. Meanwhile, of course, it is difficult to document or argue about it... which is not surprising given that the people perpetrating this are not stupid, so will not leave themselves open to the simplest trail-of-damning-evidence.

The question of "how often?" is essentially impossible to answer, exactly because no one wants to, or would wisely, document such things...

But, yes, there is such a possibility, for sure, and it can have an impact. But, apparently, we are all to pretend that it is not happening, and to rationalize that there are other good reasons, etc. In terms of behavior-of-humans, this is similar to our collective rationalization that the seeming-issues seemingly-debated in politics touch reality directly. That is, there's scant purpose in rebelling too strongly, because then one disconnects from the actual process of "politics". On the other hand, it would induce insanity to believe too much that those things reflect sense or reality.

2

To echo Paul's statement above, it happens. To what extent just depends on unknown and incalculable variables. Odds are, if you are in the game for long enough, you'll hear about it, see it happen, and experience it.

The problem is that the field of study becomes increasingly narrow, and so the pool of people that can provide peer reviews likewise become increasingly narrow.

At some point, you'll even start to recognize the style of writing from blind feedback and can identify the author.

And, what will really tick you off is coming up with an original idea, telling a colleague about it, and then 6 months later see that idea become the title of an article written by someone in your field at another university.

That actually happened to me, and the title was verbatim. I'm still peeved about it.

2

This question cannot be answered, nobody knows how often this happens. If someone knew the answer it wouldn't be relevant anyway, because it would be ephemeral.

What we are talking about here is a form of corruption or perversion and pretending it's not happening or pretending it's impossible is the worst thing that can be done because that will only make it worse. Those who are corrupts get an advantage from a system that is not well designed for the present times, their behaviour is rewarded and so the system converges to a corrupt state.

Therefore it's important to fight corruption (and changing the system, but I don't want to go too offtopic). So, how can we minimise the risk for this so that it happens less often?

  • Preprints: arxiv.org (and similar services) can keep your preprints online, and they have become standard in some areas as physics (AFAIK). If reviewers try to publish papers that they have rejected the evidence is there, in the preprints server.
  • Open reviews: some journals have open and public reviews. The reviewer may still give a bad review based on personal interests but in this way that would be more obvious. Transparency is not a solution to corruption, but it helps.
  • Editors: if you have a problem with a reviewer you can raise your concerns to the editor. I have seen people doing this several times and they never had positive news on the result, but this is something that you can do in any case.
  • Choose wisely your venues: if the editor is not trustworthy (and the reviewers are anonymous) you may prefer to choose a different venue. In a free market (of papers and venues) with perfect information these venues should theoretically disappear after some time, but practice and theory are not the same (in practice).

There are probably more things that you can do, I hope more people will suggest some in the comments (actually I'm making this post a community wiki post, so feel free to edit). But in short, doing nothing about it (as other answers and comments seem to suggest) would be a very bad idea.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

PD: The reasons why the system is not well designed are long to explain, it has grown larger (there has never been so many people in academia in history), the fields have grown more specific, the world is more globalized, there is a stronger competition, etc.

PD2: I also agree that probably bad reviews are so because of other reasons, but one of them may be a bad reviewer or a reviewer having a bad day (as people seem to suggest), and what I suggest minimises the impact of this as well (e.g. open reviews).

Additionally we should consider how often papers that are "not that good" get a positive review for other hidden interests (friendship, they are on the same project, they promote the same approach/idea, etc.) this causes an unfair advantage and other papers may get rejected more easily.

2

It is fully possible situation. The editor tries to pick the most relevant reviewers, but these are also the most probable competitors, as they work on the same topic. If two near parallel research projects are close to publishing they results (and who will be first), yes, this is a problem. However if the works are different enough not to invalidate significance of each other, most of the reviewers will not be biased.

It even happened for me to observe the competing laboratory simply delaying the review for a long time (as this also delays the publication) and ultimately refusing to provide it, openly stating that "we are competitors".

As a result, many journals allow authors to provide a list of competitors that may not be capable of unbiased reviewing for that article. If some other laboratory is very much a competitor, or if have already been problems with such a reviewer in the past, the author should ask the editor to pick somebody else.

-2

Unfortunately, bad and/or fabricated reviews are common if you are in a competitive industry. It is harder and harder to find a genuine and unbiased reviewer who has no hidden interests or agendas. You can watch some industry forums, where writing service owners and freelance writers allegedly post misinformation or untrue statements about each other in order to discredit their competition.

Another thing, you need to be careful whom you entrust your research work. Even if they don't use it today, they may use it tomorrow (or they may change some details and claim authorship). Hopefully, I didn't scare you too much though ;).

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    Web site owners posting nasty reviews of one another is a completely different situation from academic peer review. – Nate Eldredge Jan 15 '14 at 2:37
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    if you are in a competitive industry Are you sure you are on the right site? We are Academia, not industry. The OP never mentions industry. – scaaahu Jan 15 '14 at 2:38
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    My point was that even academic peer reviewers may have a hidden agenda (just like politicians work with lobbyists to achieve a certain goal). The OP posted extreme examples so the goal of my reply was to look at the subject from a broader perspective too. – user10815 Jan 15 '14 at 2:47

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