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I am observing from some distance the following situation.

Two young mathematicians -- call them A and B -- submitted a paper to a quite strong journal and indicated a much senior colleague C as a possible handling editor. The corresponding author of the paper is A. Several month later C writes to B alone and hints that (s)he might decline the handling because of a conflict of interests. After some astonished requirements from B, C states plainly that the reason is the pending review for the same journal (s)he is awaiting from B. Since, in C's opinion, B is working too slowly on the review, (s)he, C, can't conceive how (s)he will be hurrying the reviewers of B's (and A's!) paper. In C's opinion, this constitutes the conflict of interests.

I have several questions about this situation.

  1. (Definition) Is the trivial fact that C got annoyed by B not corresponding to C's expectations (B gets of course no money for reviewing) sufficient to constitute a conflict of interests?
  2. (Strategy) What are A&B's options concerning their paper? It is pretty clear that B will now finish the review of this not-particularly-nice-to-review (unnecessary long, very heavy, very technical, not that exciting results) paper for C as the first priority. But will this save their own submission to this journal? C most probably has good memory; (s)he can decline the publication anyway. Would it be better to withdraw the paper right away?
  3. (Ethics) Some details in C's behavior are suspicious. Why didn't (s)he claim the conflict of interests immediately when (s)he got the paper of A&B on the table? At that point, B has been already reviewing the paper for C. Why is C writing only to B? To me, it looks like C is blackmailing B: now C gets from B what (the review) and when (quickly) (s)he wants and frees themselves from all work concerning A&B's paper. This way, C is "punishing" B (and btw A who has nothing to do with this review) for not standing to C's expectations by prohibiting the publication of their really nice result in a really good journal. Am I too paranoid here? Should A&B write to editor-in-chief?
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    Why did B accept to review a paper if B did not plan to do so? – Bryan Krause Jan 8 at 21:57
  • Ask C whether he/she can transfer the paper to a different editor. – user151413 Jan 8 at 21:58
  • @BryanKrause: how did you come to your conclusion about B's plans? – tchao Jan 18 at 19:52
  • @tchao Because one of the plans you suggest is that B actually finish the review for C plus a list of reasons this task is no fun: "unnecessary long, very heavy, very technical, not that exciting results"; the implication is that otherwise they would not, or would not prioritize it. It seems rude to me to agree to review a paper, find it is "technical"(isn't every paper?) or too long (if it's too long, mention this in the review), and then put it off. Why shouldn't reviewers do the same to A and B's paper? – Bryan Krause Jan 18 at 23:44
  • @BryanKrause: unfortunately, I can't understand your idea about the implication. Your first sentence does not even make sense to me grammatically: "would not" -- do what?. (The problem might be very well with me, not with your writing.) And why do you believe that B put the paper off? – tchao Jan 23 at 13:10
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  1. No, agreeing to peer review a paper for an editor would never cause the editor to have a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest would only occur if the author somehow incentivized the editor to make a decision on a paper. B providing (or failing to provide) a peer review is not an incentive to an editor, and it is unrelated to the decision on the paper written by A and B.

  2. If C declines to handle the paper, some other editor will handle it. This likely has no effect on you. Probably it is best to do nothing for now. I suggest that you not request C as handling editor in the future since they seem unprofessional.

  3. If C were to directly violate the journal's policies, you might complain to the editor in chief, but it does not appear that has happened. Don't complain now.

If C said "I will not handle your paper because you did not complete your peer review" then no, you are not being paranoid. If C said "You should not complain that your paper has not been handled because you did not complete your peer review" then you are being paranoid.

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    If the editor says that they feel like they have a conflict of interest, then they do have a conflict of interest. Maybe they shouldn't feel conflicted, but you can't say "would never cause the editor to have a conflict of interest". – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 9 at 16:12
  • I agree with @WolfgangBangerth . It's just just whether there is a conflict of interest but could there be the appearance of a conflict of interest? Let's say the reviews for A&B's paper come in as a reject and a weak approval and decides to reject it. A&B could complain that the editor had a conflict of interest bc of the delay of the other review. – mkennedy Jan 9 at 21:23
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    @WolfgangBangerth If you define conflict of interest based on emotions instead of facts, then your definition is totally arbitrary. We have had quite a few posts here with absurd feelings of conflict of interest. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 10 at 1:17
  • @AnonymousPhysicist That's how this goes. If someone feels conflicted, then that's a conflict. (There are of course also objective criteria: If I'm asked to review a paper by my wife, then that's also a conflict.) – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 11 at 16:05

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