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.
- (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?
- (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?
- (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?