31

I recently reviewed a manuscript for a journal I didn't know very well, but which was indexed on Pubmed and Scopus and seemed to be legitimate. In my review, I recommended rejection based on what I considered to be substantial flaws in methodology, data analysis, and interpretation. In addition, I had ethical concerns about the manuscript, including suspicions of self-plagiarism and possible copyright infringement. It seemed that the authors had inappropriately reused text, data, and figures from an article that they had previously published in another journal. I detailed all of these concerns in my report to the editor.

After an automated response from the editor acknowledging receipt of my review, I heard nothing from the journal for 3-4 months. Out of curiosity, I looked online and was surprised to find that the manuscript was already in print! In fact, it had been published less than 2 months after I submitted my review, and the published version is essentially identical to the draft version I reviewed.

I have since made multiple attempts to contact the editor, but have received no response. To be clear, I certainly understand that the editorial team may not agree with my review, but I have been quite disappointed to have received no response to address the scientific and ethical issues I raised. If nothing else, in my experience (and I realize this may be a niche-specific expectation) an editor for any reputable journal will keep reviewers apprised of the editorial progress of manuscripts they have reviewed.

Some readers have asked whether this is an online open-access journal with article processing charges, but instead it is a subscription-based journal. Thus, the journal and publisher are not eligible for inclusion on Beall's List (scholarlyoa.com).

Are there any other steps I can or should take? Anyhow, if I continue to be ignored by the editor, I am considering sharing this information with the editorial board of the journal that published the original paper (the one that I think may have been self-plagiarized).

  • 5
    One thing you can do is to copy your review comments on pubpeer.com – Cape Code Sep 18 '14 at 0:44
  • 5
    For what it's worth, even when reviewing for high quality journals (in mathematics), I've never been informed about the editor's decision. – Nate Eldredge Sep 18 '14 at 3:13
  • 4
    Is the publisher or the journal on Beall's list? – Roland Sep 18 '14 at 8:56
  • @NateEldredge Whereas in theoretical computer science, I'm often informed of the editor's decision. (At least, for journals; it seems normal not to inform the reviewers of the decision for conference papers.) – David Richerby Sep 18 '14 at 10:08
21

There may not be much you can do about the scientific issues. A profoundly wrong paper should be retracted, and a correction should be issued for anything serious that's objectively wrong and correctable. However, the problems you've identified (poor methodology and interpretation) may not definitively fall into these categories, depending on what exactly you mean. There's no ethical reason why a journal can't have low standards or publish controversial papers. The primary risk is that their reputation will suffer if they publish foolish papers.

It would indeed by unethical if they claim to be a peer-reviewed journal but aren't taking the review process seriously at all, and that sounds like what's going on here. However, it would be difficult to prove based on an outsider's view of one case. I imagine that if pressed, the editor would claim he/she evaluated the paper and your review and decided the paper was more credible. It would be hard to prove that there was an ethical problem, rather than just poor scientific judgment on the part of the editor.

On the other hand, the allegations of copyright infringement and self-plagiarism are ethical issues that transcend journal standards or policies. That might be a good place to begin, and perhaps more will come out during the investigation.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Your proposal to share this information with the editorial board of the previous journal sounds like a good idea. I'd contact the publisher directly as well as the editorial board.

  2. There may be an ethics committee in a relevant professional or learned society. They could conduct an impartial investigation, which might lead to public censure or a retraction.

  3. You could report these papers to the authors' funding agency, if any.

  4. You could report these papers to the authors' employers.

  5. You could publicize your experience on the web.

Among these possibilities, #1 and #2 seem most likely to make a difference regarding the journal, #3 and #4 might lead somewhere with the authors but wouldn't address the problematic nature of the journal, and #5 could be a valuable public service but is unlikely to change much by itself.

  • 2
    Given that the better journals have more submissions than they "have room for", the state described suggests that this is a for-profit "open access" journal, in the bad sense, so that they want to be able to claim "peer review", but also want to be able to publish as much as possible that's "been paid for". – paul garrett Sep 18 '14 at 0:38
  • 3
    @postdoc4J7: You're in the best position to know, of course, but if the manuscript has unacceptable overlap with a previous paper of the authors, they committed an ethical breach just by submitting it. They don't get to push the boundaries of self-plagiarism and rely on the referee to tell them it's not okay. – Nate Eldredge Sep 18 '14 at 3:17
  • 2
    @NateEldredge: to me the manuscript crossed that line, though I'd prefer for the judgment to be made by editors and publishers who have access to plagiarism detection software. – postdoc4J7 Sep 18 '14 at 3:37
  • 4
    @postdoc4J7 The point of plagiarism detection software is to find the needle in the haystack that matches the new submission. Since you already have the needle, so to speak, there's no need for the software: it's just a judgement call whether the previous paper has been self-plagiarized. – David Richerby Sep 18 '14 at 10:13
  • 7
    @postdoc4J7 My point is just that it's a judgement call, rather than something that software can do. My understanding is that the software just says, "Hey, this looks kinda similar to that" and then it's up to human beings to decide whether the similarity constitutes plagiarism. And, yes, it's not really a judgement call you can make, since you're just a referee and you've done all in your power. But the editors having plagiarism-detection software is somewhat moot at this stage. – David Richerby Sep 18 '14 at 12:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.