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I am part (working part time) of a research project that is funded by the government in another European country (not the one I live in). As part of my contract with that project, I'm required to submit a manuscript reporting the research to a peer-reviewed journal by a deadline.

However, because of unforeseen circumstances (mainly related to methods that didn't work as expected), the manuscript was not ready for submission by the deadline. In fact, it received very critical responses when presented at a conference earlier this year, and it is clear that major changes have to be done before it is ready to submit. That conference is organised by the same association that publishes the two journals that I had in mind when writing the paper, so I think that I should heed their advice.

Yet, I'm being forced to submit it by the deadline or I will face a fine. My co-author, who is from that other country, has been very clear that I have to submit the article, period. That co-author has been very helpful in buying me time, but the changes needed are very time demanding (I need to basically re-do the whole study), and I'm not working full time on that project.

What is the most sensible thing to do? Can I just submit it anyway? I thought about sending it to a journal where I expect it to be desk-rejected just to fulfill my contract, and then do the necessary changes to submit to the journal I originally intended to send it to. Would it be ethical? What other options do I have?

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    Is the JofUR an option? – Davidmh Nov 25 '15 at 15:05
  • I wish it was, but I guess it has to be a real journal (one that publishes papers). – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 15:06
  • What about the sort of journal that will publish anything so long as you pay them? Most will claim to be peer-reviewed if anybody asks. – Simon B Nov 25 '15 at 16:04
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    @SimonB It is not the type of thing that I would like to see published, specially when I know that, if I didn't have the deadline, I would be able to make the changes and publish it where I originally intended to. – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 16:22
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    If all negotiations failed, I think it is time to consider also the possibility of paying the fine. Is the possibility to have a good paper instead of a crap one (don't forget your scientific record) worth the fine (maybe also think through a couple of scenarios depending on what source of money can be used for the fine, or will it just be subtracted from the project money)? – cbeleites Nov 25 '15 at 17:34
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Contracts for scientific research can often be thought of as having two components:

  1. A set of "minimum requirement" fixed deliverables that you must accomplish or else face penalties, and
  2. A set of actual goals, which may or may not be able to be accomplished as anticipated, given the uncertainties of every sort of interesting research.

Typically, the fixed deliverables are things like "write annual reports" and "create a prototype implementation of X" that should be able to be accomplished as long as the research is progressing well.

"Submit a paper on this research," on the other hand, is a foolish requirement to have in a contract, because whether a paper should be submitted at a particular time or not is very dependent on context. For example, you might have been doing wonderfully, but then be unable to submit as anticipated because of related work that other people have published in the mean time. It is for this reason that in my contracts I typically propose something more vague like, "communicate with scientific community on results of the research" and put the fixed deliverable as reports to the funder on what we've done.

So something's already rather screwy in your contract, and you need to deal with it. I think the most important thing to figure out is whether the pressure to fulfill the letter of the contract is coming from a program manager who cares about the research or an accountant who does not. Talk to the leaders of the project and see if they can figure out, because my recommended path depends on which it is:

  • If the pressure to publish comes from an accountant or similar "box-ticking" authority who does not actually care about the research, only about fulfilling the ridiculous contract, then I would recommend fulfilling the technicality by asking something like Nature or Science to desk-reject your manuscript. Confirm the plan with your co-authors and others on the team, and make it clear what you are doing in your cover letter, and I'm certain they will provide you the rejection you desire without doing any significant damage to your career.
  • If the pressure to publish comes from a program manager who actually cares about the research, then you are in a much more difficult situation, and the desk rejection ploy is unlikely to satisfy them. At the same time, the program manager could likely grant an exception to the contract to allow you to not submit. In this case, I think that it is important to understand why there is so much pressure to submit (perhaps it signifies that the whole project or program is in trouble?), and for the project leaders to negotiate with the program manager. If they've already done so and failed... well, you're stuck in a bad situation.

If you're in the second situation, negotiations have failed, and you really must submit, I would recommend not submitting results that you believe should not be published. That is the sort of thing that can haunt you for your career. Instead, I would recommend submitting the part that you are comfortable with---the study design---in a paper that clearly and honestly says this is all that is done right now and puts the completion of the new study into future work. Make sure that anything you submit is something that you would actually be OK with seeing in print if it does get through the peer review process, and make it clear in your cover letter that you are aware that this is preliminary and will be happy to accept a decision by the editors to either proceed or not.

And then never accept a contract with such a horrible clause in the future.

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    It all boils down to me accepting such a contract, but it is my first research contract of such type and I was foolish to sign it. I can't negotiate with the administrators handling it due to they speaking another language, being in another country, at a university I have not been to. I know that these things alone should have raised red flags, but my co-author who has double affiliation with my institution is someone whom I trust and who has been helpful through all the process. – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 15:30
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    @Kenji Then either your co-author should be willing to work with you regarding something like the solutions that I propose, or else they keep pressuring you and you should re-evaluate the degree to which you trust them. – jakebeal Nov 25 '15 at 15:48
  • I think I will first try to talk about these solutions with my co-author. Your advice seems sound. – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 15:50
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    @Kenji Don't beat yourself up over the contract, either: it's easy to make mistakes like that early in your career. I've certainly made some myself. – jakebeal Nov 25 '15 at 15:51
  • Thanks for the comforting comment. I try to look at the bright side and learn a lesson from it. – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 15:52
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I am rather shocked by what I perceive as the utter stupidity of the contractual requirement to submit your work by a predetermined deadline regardless of whether you have actually produced any work of publishable quality. I will analyze your question from a theoretical ethics perspective, since on the practical level there are already some good suggestions. The way I see it, you are in a uniquely peculiar situation in which almost all options available to you are unethical in one way or another. Specifically:

  1. The option to submit research that you know to be flawed with the intention that it gets rejected is very clearly unethical. You would be putting the editor, and possibly a reviewer, through the trouble of handling your submission only so that you can satisfy your contractual requirement. I would see such an action as a clear abuse of the academic publication system and would look very negatively on a person doing such a thing. (As others have pointed out, there can also be a real risk that your paper may actually be accepted, which would perhaps have even worse consequences for your career and raise its own quite serious ethical concerns.)

  2. The option to submit the flawed article (or a satire of an article, as in emory's answer) along with a request that it be desk-rejected (and an explanation of your motivation) is a bit better, since it is unlikely to cause a very large burden to the editor handling your "submission". However, it is still essentially a form of spam, and as such mildly unethical. Depending on how high your ethical standards are, you may feel (rightly, in my opinion) that a contractual obligation requiring you to degrade yourself and inconvenience another person in such a way is itself unethical.

  3. The option to decide not to submit an article describing the flawed research and pay the fine is unfair to you, and as such, also unethical (hurting yourself raises ethical issues that are quite real and may in fact be no less severe than the ethical issues associated with hurting other people). It may be a minor thing and unimportant to you in the grand scheme of things, depending on the size of the fine, but remember, I'm analyzing the situation from a theoretical point of view.

Finally, I can think of two approaches that don't require you to do anything even a little bit unethical, but they both have their downsides:

  1. You can contact the government agency to whom this contractual obligation was made (and other parties who are signatories to the contract), explain the situation clearly and honestly, and ask them to waive or modify the requirement to submit the paper by the prescribed deadline. As stupid as this requirement is, the people who proposed it are still human beings, hopefully with some common sense, so I think there is a chance that you can get them to agree that this is a requirement that might have been entered into in good faith but simply does not make any sense in the current situation (this happens frequently with contracts, where some assumption was made that turns out later not to apply and the contract needs to be changed or reinterpreted). They have authority to modify the terms of your contract, and if they agree to do so you will be in the clear and the problem will go away.

    The downside of this approach is that it would be bothersome and time-consuming to explain the situation to all the parties involved (if you can even easily find out who is the right person you need to talk to), and in the end they may turn out to be stubborn and mindless bureaucrats and simply refuse to cooperate.

  2. Alternatively to 4 (or in addition to 4 if you tried that and that didn't work), you have the option to not submit the paper and not pay the fine. This probably sounds like a dangerous thing to do, and it may in fact be a dangerous thing to do. However, from a purely theoretical perspective I claim that this is the most ethical action of the ones I proposed. In the law there is the concept of an unconscionable contract, which is a contract or contractual obligation that is morally or ethically unjust and therefore is held to be legally invalid. I am not a lawyer, but I believe the requirement you have described is precisely an example of such a contractual obligation, and ethically speaking I feel you would be completely within your rights to ignore it. This may even be a position that would be defensible in court, but since I'm not a lawyer I can't advise you about that. Of course, it's important to emphasize that practically speaking, such a move may very well be ill-advised and could lead to all sorts of negative consequences for you.

    By the way, it is possible that some people will counter that since you entered into the contract knowingly, the argument that the requirement is unconscionable is not valid (or less valid). I believe this is false -- in fact, the nature of unconscionable obligations is that by definition they are invalid even if entered into knowingly. Moreover, in your comment you stated that "It all boils down to me accepting such a contract, but it is my first research contract of such type and I was foolish to sign it. I can't negotiate with the administrators handling it due to they speaking another language, being in another country, at a university I have not been to." I believe this is a very good explanation and would in my opinion absolve you of any hypothetical responsibility that might be ascribed to you otherwise, even discounting my claim above that unconscionable obligations cannot be entered into even knowingly.

To summarize, from the practical point of view your best options are probably 4 (if it works), 3, or 2. Option 5 is theoretically the most appealing to me, but I recognize it's not very practical. Option 1 is unacceptable and I would advise you to avoid using it under any circumstances.

I'm not sure this answer will be helpful to you in a practical sense, but I hope this theoretical analysis may be helpful to you or someone else (and I am happy to debate the points I made above if anyone thinks they see a flaw in my reasoning). I certainly found it very interesting to think about this peculiar situation.

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If you don't submit a manuscript to a journal you will get fined? What would Marshawn Lynch do in this situation?

Prepare a manuscript titled "I am just submitting this manuscript so I won't get fined". I am not sure it is necessary to write anything more than the title. Submit. Do not be surprised if your manuscript gets rejected without review.

  • The contract says that I have to submit an article about the research that was proposed in the grant application. I would at least need to have the right title. – Kenji Nov 25 '15 at 19:55

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