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I have completed (my first) manuscript, which falls well within the scope of a particular journal.

However, a member of that journal's editorial board (or, to be precise, the editor's student) is aggressively advancing a model that, if valid, would essentially negate much of my work. At this time, the evidence for both competing models remains circumstantial, with the bulk of publications (but not quite a consensus) currently favouring my approach.

Of the individuals on that journal's editorial board, this editor works in the subdiscipline closest to mine, so my concern is that this person would be, from the journal's perspective, the most logical choice for my submission.

Is my unease over the possibility of editorial bias warranted?

What would be the most appropriate course of action in this case?


(Another potentially relevant note/complication: The work in which the editor is advancing this competing model is unpublished, and I am aware of it only because of word from colleagues. I received substantial evidence that the unpublished work exists; this is not based on hearsay. I note this because it makes it impossible to point out the potential for bias or a competing interest by referring to the extant corpus of literature.)

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    Well, in my field, people are relatively fair; but some fields have a very fierce competition which lets ethical considerations sometimes take a back seat. Nobody can really tell you what to do without some information about either the habits of the field or some knowledge about the personality of the editor. – Captain Emacs Feb 11 '16 at 3:55
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Many journals will allow you to suggest a handling editor, and pretty much every journal will allow you to specify reviewers that you believe should not review your paper due to conflict of interest. This is an appropriate situation to invoke these options.

Depending on the particular forms the journal uses for submission, the right place to put an explanation of your concern may be either the submission forms or the cover letter. You do not need to go into much detail, simply saying:

"Editor X's student is working on a competing model, so I am concerned about bias."

If you are dealing with an honorable journal, that should be enough: this is an entirely normal and reasonable concern you should not have to back this up with published evidence (people understand that scientists talk, pre-publication), nor do you need to denigrate the character of Editor X in any way. They have many editors for a reason, and many possible reviewers they can draw from as well, and every good scientist understands that it's usually better to be safe than sorry when it comes to dealing with conflict of interest concerns.

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Science progresses through the exchange of ideas and theories, the testing of those, and eventually the falsification of some and repeated confirmation of others. I think most scientists understand this process and that sometimes there are competing explanations for an effect that, absent conclusive evidence, are all valid descriptions and worthy of publication. Most scientists will also understand that these observations are true even in areas they themselves work in.

I have no reason to a priori believe that this would be different (i) for your particular field, (ii) for the particular member of the editorial board. In other words, I would give it a try. Alternatively, you can always contact the editor in chief of the journal, or maybe even the editor in question, and simply ask whether your paper would be welcome there. Their answer will already give you a good idea how they would perceive a possible submission of your work.

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    Moreover, what is the worst that could happen? It gets rejected. It is not a nice experience, but it will happen many many times when you stay in academia. If there are reviews, you look at them and learn how other people read your text. They may find some mistakes, or you find things that were unclear in your text. You improve your article and you submit it to another journal. – Maarten Buis Feb 11 '16 at 8:44
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    @MaartenBuis -- True, but you may have wasted several months if you know the outcome already. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 11 '16 at 21:38
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I wish this were not true, but to be quite honest, two important things to consider are how competitive your field is and how detrimental your work will be for the editor (or their student). I had a similar case, where I am quite sure who my reviewer was. I was also aware that they were trying to publish a paper that would lose a lot of "umph" after my paper got published. This reviewer kept recommending that I revise my paper, long after the other reviewer accepted it...until theirs was published. They accepted it immediately after.

However, in your case, it's not entirely clear that the editor has much to lose if you publish your paper. Yes, they have a model that directly competes with your model. But as you describe it, I believe your model is already accepted by the general community. So the publishing of your paper does not put them in a more difficult spot than they already are in. They may have a bias against your model, given their work is evidence against it, but as the editor, it is more difficult to reject your work; they are merely supposed to digest the reviewer's opinions (assuming they see it fit for review) and make their decision off that. Technically, they could reject your paper despite two accepts from the reviewer, but this would raise a lot of eyebrows. You could lose out on corner cases though (i.e. revise and resubmit + reject = reject in the editor's eyes, rather than revise and resubmit).

If there's another journal of equivalent reputation and correct subject area, you might try that first to avoid potential editor bias hurting you on the corner cases. But if it's a decision between that journal or one with the wrong subject matter/significantly lower reputation, I would venture to try that journal first unless you believe the editor has a lot to lose from you publishing your paper.

EDIT: other answers note that you could request a different editor, which is true. Personally, I would be slightly hesitant to do so. My reasoning is that by stating "I don't want X to review my work" is equivalent to saying "I'm quite certain that X will reject my work". Therefore, I would worry that this could be read the wrong way by whomever was assigned my submission (although this should be of little concern for a solid paper). With that in mind, I've never been an editor and I'm genuinely curious what experienced editors think of such requests.

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  • As an editor, I would have no problem with somebody saying they didn't want me to handle their work because they thought I would be prejudiced. I trust the other editors I work with the reject bad work. In fact, I'd probably never even be aware of it at all, because one of the editors-in-chief would probably just never put it in my queue. – jakebeal Feb 12 '16 at 2:13
  • @jakebeal: thanks for the response, but not quite my question. It's more that if you were an editor and you were given a manuscript to review because the authors requested that editor X does not review it, do you think that might given you a slightly negative first impression of the author? – Cliff AB Feb 12 '16 at 15:25
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    If they list one or two people they're concerned about conflict with, that's totally reasonable and I don't think I'd have any negative impression at all. If they list half of the important players in the field, I would definitely be concerned. – jakebeal Feb 12 '16 at 16:37
  • The editor could influence the process by choosing referees she thinks may be critical of the paper. Or by explicitly asking the referees to be extra critical. – Jim Conant Feb 21 '16 at 12:41
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For society journals in my field, it is common to select up to 3 editors, to suggest reviewers, and to exclude reviewers. The "editors" are typically distinct from the "editorial board"; the former is the small group that decide on the manuscript, and the latter is the large group that conduct many/most of the reviews.

A typical reason to exclude a reviewer is "direct competitor", which sounds appropriate in this case, and you should be able to exclude up to ~3 individuals (editors or reviewers) without any issue--as long as there remain high-level experts to review the manuscript.

If there is an editorial board as I described, in which the main reviewers are known, then you should make an effort to suggest reviewers from this board. This should provide assurance to the assigned editor that a fair review is attainable. If this journal does not publicize reviewers, then in your letter you might take extra effort to suggest some reviewers who are highly-regarded, key figures in the field.

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