January 16, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Dirty dozen easy steps to killing a paper during review: elephant in the lab series

elephant in the room

Here is the second installment in my “elephant in the lab” series, which addresses controversial or even taboo topics in laboratories and the sciences.

The first segment was on taboo topics in the iPS cell field. People loved the honesty of that post.

Today I am talking about how sometimes scientists kill each other’s papers during review and specifically how they do this. This is a hot topic in labs around the world and everyone knows this happens on a regular basis, but people generally avoid talking about it publicly.

This has happened to me many times in my career, but I can honestly say I’ve never done it to any one else as a reviewer.

In fact, I hate this, but it happens so often that people need to talk about it and editors especially need to be on the look out for it. They need to have the backbone to stand up to it.

Unfortunately, some scientists, in fact more than any of us would like to think, do not review papers properly. They sometimes let petty issues guide their decisions. A few of these reviewers even actively seek to delay or kill their competitors’ papers. Editors are often not up to the task of challenging reviewers who commit “chartacide” (paper killing).

How is that possible? What steps would a reviewer specifically take to kill a paper in review?

Sadly, most of us are all too familiar with many of the steps involved because such reviewers have done this to us and to our papers in the past. Over the years my colleagues have mentioned some of their own reviewing misdeeds to me as well. In an older sad but funny post, I called such a hypothetical reviewer “Dr. No”, who often also successfully bullies editors and kills papers.

For maximum effect, these steps are written in the voice of Dr. No as satire to try to delay and kill a paper.

1) Agree to review the paper even though you hate the guts of the senior author. I’m sure you can be impartial. Also wonder to yourself at why they didn’t exclude you as a reviewer. Suckers. Seriously, does anyone really decline to review a paper for the reason that they can’t be impartial? That’s the best reason to review a paper!

2) Don’t even look at the paper until you get an email notice saying the review is overdue. You are a busy person and this is not a priority for you. They can wait.

3) When you finally look at the paper, first thing upon opening the file, before doing anything else, follow this little known secret: start at the end of the manuscript and go in reverse order. Start by examining the references. Use the PDF search tool to look for your name and/or the names of the first authors of papers from your lab. Did the authors of this paper you are reviewing cite your work? If not, you should already be getting pretty peeved by this point.

4) While thinking about citations, be sure to mention in detail in your review that the authors should cite X, Y, and Z papers of your nemesis in the same field (check the reference list and pick out ones that they did not cite from this enemy) so that the authors believe your nemesis was the one who reviewed their paper. Ha! Never, ever suggest in a review that someone cite your papers because in so doing you are tipping them off that you are the reviewer. How amateurish.

5) Still going in reverse order, now move on to the figures.  How do they look? Doesn’t matter. Write in your review that “the figures are of poor quality”. Don’t be more specific than that.

6)  Moving on, do not read the text (maybe at most skim it), but do be sure to say “the paper is poorly written.” Scientists are bad writers mostly so you can be pretty confident the paper is poorly written, right?

7 ) Suggest the authors make a new knockout mouse for their revision or obtain a published one, preferably one that only your lab has and then when they ask you for it, don’t respond at all to the email. Snap! Or ask them to derive a new cell line or redo ChIP-Seq studies with an entirely new antibody. Basically, find something that’ll take months or years to do, and make it sound important that the authors do that. The editor won’t challenge you on it 99% of the time.

8 ) Indicate that the title of the paper be changed. This really pisses everyone off.

9) The more similar the paper is to your own unpublished work, the more strongly say how it is lacking novelty. You are already working in this area making their work not so novel, correct? Only the best should work on this and you are the best.

10) In your private comments to the editor say “This paper would be more appropriate for a specialized journal” even if the journal you are reviewing for is a specialized journal. The editor will interpret it to mean their journal is too good for this paper.

11) In your comments to the authors, do not say much of anything that they actually can practically and specifically address. Be as general and vague as possible. Avoid using extreme adjectives as this is one thing that might raise a red flag with an editor.

12) Also in your comments to the authors, be sure to include at least one positive sentence to make yourself seem balanced. For example, you might start your whole review by saying something like “This manuscript addresses area X, which is a very interesting and important open question…”

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