Thursday, September 23, 2010

On fairness and the refereeing system

Recently, I have encountered one of those highly specific dangers particular to the sciences - being sniped by a concurrent publication.

While there is a great deal of collaboration in my field, there is also a fair amount of competition, arising mainly between facilities with similar experimental programs. This competition serves its purpose when approached in a friendly manner; results published by different groups using different facilities but studying the same reaction help to quickly converge on the real (physical) values desired. But it can sometimes lead to a conundrum, when two differing (though not necessarily contradictory) results are submitted simultaneously.
The authors behind these two manuscripts, both vying for a quick and painless publication, may - in all likelihood - be completely unaware (at that point) of the other's work. If no conference proceedings or earlier talks discussed the work, the publication would be the first appearance of it, and thus two as-yet-unpublished papers would have no knowledge of one another. But each goes to a different referee, and perhaps one referee is faster, more efficient, less critical or simply not on vacation at the time - so that paper is published first.
Now, let me tell you, it is an unpleasant shock to discover (while still waiting for your own referee to do his/her job) that someone has published results similar to yours at the same time as you. From here on out, you're already in the negative, because people outside will only see that the other paper was published first (even if you submitted for publication on the very same day). Even if your work is concurrent, your submission simultaneous - even, in fact, if your work was completed first - you now carry the stigma of being a follower. This is tricky ground to navigate, and it leads to a rather obvious question.

Does your referee have the right to ask that you incorporate the other author's work (or a reference to it) into yours?

In other words, is it fair that you be asked to reference the other author's work, when, were the (random) referees swapped, it would be the other author referencing you? You had no knowledge of their work before submitting your manuscript, nor did they know of yours. In theory, your work is just as timely as their work is, but this is not something that outsiders will see (as it will not be fairly reflected in the differing publication dates). And you, already being on the wrong end of the "leader vs follower" stick, are now to be asked for even more effort, which will seemingly make your own position even weaker?
There is a positive, of course. If your work is just as timely, but you are able to include reference to (and perhaps refutation of, as the case may be) their work, then your (finally) published paper becomes the one more often referenced, at the cost of one reference, on your part, to the other authors. But you still lose, in appearance, the contemporariness of the published results.

So what's the best way forward? This situation, while reasonably rare, appears to be a weakness in the current way refereeing is handled in publication. Maybe making publications only released once a month? Sorting by submission date instead of publication date? I really don't know.

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