Unseemly competition

September 21, 2007

Once again I’m watching a publication-ethics situation develop in a very large lab with which I am familiar. Ultimately this is going to result in a series of papers from multiple labs on closely related topics appearing in C/N/S journals (and maybe another one or two). Papers for which a close examination of the submitted, revised, accepted dates will tell a fascinating (to some) or drearily familiar (to others) story.
I ran across a 2000 editorial in Science which to some extent expresses the usual see-no-evil or at least “how can we judge” position that journals tend to adopt. This irritates me.

The behavior of scientists who “get wind” of a manuscript getting close to publication and rush up their own related stuff is a minefield. There’s a lot in here to discuss in terms of bad author ethics.

But what really ticks me off is that this behavior is facilitated by journal behavior. And they usually bemoan the outcomes and blame scientists in editorials that simultaneously overlook their own complicity. [This last chap, btw, may be innocent, I don’t think one of my direct examples is Nat Neurosci. Note however he fails to endorse my suggested declarations that would allow us to conclude innocence.]

The most essential charge against journals is this. If you alter by one iota, the review decision, selection of reviewers, acceptance or publication timeline based on knowledge (your own or provided by the authors themselves) of related articles poised to be published, you are contributing to the ethical morass. Finger wagging editorials are fine. But what would really help would be adopting policies forswearing “unseemly competition” on their own part.

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