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Ask the Ethicist

Editor's Note: Please send ethical questions for Jordan Moiers or comments to: ethics@aps.org, or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Contributors should identify themselves, but their names and addresses will be held strictly confidential unless they request otherwise. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.

Here's a real dilemma, and how I handled it (not quite right).

While waiting for a referee's report on a paper of mine, I received (from the same journal) for review a paper with substantial overlap (but obviously independent of mine). The subject was [a field of theoretical physics] in which reviewing is notoriously capricious and often malicious. I was afraid that my paper would be rejected, while I knew, based on a casual glance, that I would write a favorable review of the paper submitted to me. In that event, the author of the other paper would receive priority and all the credit, even though we had both done similar work, independently and simultaneously. What should I have done? Should I have withdrawn as referee of the paper sent me (relieving me of the conflict of interest, but exposing the other author to a possible negative review, and myself to the risk that he would receive a favorable review and myself a negative one)?

What I actually did was to delay reviewing the paper sent me until I received a review of mine, which turned out to be favorable. Then I immediately wrote a (justified) favorable review of the paper sent me. How could I ensure that both papers were published promptly, so that credit would be shared, without exposing either myself or the other author to the risks of an unpredictable review?
(Name and address withheld)

Jordan Moiers responds:
As you point out, the way that you handled your dilemma was not quite right. I understand your concerns; peer review is hardly perfect, and may indeed be capricious and malicious on occasion. But the best way to ensure the integrity of a system based on mutual trust of professionals is to strive to maintain our individual integrity. Although the outcome in this particular case was benign, in delaying your review you potentially exposed yourself to the temptation to commit even greater transgressions. After all, what would you have done if your own paper had been rejected while you sat on the paper your were asked to referee? Would you have been tempted to write an unfavorable review of a paper (which you believed should have been published) in order to level the playing field? Pardon me for pointing out the obvious irony, but the very act of delaying your response effectively contributed to the capriciousness and maliciousness that concerned you in the first place. There are, however, better reasons than my nagging for you to approach the dilemma differently than you did, as Ask the Ethicist discovered in a recent interview with Stanley Brown, editorial director of APS journals. "Simultaneous submissions of papers with significant overlap are fairly rare," says Brown. "Sometimes we learn about the overlap from the authors themselves. Usually the journal editors discover the similarity." There is no guarantee that journal editors will catch every instance, but Brown believes that they catch most of them. In the case of Physical Review Letters in particular, editors are assigned to oversee submissions based on subject matter, and they are very likely to notice similarities between papers.

Once they identify papers with significant overlap, editors will often arrange to send the submissions together to the same referees, ensuring that the papers get consistent treatment. Assuming that similar papers are accepted for publication the same issue of a Physical Review journal, the papers are generally published back-to-back in order of the submission date. The discovery of the top quark at Fermilab was one notable instance in which simultaneous, similar submissions were published adjacently. Should you have recused yourself from refereeing a paper similar to your own? "No," says Brown. "Referees should certainly make us aware of potential conflicts, but it doesn't necessarily pose a problem. We have had referees step down of their own accord for that reason, although it's not very common. We can potentially coordinate things to ensure that the process is equitable." Historically, there have been many occasions that independent scientists have proposed theories or announced discoveries essentially simultaneously. If anything, the frequency of simultaneous submissions of similar works seems likely to increase thanks to the rapid communication that is the hallmark of the information age, as well as the free flow of ideas promoted by conferences and workshops. I hope you take some comfort in the fact that Stanley Brown and the other APS journal editors are prepared to handle such events as fairly as possible.

Finally, you should bear in mind that while a single referee's opinion is highly influential, you cannot guarantee that a paper will or will not be published based on your actions. Nor can you ensure that either your own paper or one that you are refereeing will not be subject to an unpredictable (i.e. unfavorable) review by another referee. That's the great thing about the peer review system when it's working properly—no single person has absolute control over the decision to publish. On the other hand, by making the journal editors aware of the situation you can improve the likelihood that both papers will be addressed in a uniform fashion. In the event that you again find yourself reviewing a paper that you believe has substantial overlap with another paper under review (whether it's yours or someone else's that you may be familiar with), you should let the journal editors know about it as early as possible. You'll keep your conscience clear while helping to make sure that the occasionally imperfect peer review process is a little less capricious and malicious

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette