How NOT to write to an editor

Over on the Nature Methods blogs site, there are some interesting posts with advice for authors on how to prepare cover letters, rebuttal letters, appeal letters and the like.

Here’s an example of ‘how NOT to write to an editor‘, based on a recent experience of mine. I shall let the author remain anonymous, but my hunch is that this is not an isolated example of this sort of behaviour, and I’d be interested to hear of any similar experiences.

The background.

A while ago, I declined to send for review a paper which I was handling as editor. The paper was submitted as a Review Article but, as I explained to the author, the manuscript was not ready to be considered for publication since it was pretty much only a review of their own work, without proper reference to current work in the wider field. I suggested to the author that this would be something to address, and returned my decision through the usual journal manuscript-handling route. The author subsequently responded to the entire editorial body of the journal, before escalating their grievances further, and for this reason I regard their correspondence as public. Here is what happened next..

Response 1 from the author [edited].

I appreciate your efforts to provide a rather detailed explanation of the basis for your decision to decline publication of my manuscript. I would .. like to respond to some of your comments as I believe such a response might be helpful to you.  I am the individual responsible for demonstrating the feasibility of this [hypothesis] and I have made almost all of the developments. That is simply a matter of historical fact. Those with the capability should have tried to refute the idea and, if unable to do so, the idea should be cited. When a malevolent, but influential, coterie decides to ignore a specific development, it places that coterie, and those who subscribe to that behavior, at risk. The risk is not being able to progress in science.  You have no legitimate basis to expect [me] to cite or debate “recent work on the nature of [X]” as virtually all of the published work .. is based upon [an idea for which] there is no independent corroborating evidence.

One does not progress in science by making models based upon assumptions, but rather by discovering fundamental quantitative relationships.  Science is all about telling the truth. To say that I have failed to [cite recent work] is not correct, which makes me wonder about your underlying motivation for declining publication of this work.  Sometimes it seems as if the geoscience community, especially Americans and more recently Europeans, try to avoid any mention of science that disagrees with their pet models. I have seen that behavior repeated over and over. In declining publication of the submitted manuscript, you aid and abet that behavior.

Perhaps you are unaware that science progresses, not by arraying seemingly agreeing evidence, but by discovering inherent failures. To a large extent the geoscience community is playing at science, making nonsense models based upon assumptions, suppressing mention of real scientific advances, and patting each other on the back.  Sadly, your behavior seems to doom the journal to be an organ of mediocrity. If you are unable to be a real scientist, why play at science?

Since  this response didn’t actually appeal the decision, I left it at that.

Two weeks later, I received the following message from the author, copied to several senior staff in my University.

Subject: Allegation of Misconduct and Academic Malfeasance..

[Over the years] most of my work has been intentionally ignored, subjected to misrepresentation, and often unwarrantedly suppressed, while the geoscience community wastes vast amounts of money making models based upon arbitrary assumptions in lieu of making discoveries. The matter at hand is about just such an incidence of unwarranted science suppression justified solely by false statements.

Evidence is presented below to support the allegation that Pyle (1) aided and abetted a concerted effort to conceal from the scientific community, Government science-funding officials, and the general public, certain specified scientific advances, published in world-class journals, and (2) made a series of false statements to justify (1). One consequence of said alleged actions is to cheat those individuals and institutions, including taxpayers, whose monies support scientific research in areas adversely affected by said concealment. In the broader context, said allegations of unwarranted science suppression stand in contradiction to principles of academic integrity that should be the minimum expectation. [The] rejection decision without legitimate basis resembles and appears to become part of concerted efforts to suppress, conceal and misrepresent [my] published work…  This is a pattern of activity which, I submit, has the consequence of defrauding those entities that fund scientific research. It is a pattern of activity that I believe should be investigated by authorities.

 I believe that it would be wrong either to ignore or to whitewash the present matter. I propose that .. Professor Pyle might consider making a concerted effort to counter said unwarranted ignoring, misrepresenting, and attempts at suppression of my work. For example, he might submit a Theme Issue proposal [to a journal on this topic]. He might write a review article for [a mainstream] journal.  He [might] also organize a special session on the subject for [an international] meeting.  Moreover, Professor Pyle might benefit through attaining a deeper understanding of geoscience and how to make important scientific discoveries.

I leave my readers to come to their own conclusions, but I’d like to make three points:

1 – in most journals, the role of the editor *is* to make judgements about what to publish, and what not to publish. There is nothing malevolent about this – there is whole world of journals out there, in a competitive market place and authors are free to shop around to find the best place for their work.

2 – journals all have formal mechanisms for replying to editors, and asking for decisions to be reconsidered. The author made no attempt to explore any of these avenues before embarking on a completely irrelevant path of escalation.

3 – if you do wish to engage an editor, then perhaps best not to start off  by being patronising; and certainly better not to engage in tactics that could be interpreted as harrassment, bullying or threatening behaviour.  If people are ignoring your work, perhaps it’s not their fault, but yours?

In any case, these protests about suppression of ideas are  fatuous: at the time of submission, the paper was already available to read in ArXiv; and the day after receiving my decision, the author submitted a version of the paper to another journal, where it has since been published.

David Pyle is a volcanologist, and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. His first encounter with volcanoes was at the age of 7, when he visited Villarrica, Chile, shortly after an eruption. David studied geological sciences at the University of Cambridge, and later completed a PhD on the 'older' eruptions of Santorini, Greece. After a short post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, David returned to a lectureship in Cambridge. In 2006, he moved to his current post in Oxford. David tweets at @davidmpyle

1 Comment

  1. Oh My…..but I suspect this happens quite often….perhaps less so these days with virtually free access to blog posting….but still there is no excuse for this kind of behavior by actual scientists.


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