A story about peer review

Posted by Mark Perakh on September 19, 2004 11:33 AM

As the publication of Meyer’s paper in a peer-reviewed journal has stirred a discussion of the merits of the peer-review system, perhaps a story from my personal experience may be of some interest to Panda’s Thumb’s denizens. In 1949 I submitted a paper to a prestigious journal Izvestia Akademii Nauk SSSR. It is published by the Academy of Sciences of (then) USSR - now the Russian Academy of Sciences. It has several branches. The one I submitted my paper to was for Technical Dynamics as it contained some formulas I derived for critical speeds of rapidly rotating shafts (the so called Laval shafts). The editorial office was in Leningrad (now again St. Peterburg).  In about two months I happened to be in Leningrad attending a conference. The editorial office of Izvestya happened to be in the same building where the conference took place. I walked into the editorial office to inquire about the fate of my paper.

The secretary opened some folder, perused some document there and told me that my paper was rejected and I would receive a letter about it shortly. I asked her whether she could tell me the reasons for rejection. She shrugged and read a few lines from a review which boiled down to the assertion that my formulas were in fact not really new but only a modification of equations already known. I was stunned and felt terribly humiliated.

Then happened something unexpected. I don’t know whether she did it deliberately or inadvertently, but she unfolded the folder’s cover and for a brief moment I saw the letterhead of the sheet where the referee’s review was typed - the name of the referee was right there, and it was a rather well known name. Of course it only exaggerated my embarrassment.  The referee D. was, I guess, some 15 years older than I so most probably he is not alive by now. Since, though, I don’t know this for fact, I will not reveal his name here.

Several months later a new issue of the journal in question appeared. There was in it a paper authored by D. Can you imagine my feelings when I discovered that the paper by the renowned scientist D contained exact replicas of my formulas, which now were presented as a novel way to compute critical speeds of Laval shafts. The same formulas the same D a few months earlier claimed (in a supposedly anonymous review) to be not new when suggested by a beginning scientist not yet having a recognized name. The guy had used his position to steel my results, to kill my paper and to publish my equations under his name.

I could do nothing - everybody I told the story advised me to let it go. You have to know the situation in the communist state to understand why I, an unknown beginner in science, had no chance if trying to confront a big shot.  What I did, I went back to the formulas and developed the theory further. I wrote a new paper, submitted it to another branch of Izvestiya, whose editorial office was in Moscow, and it was published in 1952. Among the references in my new paper was one to the article of D. 

Just one example of how a “peer review” may sometimes work.

Compared to that old story, Sternberg-Meyer’s affair, however suspicious it looks, seems to be almost innocent.

Trackback URL: http://www.pandasthumb.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/491

Comment #7783

Posted by Gary Hurd on September 19, 2004 01:09 PM

Interesting story Mark.  I’ll ante up with one of my own.

I wrote a grant proposal to research the trace element nutrition of coca leaf chewing in highland Peru, and at the same time compare their cocaine consumption with enthnolinguistic categories of the different coca species and cultivars.  I sent the proposal to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) where it was approved for funding with high scientific scores.  However, after the scientific review there is the assignment of “priority” scores, and because I was going to study traditional drug use in Peru and not drug addicts in the USA, I was given a very poor “priority” score.  I next submitted the proposal (slightly improved) to the National Science Foundation (NSF).  There three reviewers were highly favorable and two were highly negative.  The grant officer desided to send it out for two more reviews, both of which were returned highly negative.  This killed that project and I moved on to other work.

Years later, I learned the identities of 3 of the hostile reviewers.  Two were post-docs working for a NSF sponsored researcher who’s work I was challenging, and a third was
one of his professional colleagues.  This senior colleague had trashed my proposal and then appended nearly half of it to an already funded project he held with NIDA. 

Luckily for him- he died before I found out.

Comment #7787

Posted by Reed A. Cartwright on September 19, 2004 06:36 PM


Are you sure he “stole” your work?  Perhaps he was already aware of the results but never cared to publish them.  Maybe reading your paper made him decide to publish them.  Perhaps he blocked your paper so he could publish something he’d known for a long time.  It’s not honest, but I don’t know if I’d call it stealing.

Comment #7808

Posted by Mark Perakh on September 20, 2004 01:43 PM

Well, Reed, I’d not sue him as I can’t prove to a court of law that D. did not also derive the same formulas on his own . Coincidences happen. However, this does not seem very likely. Anyway, even if he indeed derived the same formulas independently (which I doubt), his behavior was still dishonest - he nixed my paper under the pretext my resuts were not really new, and then published the same formulas as his own, in the journal where he was a member of the editorial board thus in a position to steer his stuff through the reviewing process, this time claiming that the results were new. Those few colleagues of mine who were familiar with my original article and with D’s subsequently published paper were all outraged but we all knew the wisdom of the Soviet reality - to argue against a big shot is like to piss against the wind.

Comment #7821

Posted by T. Russ on September 21, 2004 11:00 AM

Check out Tipler’s paper on peer-review in “Uncommon Dissent,” or the ISCID archive for some doozies.