The Victim of a Thousand Revisions
September 16, 2014  

I guess I like to watch a train wreck as much as anyone, which is why I’m going to link to this. Bonus: it’s a fight about academic publishing, where the feelings are as bitter as the stakes are low.

Is this a true story? I don’t know, but it is a very familiar one. It follows a template as primal as the monomyth of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, only more pretentious: I call it The Victim of a Thousand Revisions.

And here’s how it goes.

  1. Author submits perfectly good paper for publication.
  2. Reviewer does not like paper.
  3. Reviewer must give reason for rejecting paper, but cannot (true reason is political/personal animosity, indigestion, cannot fit into margin of notebook, etc.).
  4. Reviewer makes up false but plausible-sounding reason for rejection (needs more testing, should cite/compare to work of Reviewer, insufficient discussion of unrelated work, lemma 2.1 should be generalized to a theorem, although tedious corollary 5 really demands a full proof, software and data set should be publically released so that Reviewer can use them before publication, etc.)
  5. Author revises paper in response to false reason.
  6. Go to 1.

My computer science readers will insist that this is an infinite loop. But just as our Sun will one day burn down to a cinder, the Reviewer will one day go on sabbatical, and for one brief shining moment, the cycle may be broken and the paper may be published.

Having established our protagonist as a sympathetic character, we move on to the next stage of our monomyth, the crisis upon which the fate of the world rests.

  1. Rival author appears on stage.
  2. Rival’s submission is strictly inferior to Author’s work.
  3. Rival’s paper is published immediately in higher-profile journal.
  4. Rival does not cite Author.
  5. Subsequent publications cite Rival and not Author.
  6. Despite protests of Author, Rival does not revise work to credit Author; mischaracterizes Author’s work instead.
  7. Editor does nothing.
  8. ????

We do not yet know how this saga will end, but suffice it to say that unlike The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Victim of a Thousand Revisions is, most often, a tragedy.