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.
- Author submits perfectly good paper for publication.
- Reviewer does not like paper.
- Reviewer must give reason for rejecting paper, but cannot (true reason is political/personal animosity, indigestion, cannot fit into margin of notebook, etc.).
- 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.)
- Author revises paper in response to false reason.
- 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.
- Rival author appears on stage.
- Rival’s submission is strictly inferior to Author’s work.
- Rival’s paper is published immediately in higher-profile journal.
- Rival does not cite Author.
- Subsequent publications cite Rival and not Author.
- Despite protests of Author, Rival does not revise work to credit Author; mischaracterizes Author’s work instead.
- Editor does nothing.
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.