The Very Interested Reviewer


A scenario meant to stimulate discussion about the moral situations that arise when a scientist gets an idea from an article he/she referees for a journal.


As a recent Ph.D., you receive a journal article to referee. This article provides a proof for a result in your area of study. You become intrigued by the topic, and after a few weeks you come up with a shorter and better proof. You feel clear about your recommendation regarding the publishability of the result submitted to you.

What, if anything, can and should you do or say about your own new proof?


Caroline Whitbeck introduced methods and modules for discussing numerous issues in responsible conduct of research at a Sigma Xi Forum in 2000. Partial funding for the development of this material came from an NIH grant.

You can find the entire sequence on the OEC at Scenarios for Ethics Modules in the Responsible Conduct of Research. Some information in these historical modules may be out-of-date; for instance, there may be a new edition of the professional society's code that is referred to in an item. If you have suggestions for updates, please contact the OEC.

Albert Meyer says he experiences something like this occurring several times a year in his role as editor and indicated that he thought one should take the issue to the editor and "offer your opinion of the publishability of the result" but not state that the result should be published?

Caroline Whitbeck: What is the difference that you see between "tell the editor the main result is worth publishing" and "offer your opinion of the publishability of the result"?

Albert Meyer: A theoretical result by itself is not intrinsically publishable. There is often a tradeoff between the significance of a result and the simplicity of proof in making a publication decision: a nonbreakthrough, incremental result is probably not worth publishing unless its proof is reasonably short and accessible. Also, the fact that the reviewer came up (quickly?) with her own simpler proof raises the possibility the author's result is too routine to be publishable. Finally, the reviewer ought to be sensitive to the conflict of interest and nonobjectivity to which she is now subject. She should put an emphasis on explaining to, and seeking the advice of, the editor, rather than making a simple publication recommendation. (BTW, it's a common pitfall for an expert reviewer who comes up with her own simpler proof to overly devalue the submitted manuscript as routine.)

Author: Albert Meyer, in the theory area within computer science at MIT.

  1. I would not indicate in my review that I had a shorter and better proof.
  2. Assuming the result being reviewed is original and as good as or better than anything published in my field to this point, I would recommend the article for publication. I would also point out to the editor that I would like to cite this article in my own writing, so please let me know the publication date/data as soon as possible.
  3. I would write up my own article, citing the article I had reviewed with its full publication reference. I would mention that my own work on this article was stimulated in part by that article. I would avoid making any invidious comparisons; let the relative worth of the two methods be judged by the readers.

Author: John Gardinier, a statistician and active in the ethics of his field.