The Dangers of Preprint Servers

Now that I have moved (at least partially!) into academic administration, my colleagues ask for advice on publishing strategy.  A situation has occurred with one of my colleagues that has made me question my understanding of precedence of research results.  I’d love some feedback to help me understand what went wrong here.

My colleague, call him R1, proved a couple theorems in a fast-moving subfield of optimization.  He wrote up the results and on March 1 submitted the paper to The Slow but Prestigious Journal of Optimization, which I will call SJ (the characters get confusing, so the inset Cast of Characters may help).  He also posted the paper on the well-known eprint servers Optimization Online  and ArXiv (OO/A).  The paper began its slow and arduous thorough refereeing at SJ.blog_post

On August 1, R1 received a perky email from researcher R2 with a paper attached saying “Thought you might be interested!”.  The paper contains a subset of R1’s results with no reference to R1’s work.  This is not a preprint however, but an “article in advance” for a paper  published in Quick and Fast Journal of Optimization, QJ.  QJ is a journal known for its fast turn-around time.  The submission date of R2’s work to QJ is March 15 (i.e. two weeks after R1 posted on OO/A and submitted to SJ).

R1 lets R2 know of his paper, pointing to OO/A.  R1 never hears anything more from R2.

R1 contacts the editors of QJ suggesting some effort be made to correct the literature with regard to the precedence of this work.  QJ declines to change R2’s paper since it has already been published, and the large commercial publisher (LCP) does not allow changes to published articles (and, besides, R2 won’t agree to it).

OK, what about publishing a precedence acknowledgement in the form of a letter to the editor?  I find this somewhat less than satisfying since the letter to the editor is separate from the paper and no one reads journals as “issues” anymore.  But at least QJ would be attempting to correct this mess.  And here is where I get both confused and outraged.  The editor’s response is:

Also, during consultations with [LCP]’s office, it became clear that LCP does not approve of publishing a precedence acknowledgement towards a paper in public domain (preprint server). I hope you would agree that the fact that a paper is posted on a preprint server does not guarantee its content is valuable or even correct – such (partial) assurances can be obtained only during peer-review process.

Hold on, what?  QJ and LCP are saying that they will ignore anything that is not in a peer-reviewed journal!  R2 does not have to say anything about R1’s result since it has not been refereed.  Further, unless R1 gets the paper published in SJ with the March 1 submission date, QJ will not publish a precedence acknowledgement.  If the paper gets rejected by SJ and my colleague then publishes in Second Tier Journal on Optimization, clearly the submission date there will be after QJs date so R2 takes precedence.  If the paper doesn’t get published, then R2 and QJ will simply act as if R1 and OO/A do not exist.

I find this situation outrageous.  I thought the point of things like OO/A are to let people know of known results before journals like SJ finish their considered process of stamping their imprimatur on papers.  If the results are wrong, then following authors at least have to point out the flaws sometime during the process.

Now I don’t know if R2 saw R1’s paper at OO/A.  But if he did, the R1’s posting at OO/A at least warned him that he better get his paper submitted.  Of course, R1’s paper might have helped R2 get over some roadblocks in R2’s proof or otherwise aid him in finishing (or even starting, though there are no overt signs of plagiarism) his paper.  But it seems clear there was absolutely no advantage for R1 to post on OO/A, and clear disadvantages to doing so.  R1 would have been much better served to keep his results hidden until acceptance at SJ or elsewhere.

This all seems wrong.  R1 put out the result to the public first.  How did R1 lose out on precedence here?   What advice should I be giving colleagues about this?  Here is what I seemed to have learned:

  1. If you don’t have any ideas for a paper, it is a good idea to monitor OO/A for results.  If you find one, quickly write it up in your own words and submit it to QJ (but don’t post on OO/A).  If you get lucky and the referees miss OO/A (or follow LCP’s rule and ignore anything not in the refereed literature), then you win!
  2. Conversely, if you have a result, for God’s sake, don’t tell anyone.  Ideally, send it to QJ who can get things out fast.  If you must, submit it to SJ but don’t post the preprint, present it at INFORMS, or talk about it in your sleep.

This all seems perverse.  How should I think about this?  Has anyone faced something similar?  Does anyone see a satisfactory resolution to this situation?  And, for those on editorial boards, does your journal have policies similar or different than that of LCP? Is this ever discussed within journal boards?  Is all this a well-known risk?


8 thoughts on “The Dangers of Preprint Servers”

  1. I always found the reviewing process to be prone to plagiarism. I’ve seen colleagues facing stories similar to yours during my PhD, and later. That’s why I gave up on publishing papers in ‘scientific journals’.

    I guess this is to say that I am 100% with you. This is not only outrageous, but also dishonest from R2. I can imagine that R2 found his results independently, then saw R1 work, and decided to publish before his work would become obsolete. But that’s playing with the precedence rule.

    One cure to me would be to have a well publicized web site that documents these cases, with names, like retraction watch ( Why aren’t you revealing the names here? I know why of course, it is because academics are all dependent on each others for publication acceptance.

    The other cure would be to bypass journals altogether and let the community review papers on arxiv or similar sites. In the open. If everyone can see comments and suggestions for changes, then it will be very hard for authors to ignore them.

  2. Interesting case. I think R1 made a mistake when submitting results in a “fast-moving subfield of optimization” to SJ. Not because his precedence couldn’t be established. R1 lost that battle and there is no point in arguing over it. Yes, R1’s paper was available first, but you cannot rule out the entirely plausible explanation that R2 proved a couple of quick theorems and submitted the paper to QJ.

    That wasn’t the mistake. The real mistake was that results in a fast-moving field shouldn’t be published in SJ. They will pretty much be obsolete by the time they are published. Also R1 will have to change his paper to incorporate additional results published during the review process. Of course, R1 wants to publish in SJ to build a better portfolio for tenure/promotion. In that case it really doesn’t matter if he was really first. As long as the paper is published in SJ.

    In the end you can just hope that the editor at SJ is more reasonable that those at QJ. I’m sure one of the referee’s will point out the already published paper with overlapping results.

    The real catch is if R2 is a referre for SJ. But let us not go down that path.

  3. This is just unbelievable. I would like to know how would this whole thing proceed and what is the final outcome. Really complicated situation, but I should agree here with Imre Polik that QJ made mistake by publishing the results at fist place. I hope the situation will be resolved in the best way possible for all the parties involved.

  4. Back in 1985, as a graduate student, I received two papers to referee for two different journals, at about the same time. This is before we had reprint servers, and people used surface mail to send papers back and forth. Both papers had independently derived the same algorithm. Being the young and naive graduate student, I asked my advisers what to do, and they suggested that I write each of the referee reports indicating that the result had been independently discovered by the other set of authors. The net result is that both papers were published, each with references to the preprint version of the other author’s paper.

    IMHO, in your case, the editors (and maybe referees) are the ones who messed up here. This is not about whether the preprint server was used to publish an early result. If the editors want their journals to be reputable, then they should be asking R1 and R2 to make appropriate references to each other, and those references should be published in SJ and FJ. In the case of FJ, it would require them to publish an errata to their previously published article listing the reference to the preprint of R1’s paper.

    To me, this is an editorial decision, not a decision of LCP.

  5. There needs to be consequences or, as Prof. Trick points out, the system of preprints is untenable. Somehow — perhaps due to fast-moving peer-reviewed conferences — arXiv remains popular in physics and math.

    Slow-moving top journals together with perverse incentives against announcing results before publication will push OR back to the time of Newton and Leibniz.

  6. JF: It’s also possible that R2 submitted his work before seeing R1’s paper. I get the OO Digest and skim it, but I’m not particularly quick about doing so.

    Imre: The problem with disqualifying SJ for papers in fast-moving areas is that, at least in some academic circles, a hit in SJ may be worth more (possibly much more) than a hit in QJ.

    General: This isn’t just a problem with preprints. How often do people give conference talks about work in progress, possibly giving away the recipe for the secret sauce before they’re ready to submit their work?

    Mike: I’m sure I’ll see you at INFORMS. Ask me about the reviewing circle-jerk I encountered (if I haven’t already told you the story).

  7. What I would do if I were R1:

    Post an updated arXiv version with a short note at the beginning or end stating, “Slightly after the initial publication of this work [citation to version 1 of the arXiv paper], R2 independently obtained Theorems 1, 3, and 6 [citation to QJ].”

    When R1 gets the chance to make final revisions to the SJ article, he or she can add the same note.

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