Posted by: jonkatz | October 26, 2010

A moral dilemma

Here’s a situation that you can imagine is completely hypothetical, if you like.

Say a researcher submits a paper to journal A. The paper is under review for 2.5 years*, and the author still has not received any reviews. But journal A promises that reviews will be in soon. (They promised that 1 year, 6 months, and 3 months ago also.)

The author would like to get the paper published at some point, so he/she decides to submit the paper to journal B.

Should the author formally withdraw the paper from journal A? There are two motivations for not doing this: first, journal A is a better-ranked journal; second, keeping the paper under consideration at both journals increases the probability that the paper will be accepted somewhere in a reasonable period of time (let’s say the next 6 months).

Double submission to conferences and journals is frowned upon. As far as I can see, there is nothing inherently wrong with double submission, however in practice it has several negative effects (which is why I agree that it is, in general, wrong):

  • Logistically, it creates a problem if the paper is accepted to two different conferences. (This assumes the paper cannot be presented at both, something that doesn’t seem inherently problematic to me, but anyway it’s not the way our field currently works.)
  • Perhaps more importantly, submitting a paper to several conferences increases the workload of the reviewers, editors, PC chairs, etc. (Thinking about it a bit, it is not clear that this is a valid argument: is there any net difference whether a paper is reviewed twice in parallel vs. twice in succession?)

As far as I can tell, neither of the above reasons apply to the case mentioned earlier: it doesn’t really create a serious logistical problem for a paper to be accepted to two journals (and then be published in only one of them), and if the reviewers of journal A are not doing their job then I don’t see why one should care about their workload. (Nor do I see how the lack of work on the part of the reviewers of journal A should affect the workload of the reviewers for journal B.) What are your thoughts?

* Yes, this does point to a problem with the way journals currently work in our field. I wish I could say that waiting 2+ years for a review is unusual, but it has happened to me multiple times.



  1. My view:

    Yes, it is improper to double-submit like this without telling both journals, particularly if either journal has a policy against double-submission.

    Yeah, it really sucks for journal A to be so horribly non-responsive. But two wrongs don’t make a right: journal A’s failings doesn’t entitle you to special self-help, in my view. My advice would be to take the moral high ground and do the right thing, even if others don’t.

    A more interesting question would be whether double-submitting is proper, if you notify both journals that you have done so and why. But realistically, if you notify the journals, I suspect they’ll reject your paper without review.

    In your situation, I suspect I’d reluctantly withdraw my paper from journal A and send it to journal B, even though journal B is a bit less prestigious. I sometimes think that we academics often over-rate the importance of where a paper is published and under-rate the importance of the quality of the paper itself (though for understandable reasons). You can bet I’d be awfully disappointed with journal A, though.

    Just my personal view. Others may have other views, and I respect that.

  2. Definitely don’t double submit! There’s a good chance of getting caught, in which case the paper will be rejected from both journals and (depending on the policies of the journals in question) you may be banned from submitting future papers for some time period. Besides, even if you could get away with explicitly breaking the rules, do you really want to?

    Instead, come up with a reasonable amount of time to referee the paper. For example, four months if it isn’t extremely long or complicated. Then you can tell Journal A something like “I think you may need to replace the referee for this paper, since it does not look like the process will ever finish. It ought to be possible to referee the paper in four months, so I will withdraw the submission four months from today if it has not yet been refereed. Please let me know if you cannot find someone (preferably not the original referee) who will agree to look at it within four months.”

  3. Re-word the paper, dress it up a little, and submit it to the second journal as a new paper.

    I once had a paper under review for a year with nary a peep from the reviewer. I emailed the editor and asked him to hurry the process. Within two weeks I had a single review from one reviewer recommending rejection. I suspect this was done simply to flush my article from their system.

    If a journal cannot respect your submission enough to guarantee multiple reviews in a reasonable time period then I see no reason to respect that journal. Submit a revised version of your paper to the second journal, and if they come up with the goods before the first, then withdraw your submission from the first.

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