Andrew Burd: Naughty editor, bad editor

Andrew BurdI have been the human guardian of both cats and dogs over the years. I cannot call myself either a cat person or a dog person. They have such different personalities. Cats are free spirits but are also wonderfully self-indulgent and will be happily stroked for hours. Dogs are more keen on activity and many an hour has been spent wrestling for ownership of old socks or slippers. But dogs are more responsive to human distress and have the ability to turn on the soulful look at times of tension; the return home to a shredded cushion that must have been part of a exciting afternoon but then to face the consequences. Bad dog! Naughty dog! But what more can you really say? You left them and you cannot expect them to act with the same sense of human responsibility as, well, a human.

Editors, of medical and indeed scientific journals are neither cats nor dogs. There are times when some might question their “humanity.” Some are extremely arrogant, full of self importance; some are so wise and considerate. But some are naughty; bad in fact and the question is, what to do about them?

Case in point. One journal I receive as part of a professional subscription appears at regular intervals and I give it the quick once over. Medical journal speed reading is an art form acquired over the years and as careers progress and special interests mature the spectrum of articles that attract attention decreases. But I came across one where the title was of relevance to my practice; the abstract looked promising and so I read the article. And then re-read it. And then once more. It was an awful paper. The content contained factual inaccuracies, large chunks of the paper were irrelevant to the title and it actually gave a very false and misleading message. Once the hyperventilation had calmed I picked up pen and paper and began the first draft of a very measured response. This was very nuanced, very balanced and not at all in the style of “Brigadier General Rtd of Tunbridge Wells,” although I did go to school there many years ago. The letter duly crafted with several drafts was submitted through the e-system and I sat back. Several weeks later I received a letter from the editor. It was a letter rejecting my letter. And the grounds of the rejection? Well the original paper had been reviewed by two very senior and respected reviewers and any criticism of the paper would be a criticism of them. The suggestion was that I write a review article on the same or similar topic which would then be subject to peer review and considered independently for publication. Bad editor. Naughty editor. You cannot allow poor papers in your journal to be left uncriticised because you do not want to upset your senior reviewers, who ever they might be.

But what can we, Joe Public, do about such malfeasance? Previously very little; the power was in the hands of the editors. But times have changed. Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. If bad rulers can be brought to their knees so can bad editors.

Going back to the dogs, man’s best friend; who are the better friends of editors? The readers or the writers of the papers they publish? I am not sure but for editors, in general, it is best to keep on good terms with both.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.