A story about peer review

As the publication of Meyer’s paper in a peer-reviewed journal has stirred a discussion of the merits of the peer-review system, perhaps a story from my personal experience may be of some interest to Panda’s Thumb’s denizens. In 1949 I submitted a paper to a prestigious journal Izvestia Akademii Nauk SSSR. It is published by the Academy of Sciences of (then) USSR - now the Russian Academy of Sciences. It has several branches. The one I submitted my paper to was for Technical Dynamics as it contained some formulas I derived for critical speeds of rapidly rotating shafts (the so called Laval shafts). The editorial office was in Leningrad (now again St. Peterburg). In about two months I happened to be in Leningrad attending a conference. The editorial office of Izvestya happened to be in the same building where the conference took place. I walked into the editorial office to inquire about the fate of my paper.

The secretary opened some folder, perused some document there and told me that my paper was rejected and I would receive a letter about it shortly. I asked her whether she could tell me the reasons for rejection. She shrugged and read a few lines from a review which boiled down to the assertion that my formulas were in fact not really new but only a modification of equations already known. I was stunned and felt terribly humiliated.

Then happened something unexpected. I don’t know whether she did it deliberately or inadvertently, but she unfolded the folder’s cover and for a brief moment I saw the letterhead of the sheet where the referee’s review was typed - the name of the referee was right there, and it was a rather well known name. Of course it only exaggerated my embarrassment. The referee D. was, I guess, some 15 years older than I so most probably he is not alive by now. Since, though, I don’t know this for fact, I will not reveal his name here.

Several months later a new issue of the journal in question appeared. There was in it a paper authored by D. Can you imagine my feelings when I discovered that the paper by the renowned scientist D contained exact replicas of my formulas, which now were presented as a novel way to compute crtitical speeds of Laval shafts. The same formulas the same D a few months earlier claimed (in a supposedly anonymous review) to be not new when suggested by a beginning scientist not yet having a recognized name. The guy had used his position to steel my results, to kill my paper and to publish my equations under his name.

I could do nothing - everybody I told the story advised me to let it go. You have to know the situation in the communist state to understand why I, an unknown beginner in science, had no chance if trying to confront a big shot. What I did, I went back to the formulas and developed the theory further. I wrote a new paper, submitted it to another branch of Izvestiya, whose editorial office was in Moscow, and it was published in 1952. Among the references in my new paper was one to the article of D.

Just one example of how a “peer review” may sometimes work.

Compared to that old story, Sternberg-Meyer’s affair, however suspicious it looks, seems to be almost innocent.