Manuscript horror stories

Everyone has a few manuscript horror stories, but when we start sharing them, I seem to win hands-down. Generally the conversation goes like this:
“My paper has been on his desk for 2 months!”
And I reply, “I had given up on my paper, so I was astonished when it was published 7 years later.”

So I decided to put together my collection of horror stories. Some details have been changed so as not to burn bridges.

I actually had two first-author manuscripts which waited 7 years. I wrote the first one two years before I left the lab, and naively up to the end I believed it would get published. The PI constantly promised, “I’ll be in Japan, then Italy, and then a study section, and after that I’ll work on this.” After I left the lab, I continued to call him and email him every week. He never returned calls or responded to messages. The rare times I caught him in his office he started making excuses before I even asked about the paper. Eventually I gave up. It was getting to the point where the paper would no longer help me, and I was wasting my time on him.

Five years after I left his lab, and 7 years after I wrote it, the paper came out. I had no expectation that my 2nd paper would ever be published, the one I wrote shortly before I left his lab; I had given up on it before I gave up on the first one. I was astonished when it also appeared in print–again, 7 years after I wrote it.

After I left my next lab, my name was pulled entirely from a manuscript which I’d contributed to and expected to be co-author on. My contributions were NOT pulled.

At that point I was feeling a bit desperate for first-author papers. When my PI offered me a first-author paper if I’d run the statistical analyses and write up the manuscript, I jumped on it. There were some glaring problems that no amount of clever writing could hide, such as the basic experimental design. I submitted the paper 7 times before it was accepted.

He talked me into writing two reviews on subjects I knew very little about. I learned fast and added some first author publications to my cv. I am not proud of those publications. Or the non-peer-reviewed letter to the editor, also comprised of data which I analyzed and wrote up but had no role in the experimental design. We also wrote a “monograph”, this strange web-based thing for clinicians. I did most of the writing; he got paid for it. It has to be updated periodically. Each time we update, he gets paid for it, and I do most of the work. The last update I decided is my last. It is no longer any kind of advantage to list the monograph on my cv.

When that PI was leaving his lab, I needed him to sign a letter stating that another person would be an appropriate mentor for me (he wasn’t), in order for me to keep my fellowship. He made a list of things I had to do before he’d sign the letter. When I finished some items on the list, he’d add more. He had no need to be so manipulative: if he had simply asked me to do these things, I would have done them. I wasn’t interested in burning bridges. One of the things on his list was statistical analyses of some data. The data set wasn’t yet complete, as it was a repeated measures and most of the subjects had not yet reached the last time point. I didn’t have a statistical software, so I walked the mile across campus again and again to use the student computer lab that had the software installed. I had to keep going back because I’d run it once, then he’d want more, or I’d discover something I forgot, or the lab was locked, or there was a class in there, or I wouldn’t be able to log on. He promised me a co-author manuscript, a promise I took with a grain of salt, because I knew someone would have to re-run the stats with the complete data set.

Two years later, and he contacted me in the middle of a very busy time with the manuscript. “I can look this over after next week,” I told him. He replied, “I need it by Friday, if you want to be a co-author.” He also explained that my stats weren’t used in this manuscript and my only contribution would be whatever comments I made when I reviewed it. I nearly told him to shove it but my husband talked me out of it. Instead, I had my comments by Wednesday, but I didn’t send them until late Friday. “That’s just petty,” my husband said. I didn’t care.

The paper came back almost instantly rejected without review, as being not significant enough for their journal. He asked if I had any suggestions. I made a couple suggestions, and he then asked if I could take on a more substantial role, and that he would move me “up the author chain” to entice me. What, 2nd author instead of 4th? Some enticement. Try again. No, actually, don’t bother. Even a 1st author on this one isn’t enough enticement.

Most recently, I got a message from a lab I was in 8 years ago about a paper I am co-author on. I was given only a couple days to review it. (Where does this guy get off giving me 2 days to review a paper when it took him 7 years to read through the one I wrote?) I replied I’d need a little more time, and then I read the paper. I was horrified, in the last section he attacked his own former graduate student’s paper. I asked that the attack be removed, and planned to pull my name from the manuscript if it wasn’t–but it was.

So when a co-author took a month to get back to me on our manuscript, after weekly email reminders, I didn’t consider that to be a problem at all. A month is nothing compared to 7 years.

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