Readers! Without them, we don't have a job, but sometimes one angry reader can suck all the life and joy out of our work. What was your worst experience?
And here I'm not talking about simple throwaway/drive-by comments, I'm talking about the epicly toxic interactions that make you dread coming into the office and question the other person's sanity. I've had my share, but one in particular I will take to my grave.
My last job was working for a scientific journal. One issue, we published an important article on a fairly controversial topic in the field. The authors made some key contributions, but naturally not everyone agreed with their findings. We were prepared for that, and in fact most feedback was professional.
Then one day I received an email from a reader in Europe. Right away, I could see trouble brewing.
"I am sure you will not publish this letter, but I must offer my thoughts on this latest catastrophe anyway."
He went on to detail all the problems with the article and offered an entirely different approach that, from what I knew of the subject, was popular with some but largely unsupported by the literature. Still, I thought, despite his opening broadside, that it might be publishable.
One thing to understand here is that letters to scientific journals are different animals than letters to the editor of a magazine. As they usually involve discussions of published research, the letters section is not a free-fire zone: Submissions have to meet a minimum level of scientific rigor to be published. My boss at the time was emphatic on this point, and made it clear that letters were subjected to the same editorial standards as the rest of the journal.
I wrote back to the reader, whom I will call Hans, explaining that we might publish the letter but that it would need to be edited. I received a curt reply. "No, I don't think so, I don't wish to be censored."
Not a good sign, but that was all I heard from him. For a while.
A year or so later, we published a follow-up to the first article. Not long after came another letter from Hans. This was largely a retread of his first letter, along with some caustic observations about the authors' motivations. Still, there were some publishable contributions to the discussion amongst the ranting.
I replied that we might publish it but again reminding him that we needed to edit it. Hans' reply came swiftly: "I do not trust you not to censor my thoughts. But if you tell me what is wrong, I will rewrite it."
Well, that was a start, though I was starting to have reservations about this. So I explained to Hans that he needed to provide more support for his contentions, in particular some better citations (he had cited a few articles in popular magazines rather than journals).
Again came the wary reply. "I will do this if you agree not to censor what I resubmit."
Here I made a critical error. Believing Hans was a reasonable person who was experienced in scientific publishing, I told him we would probably not need to heavily revise the new version if he did what I asked. It did not occur to me that he might object to routine copy-editing.
About a week later, the revised letter arrived. It was improved, but still lacking in spots. I showed it to our editor-in-chief, who agreed it was publishable with some additional work, so we put into our production process. I went over it, as did our technical editor and my boss.
The editing was not heavy, but as Hans was clearly not a native English speaker, it did need work. Our technical editor had also identified some additional spots she wanted him to beef up. All in all, nothing out of the ordinary. I then returned it to him for review.
The next day I found an email from Hans waiting in my inbox. The irritation and paranoia I had sensed simmering below the surface had now exploded into the open. "It is clear to me that you never had any intention of publishing my real thoughts but instead planned to put words in my mouth. You told me you would not edit my letter but have now completely re-written it." On it went for several pages of ranting about me, my boss, our journal, and my employer.
"It is painfully obvious that [my employer] has no use for alternate viewpoints. You will not hear from me again."
On this last point, he was wrong.
Not long afterward, my boss forwarded an email she had gotten from the company president. "Is this the guy who wrote that letter?" It was. Hans had apparently scoured our website and discovered a reference to our internal code of conduct. He then demanded to see a copy of it so that he could check my behavior against it for violations. "It is clear your editorial staff is entirely without ethics." Additional ranting and abuse followed.
Exercising some remarkable restraint, our president wrote back explaining that he had full confidence in me and my boss, and further, that our corporate management did not interfere in editorial decision-making. He then made a slight error of his own: "Our code of conduct is an internal document, but as far as I know, there is nothing in it that applies to editorial decisions." This sentence would soon come back to haunt us.
A few months later, that president left the company under an unrelated cloud. Not long after his replacement took over, another "FW: FW:" email arrived from my boss. "It's your biggest fan again."
Hans had taken the previous president's departure as a sign that the ethical climate at our company had changed, and reached out to the new one for justice. "I am glad to hear you are cleaning things up. I want to make you aware of a serious issue with respect to [our journal]." He then detailed the lurid saga of censorship, deception, and abuse he had suffered at my hands. "I attempted to resolve this issue with Mr. Smith [the previous president], but he told me your editors are not governed by any code of conduct or ethics. I assume you will wish to correct this."
Fortunately, the new president had worked for our company for years and knew all of us well enough to let it alone.
Later that year, our board of directors underwent some reshuffling, and a new chairman took over. About a month later, my boss walked into my office with a bundle of papers. "He's back."
Hans had printed out everything related to the entire episode and sent it to the new chairman, begging for help, and again lamenting the absence of any code of conduct governing the journal. Fortunately, the chairman was so far removed from the subject that he simply gave the packet to my boss's superior to deal with. Still, I had to waste an afternoon drafting a reply explaining what actually happened.
We did not hear from Hans again, but that was not quite the end of it.
A couple of years later, I was manning our journal's booth at a conference when an older European man came up and introduced himself to me and my boss. I didn't immediately catch his name, but his manner was polite enough to catch me off my guard. Then, reading his conference badge, I realized who it was.
I like to pride myself on being calm and even-tempered, but my reaction—being caught by surprise—was unpleasant enough that he immediately excused himself and left. I think the realization that he expected we might have a cordial, professional relationship after trying three separate times to get me fired was what pushed me over the edge.
A little while later, my boss received a somewhat sheepish email from Hans confessing that he "just wanted to meet Mr. iElvis in the flesh" but that as I was clearly not interested, he "did not want to give offense" and left.
Some time later, I came across a post in an internet forum devoted to our field that, based on the username and some other things, was clearly from Hans.
"The research in [my journal] is usually first-rate, notwithstanding the poor standards [my company] has for its editors."