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We submitted a paper to a journal published by Cambridge Press. The paper was submitted last year (2013). After five months we got the decision yesterday. We don't mind the decision, however, we are shocked by the editorial comments that although they have the reports they don't relay the reports to the author/s for papers which are not proceeding further. Is this approach common in journals? We feel this is very unethical from any author's point of view.

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This seems very strange. What is this journal? I see no reason to keep the journal name secret. –  Faheem Mitha May 24 at 15:32
Modern Asian Studies –  user15667 May 24 at 19:08
I once had an editor refuse to send me a referee report because a paper was accepted without revisions, so his reason was that there was nothing to do, so why did I need the report? I was quite peeved by this, but then it was kind of the opposite situation, so there considerably less cause for complaint. :-) –  Faheem Mitha May 24 at 19:12
Just to clarify: Not relaying the reports to the authors was (according to the editorial decision) something that was not done for reasons specific to your paper but as the default action for rejected papers? –  Wrzlprmft May 25 at 8:49
Not specific to our paper. –  user15667 May 25 at 9:07
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2 Answers 2

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I consider that not giving authors the ground on which the decision was taken to be both unethical and bad for science. How should the authors improve the paper if they don't even know why they have been rejected? How can they get a sense of what the community expects from them?

I am not alone in this: the International Mathematical Union issued ethical guidelines for journals, including that the default policy should be that referee's reports are forwarded to author. However many journals give the referees the opportunity to give comments solely for the editors, and some editors prefer not to forward some reports to avoid pissing off the authors. I never heard of a journal with a policy of never forwarding reports of rejected papers before; this sounds absurd or really cowardly.

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Now I get the picture and see that I am not alone in finding this cowardly and unethical. –  user15667 May 24 at 10:09
It is often cowardly and unethical but there is the black swan event that makes it not entirely justifiable. –  RoboKaren May 25 at 5:48
I suspect things are rolling differently in social science and science journals...after a review of the posts! –  user15667 May 26 at 5:43
@user15667: the habits are likely to be different (even between different nature science fields and between different social science fields), but I do not see why the ethical and efficiency reasons for giving authors the precise grounds on which their papers are decided upon should not apply equally to all fields. –  Benoît Kloeckner May 26 at 14:59
Hmm...points to ponder. –  user15667 May 26 at 15:09
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The reports are the property of the editor of the journal as they are the commissioning body. They do have the ability to share parts of the reports to the ms authors but they are under no legal obligation to. In some cases (especially with negative reports), the referees may ask that the editor to not share the comments.

There are really no grounds for effective mechanism to appeal this type of policy.

The best suggestion would be to go to another journal -- perhaps one with a faster turnaround time. And ask some of your colleagues to read your ms and see why it might not be getting the positive results you had hoped for.

Followup: The journal has no legal obligation to tell you why they denied your paper. They might have a moral one (such as the disciplinary association urging them to), but no legal one. If they have it written in their bylaws that they will, then of course they will, but there is no legal requirement to.

This is similar to universities not having a legal (as opposed to moral) requirement to tell you why they didn't hire you or private granting agencies not having a legal requirement to tell you why they didn't give you funding. Again, if their policies (or if there is a federal/state/local requirement, etc. then they will) dictate they they must, then they will but this is rare to non-existent for private institutions (including non-profits).

Source: I've sat on the editorial board of the flagship journal of my discipline (in the social sciences).

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but they are under no obligation — [citation needed] –  JeffE May 24 at 16:57
Your conclusion "There are really no grounds for appeal of this policy." is incorrect. Perhaps there are really no legal grounds, but that's not the same thing. –  JeffE May 26 at 0:15
@Pete - That's exactly my point. The editor/journal has no obligation to share anything with the ms author about the process. If you have contradictory information, please share it. –  RoboKaren May 26 at 2:18
Not being under the legal obligation to share something is hardly synonymous with that thing being your property. It seems obvious to me that the referee reports are not owned by the editor in any legal sense: if anyone "owns" them, it would have to be the referee who wrote them. But I don't see this going anywhere useful. –  Pete L. Clark May 26 at 3:13
There's a big difference between an appeal being groundless and an appeal being ineffective. If the editor already lacks the integrity to reveal the referee reports, he's unlikely to grow a conscience on appeal. That does not imply that the appeal is groundless. (A longer term form of appeal is the court of public opinion. If everyone knows that this particular editor hides referee reports, people are less likely to submit to his journal. But that doesn't actually help the present appellant.) –  JeffE May 26 at 16:35
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