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I think the title asks the question, but once again in more words:

Suppose you submit a paper to a journal and it is accepted by the journal. By this I mean that the journal tells you that they have decided to publish your paper but you have not submitted or examined final proofs and -- especially -- not signed any paperwork allowing the journal to publish the paper.

I wonder how people feel about the ethics of deciding not to go through with the publication because you now feel that the paper could be published in a better journal? This could happen either because of outside feedback you received in the meantime or because of feedback from the referees/editors of the journal itself. (Added: In case this was not clear, I am assuming that upon submission one was seeking to publish in that journal conditional on not learning that one has "shot way too low".)

As far as I can see, it is absolutely legal to do this, so I am not interested in the legality of it, but rather its ethics and ramifications as an academic practice. I also think I will get better answers if I do not telegraph my own feelings about this; I will be happy to document them later on. Let me just say (i) this is a hypothetical question, but (ii) based on my own experience it is not ridiculous that it might be in the interest of the author to engage in this practice, if it happened to be kosher to all parties involved.

Note: I had previously asked a related question, at the time wondering whether it would be better asked separately. Based on the way things have gone thus far, I now think it is better to post this followup question separately (not necessarily right away).

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A related, and perhaps more realistic, situation: what if you realise that by doing some (relatively minor) additional work on the paper, you can transform its significance? What about if that realisation is entirely prompted by a review comment recieved from the third-rate journal? Are you beholden to that journal? –  avid Jun 1 at 0:40
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Here is a different slice of the same ethical pie: imagine you are the editor of a journal which is serious but really third-rate. (There are a lot more than three rates of journals in most academic fields: third-rate is nothing to sneeze at.) Suppose you get a paper from a young person at an undistinguished institution, and as a professional it is clear to you that the paper would be gladly accepted by the top journal in your academic subject. Would it be ethical to inform the young person of this, or is it fully kosher to just look forward to the bump in your journal's impact factor? –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 1:17
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@PeteL.Clark - You have to remember how many scientific breakthroughs were published in second (and lower) tier journals because the majors were too stuck in their ways to realize the innovation of the author. That's why many of us continue to read broadly across the journal tiers because we realize the top journals are not always the site of top research. –  RoboKaren Jun 1 at 1:34
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@RoboKaren: I am puzzled how you got from my previous comment that a paper published in a lower tier journal which solves an important problem will not be read. I explicitly suggested the opposite. There are other considerations here besides publicity. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 1:39
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@RoboKaren: I am starting to get frustrated with your inattention to the nuances of the question. You missed the fact that I am not asking about this on my own behalf and I am not asking whether this is strategically sound. I am asking about the ETHICS of the question. Does the ethics of the practice depend upon whether the author is junior, senior or faculty at all? I don't see how. And, though I see no relevance to this particular question, there is no need to make assumptions about my academic background: my profile links to my academic homepage. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 5:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 26 down vote accepted

There are certainly cases in which withdrawing a paper after acceptance is reasonable, for example if the author feels misled or mistreated by the journal (as Benoît Kloeckner points out in his answer). However, when the journal and referees have behaved blamelessly, it's hard to justify unilaterally withdrawing the paper after acceptance. When you submitted the paper, you implicitly agreed to publish it there if accepted. This is part of the research community's norms: a submitted paper is a request for publication, not a request for the option to publish.

Of course it's not a legally binding promise, or even a particularly grave moral promise, but it's still not something you can reasonably violate without a compelling reason beyond self interest. I don't think this is even worth considering except in extraordinary circumstances, such as a paper that was submitted in good faith but turned out to be far more important than the author could have foreseen. Fortunately, there's a simple solution in these cases, namely asking the editor for permission. It's a little awkward, but certainly less so than just going ahead and withdrawing the paper without asking, and an apologetic explanation can help. If there's a truly compelling reason to withdraw the paper and resubmit elsewhere, then there's a good chance of getting the editor's blessing, which would resolve the ethical issues. If, on the other hand, the editor disagrees with the reasoning, then the author is stuck. But it's better to be stuck publishing in a low-prestige journal than to do something inappropriate or unethical, and being unable to convince the editor is a bad sign regarding the ethics.

This is a special case of a broader principle: if you believe unusual circumstances justify behavior that might otherwise be considered unethical, and there's someone who could in principle grant permission, then it's generally better to ask for permission than to take action unilaterally.

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Why would "a paper that was submitted in good faith but turned out to be far more important than the author could have foreseen" be an extraordinary circumstance? –  adipro Jun 1 at 19:46
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@adipro: I have in mind an extreme case in which the author enormously underestimated the quality of the paper (not "Gee, I wonder in hindsight whether this could have been accepted at an even better journal" but rather "I thought this was just recreational mathematics, but people in field X tell me I've solved a famous open problem without realizing it"). Whether this counts as truly extraordinary would depend on the circumstances, though. I'm not convinced this situation would justify unilateral withdrawal, but the editor might well be sympathetic. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 1 at 21:57
    
Thank you. It is more about getting a journal with a more fitting scope then, rather than low vs high quality journal? –  adipro Jun 1 at 22:10

It is not ethical to withdraw a paper that has been accepted. Journals, editors, and reviewers invest time in the publication process. To withdraw a paper after it has entered this process is a waste of their time. While the legal ramifications of is behaviour are probably limited, it will result in bad feelings.

As for not having the money to publish. Assuming the journal fees are available prior to submission, and reputable journals make their fees known, then if you don't have the money, then you don't get to submit. If they have a paid expedited service and you are worried about the back log, then ask up front. The only case that it might be acceptable is if he review process drags on for so long that your funding ends.

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"To withdraw a paper after it has entered this process is a waste of their time." Well, let me play devil's advocate. Rejected papers certainly get refereed multiple times. It is a standard piece of advice to shoot too high in one's first submission. Isn't shooting way too high and then slowly coming down more of a waste of people's time than taking your best guess the first time and then modifying as new information becomes available? –  Pete L. Clark May 31 at 19:41
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@PeteL.Clark but that is an issue with the handling editor. If it you have shot way too high, then the paper never goes out for review. When handling editors send out too many poor manuscripts, it becomes harder for them to find reviewers. –  StrongBad May 31 at 19:44
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"If it you have shot way too high, then the paper never goes out for review." That really depends on the specific journal and its practices. I certainly know people start at a certain point and move down 2-4 levels before they get published, getting a referee report every time. So the argument "submitting more than once is a waste of time" seems like it's on the right track but needs more explanation to be definitive. –  Pete L. Clark May 31 at 19:51
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I am speaking from direct experience here. More than once I have received a paper from a very prestigious journal asking for a "quick opinion". What this means is that they think the paper has shot way too high, but -- mathematics being the technical field that it is, even the superstars who are editors in these journals do not have expertise in everything -- they still solicit outside help. The effort of doing a quick report is not an order of magnitude less than doing an ordinary report...and moreover it is usually done "quickly". So shooting too high is hardly a victimless crime. –  Pete L. Clark May 31 at 19:58
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Apart from the ethics, it would be a risky game to play. What happens if <better journal> won't take it? You will probably get short shrift from the original editor if you try going back there... and you can't hedge your bets, because you have to confirm that the article isn't under consideration elsewhere when you submit. (Pedantically, could you argue it's no longer under consideration once it's been accepted?) –  avid May 31 at 22:43

Suppose I submit a paper to Journal A. Under what circumstances can I then ethically withdraw it?

  • Upon receipt of the reviews. The review process can be thought of rather like the (English) law on contracts. I offer Journal A a paper in a certain form. They think about it for a while, and then (typically) reject my initial proposal, but offer to publish a related paper ("If you add X and Y we'll take it"). Typically, I then make revisions and submit them, forming a new "offer". Eventually, we reach a stage where the proposal is acceptable to both parties, and the paper is accepted. However, I'm under no obligation to continue to negotiate with the journal if at some point I decide that I don't like the terms they're offering (e.g. the reviewers ask for changes that I don't want to make). Does it make a difference if the reviews are largely positive, instead of largely negative? Intuitively, I'd say it does, but I'm struggling to come up with a sound justification for this. [Edited to add:] I suppose the difference is that withdrawing after good reviews would seem to indicate that I'm acting "in bad faith"; see below.

  • If I discover a serious flaw in the paper. Clearly, I have a responsibility to withdraw it as soon as the flaw is recognised, to avoid wasting everyone's time. Once the flaw has been fixed, the paper may well look quite different (in content); thus, it seems implausible that I am bound to choose the same journal upon resubmission.

  • If I realise the paper could be significantly improved. This is a trickier one. You might well argue that it was unethical of me to submit it in the first place, as it wasn't "complete". On the other hand, this could easily arise without me being at fault: perhaps someone else has just published a new statistical test which provides additional insights into my results; perhaps I'm working in a field where data is sparse, and an additional set of data points have just been obtained. It seems weird to suggest that it's wholly unethical to withdraw the paper and improve it. (Indeed, it seems arguable that it's more ethical than allowing the incomplete paper to be published, and then immediately writing a follow-up.) Again, when it comes to resubmission, it makes sense to decide the venue based on a fresh assessment of the merits.

Furthermore, I don't see that these latter two points necessarily cease to apply once the paper is "accepted" (rather than "in review"). Certainly, I'm still responsible for fixing any flaws. On the other hand, in the "legal" analysis, acceptance constitutes the making of a contract, which cannot then be broken without consequences.

So, to go back to the original question: if I (a) originally submitted in good faith, and (b) would need to do some nontrivial amount of work to adapt the paper for the more prestigious journal, it seems that it's not unethical for me to withdraw with the intention of "moving upmarket", at least provided I do it before acceptance. After acceptance, it is probably unethical.

However, there are a lot of interesting grey areas. Do I have a responsibility to my funding providers to get maximum exposure for the research they support? What if my paper will directly help, say, a cure for cancer - so that getting it widely known in the relevant community has positive implications for humanity?

The main argument against permitting withdrawal would appear to be the fact that it wastes people's time. Again, a legal comparison is instructive: if you walk away from contract negotiations, you are not in any way breaching the contract: it hasn't yet been made. However, if the other side think they can argue you weren't acting in good faith, you may well find yourself being sued for their costs. However, I would class that as a business matter, not an ethical one.

Finally, to address a point made in the comments: does an editor have a responsibility to inform an author that they're underselling their work? I'm not sure that they do (just as, provided I have not made any misrepresentations, I'm not obliged to tell a prospective buyer that he's offering me too much money for my house). If editors start second-guessing authors' choices in submitting to this or that journal, the system would quickly descend into chaos. However, reviewers (who act like the legal advisors on the house-sale analogy) may well be obliged to make the significance of the work clear (though, perhaps, not to go as far as recommending the author take one course of action over another).

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What a great answer. The idea that submitting a paper is similar to making a business offer is an interesting one: if the journal agrees to take the paper "as is" and you then try to withdraw it, then you are revealing that your initial offer was in "bad faith". I find this argument rather compelling, but there are two complicating factors: (i) journals rarely take papers "as is"; even very positive reports will ask for some changes made, including some changes that an author may in their heart prefer not to make; and (ii) the referee report itself doesn't have a clear "business" analogue. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 10:20
    
There is also a third complicating factor in that after you feel like the intellectual transaction is finished you still have to deal with the production of the paper and the signing of the contract. Many current practices of big publishing companies look obnoxious/unethical to academics, and occasionally I do hold my nose a little when I sign such contracts. I think many authors are not seeing the fine print on these contracts until after their papers are accepted (and many more are not looking...). This makes the idea that the initial submission is contractually binding look weaker. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 10:25
    
When I get the reviews, I have a business decision to make: does the cost of attempting to secure more agreeable terms elsewhere outweigh the value of the concessions I'm being asked to make? Note, too, that there's nothing stopping me informing the editor that I'm not prepared to resile from my position, and inviting him to reconsider his. And yes, one could perhaps see the signing of releases, etc, as part of the negotiations - but you should have researched these as part of your "due diligence" before making your initial offer. –  avid Jun 1 at 10:43
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I'll also make the general observation that there is a distinction here between unethical behaviour, and behaviour that will impact adversely upon your reputation. It is quite possible to make yourself deeply unpopular without ever doing anything unethical. –  avid Jun 1 at 10:56
    
Yes, I agree: that's an important distinction to make here. Other answers and comments have focused on the fact that doing this practice will probably make the practitioner less popular. I agree with that, and I will say that I personally have no less aversion to being unpopular in the circles that I frequent than the average person. Still, if there were no ethical problem then many people would at least perform the expected value computation, and I think there are circumstances in which incurring some unpopularity would be worth it from a self-interest perspective. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 11:08

I can imagine some cases where withdrawing an accepted paper would be ethical.

Some where already given by Avid's answer, e.g. when the author realize that the paper is flawed. Another one would be if the author realize after acceptance that the journal editorial policy is far below what is expected (e.g. the author realizes that the journal is predatory). More specific cases could be:

  1. the author receives a very quick positive report, where the reviewer makes it pretty clear he or she did not read the paper,
  2. the author is asked pages charges, or article processing charges while the journal did not made it clear that they are charging the author,
  3. the editor accepts the paper but (kindly) asks the author to add some references to the journal so as to increase their impact factor (sadly, this is not a fictional case).

I would say that most of the time, withdrawing after acceptance is on the unethical side of the border line (for the reason given by StrongBad: it wastes other's time), but that some specific circumstances make it ethical or even the way to go.

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While this sort of behavior is not unheard of in the social sciences, it is certainly frowned upon. It could also lead to you being blacklisted by the original journal, if not more serious negative sanctions.

You also have to remember that in many fields that:

  • Journal editors know each other and socialize together
  • The number of referees for any random obscure topic is low

If you did this, you would get caught either 1) when the 2nd journal accepts the paper and publishes it; 2) before this when the journal editor #1 has drinks with journal editor #2; or 3) by random luck, journal editor #2 sends it to the same referee who green lighted it for journal #1.

Don't mess with journals. It's much better to have a first article in a journal with a low citation index than it is to create bad blood with journal editors.

If you're smart enough, you can write a second essay on a following topic that you can send to journal #2 once you've established yourself with your initial essay in the original journal #1.

[Edited for clarity]

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What about the case of an established researcher withdrawing and resubmitting? –  Jim Conant Jun 1 at 1:37
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Authors certainly have the right to withdraw, however if the journal editor suspects you are doing it to journal shop, they are within their rights to not want to do business with you again. –  RoboKaren Jun 1 at 1:44
    
I don't understand why you seem to think this is about citation indices: I didn't say that, and in fact in 2014 as long as you publish a paper in a mainstream journal, it will get cited just as much as if you publish it in a top journal. I also don't understand why you are assuming the author is not "established". –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 1:47
    
I agree that this is something that is going to be frowned upon, and that is a very important practical consideration. However, I asked about the ethics of the practice, and your answer does not address ethics in any way that I could see. You also seem to be assuming that the author would be hiding the fact that this has been done. Why is that? –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 1:48
    
(By the way, it is useful information that this sort of behavior is not unheard of in the social sciences. I have literally never heard of anyone in my field -- mathematics -- engaging in this practice.) –  Pete L. Clark Jun 1 at 1:50

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