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Suppose a journal editor rejects a manuscript with only one reviewer’s feedback, but the few comments the reviewer and editor made were almost entirely minor comments (e.g. “use these units for this figure axis”, or “this section heading is misleading”).

Suppose one author shows the feedback to several trusted faculty members at their institution who are familiar with the work, and they say it looks like the reviewer, the editor, or both are feeling threatened by the paper and may be trying to make sure it doesn’t get published quickly, if at all.

A similar question has been asked here (How to deal with an unethical editor?), except that question was asking about an editor who was making up comments for a reviewer. Suppose the authors have no reason to believe that the editor is making up comments for a reviewer, as in that question, but do have reason to think the editor may have too quickly dismissed the paper (after only one reviewer’s comments rather than waiting for the second reviewer, and based on very minor details that should have prompted minor revision). Suppose, for the sake of the question, that the editor and perhaps the first reviewer indeed appear to be acting in bad faith, which of course would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove. In other words, what if several experienced researchers suspected real foul play, rather than a grad student feeling miffed about a rejection?

What options are available to the authors in such a situation? (This is not a “what should I do?” question.)

Background

This question is most useful to the community when it is asked generally, so I originally omitted details. Several have asked, so I am including vague details here, but my question is not about my colleague's situation — it's intended to be general.

I read the feedback. In my colleague's case, the editor rejected the paper based on the feedback from a single reviewer and their own reading of the manuscript — without waiting for the feedback from the second reviewer. Most of the comments were easily addressed (add a sentence here, change units on this figure, rephrase this confusing sentence there, etc.). A comment about some inconsistency in their approach seemed legitimate, and a section title was confusing. The first author, a grad student, sent the feedback to me and the faculty they talked with to see what we thought. There was absolutely nothing about the feedback that indicated it should have been rejected rather than sent back for revision. I'm also a grad student, so I do think much of my own opinion, plus it's not my field. Instead, I trust that the senior faculty who reviewed the feedback and called it highly unusual know what they are talking about. The editor was in a different (tangentially-related) field than that of the paper.

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    If the first response of 'trusted' faculty members is that those handling the manuscript feel 'threatened by the paper', it is likely time to reevaluate your trust in them. – Jon Custer Mar 13 '18 at 13:26
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    @JonCuster: I’m afraid the trustworthiness, experience, and judgment of these faculty members is something you’ll have to take by fiat for the purposes of this question, along with the suspiciousness of the review and any other relevant information. – jvriesem Mar 13 '18 at 13:43
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    Think about it this way: the set of biased journal editors in your field, even if it is non-empty is certainly a proper subset and likely a very small subset of the set of all editors. Therefore,.... – user_of_math Mar 13 '18 at 17:09
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    I disagree with the @Alchimista's comment that "Once the editor sent it out, then he/she has to adhere to the referee recommendations." At least in my field (mathematics), referees' reports are merely advice to the editor, who is free to overrule the recommendations in the reports. – Andreas Blass Mar 13 '18 at 21:49
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    Possible duplicate of Paper rejected. Should I appeal against biased reviews? – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 14 '18 at 16:29
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As far as as I know, your options are:

  1. Appeal the decision. Many publishers have an official appeal process; typically this will bring the decision to the attention of the editor-in-chief.
  2. Submit the paper elsewhere.
  3. Abandon the paper. Not a good option if you think the real problem is the editor rather than the paper.

It is very rarely a good idea to appeal a paper rejection. Here's why:

  • Appeals are very rarely successful. There typically needs to be a very objective set of evidence in your favor. But rejection decisions are often based largely on subjective measures.
  • Since journal editors tend to be senior researchers, the editor who rejected a paper often has more experience than the author of the paper. Furthermore, the author's opinion is always colored by personal involvement. It is thus more often the case that the author's opinion of a rejection is mistaken. This is a statistical point, and of course you will believe that it does not reflect your particular case.
  • An appeal may negatively impact your relation with the editor(s) of the journal, particularly if they feel it is not warranted or if your emotional attachment to the process leads you to be unkind.
  • Appeals are often handled very slowly; after all, the editors (who are typically volunteers) don't want to encourage the use of the appeal process.

Thus, even if you are right and the editor is really wrong, you are usually better served by submitting the manuscript to another journal. This is especially true if you believe that the editor is truly acting in a malicious way, since then you have even lower odds of success.

For reference, here is Springer's policy and advice on appeals. See also this question and answers to it.

Bottom line: as @Vincent suggests, you're almost always better off submitting to a different journal.

  • I also think this is not the case for appeal as one editor is involved. I did successfully appealed as you say by dismantling each adverse referee comment, but the editor was, until the appeal phase, not involved. – Alchimista Mar 13 '18 at 16:02
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    Unfortunately, brushing off such behaviors is the reason why unscrupulous people continue their acts. I am speaking about academia and in general life. At least, us in academia, with tenure and all, should speak up freely against such malicious acts. – Just_to_Answer Mar 13 '18 at 16:23
76

Probably not what you want to hear, but... There's the option of submitting it somewhere else?

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    This is the correct answer. If the journal rejects your paper, then submit elsewhere. If, in fact, it is a great paper, then this is a great loss to the journal. Little or no loss to you. Arguing or appealing the rejection is rarely successful, and causes those involved to think negatively of you. – GEdgar Mar 13 '18 at 11:28
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    @GEdgar: Perhaps, but an answer with no background or justification is rarely the best answer, especially when competing against others that say something similar. – jvriesem Mar 13 '18 at 14:02
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    @Vincent: Consider editing this to say "Ignore him LIKE A BOSS." – einpoklum Mar 13 '18 at 18:26
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    @jvriesem OP asked for other options so I gave one, but I think you're right: reasons for choosing that option would be better. It's a bit of a shame that somehow this answer is listed so high; I would encourage you to accept this one that provides proper motivation: academia.stackexchange.com/a/105400/53401 – Vincent Mar 14 '18 at 10:04
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    @jvriesem A list which consists of the only option is still a list of options. – jwg Mar 15 '18 at 10:24
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I have had this situation before (an editor that given 2 positive reviews, continued to get more and more and more reviews until someone gave a negative one, then rejected it). We contacted the editor-in-chief with our concerns about how our review process was being handled, as the editor's conduct against us appeared to go against the policy of the journal.

The editor was removed from the process, the paper was 'unrejected' and we were given a new editor. The paper was published soon afterwards.

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    What stands out to me in your story is that there was very clear evidence of wrongdoing on the editor's part. If all someone has are suspicious or evidence that can be interpreted in different lights, unfortunately, their best bet is probably to find another journal to submit to. – Kevin Mar 13 '18 at 21:18
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This likely won't resolve the problem, but should put you in a better position to try and do whatever it is you choose to do:

Contact the editor, and ask him/her for the reason for rejection. Say what you've told us, i.e. that the comments s/he and the reviewer(s) had given are stylistic or inconsequential, and that given those comments you were expecting an acceptance.

S/he could then:

  • claim those comments are the grounds for rejection - which would make him look quite unprofessional.
  • give you an alternative reason for rejection - with which you may or may not be able to do something, but at least it'll be a concrete reason.
  • stall or not answer - so you can at least claim you tried clearing things up with him/her.
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There is no appeal possibility for most journals. So the answer is that there is pretty much nothing you can do. If the editor is really and consistently acting in bad faith, then that will eventually be widely known, influence who submits what kind of papers, the quality will gradually decline, and the journal will decline with that. But you will hopefully have tenure by the time that has happened.

Your best course of action now is to just submit the paper somewhere else.

4

Expanding on Vincent's excellent answer, the options in this situation are:

  1. Submit to another journal, incorporating the feedback received.

  2. Submit to another journal, ignoring the feedback received.

  3. Appeal the decision, recognizing that this is very unlikely to gain anything.


It appears to be a common misconception, held among those submitting manuscripts to scientific journals, that the comments behind a rejection hold some sort of monumental significance. The editors of a journal can reject a manuscript on a whim -- it's their journal, and they have editorial control. If they want to only publish recipes for chocolate chip cookies from now on, that is their prerogative (although the journal's reputation will suffer, and those editors may be replaced by the publisher). The explanation is given to the author as a courtesy, to help the author with any subsequent resubmission of the work. It is not meant to be the first round of a debate.

Sometimes it is very difficult to give a satisfying explanation -- the true answer is "this manuscript is a bad copy of its first draft, which was found written in blood on the walls of an insane asylum" -- but one needs to phrase this somewhat differently to avoid giving offense.

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Just submit it somewhere else.

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    This does not answer the question as asked. See my clarification. – jvriesem Mar 14 '18 at 15:06

protected by Alexandros Mar 16 '18 at 21:03

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