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I would like request some advice regarding my situation. Here is a summary: I submitted an article for review for publication in an upper-tier academic journal. I have been published in this journal before and thought I had a good relationship with the editor in chief (EIC). Six months after submission, I received an email from the EIC, telling me that the article was excellent and after I made one small change, they would agree to publish it. I made the change to the EIC's satisfaction and the EIC agreed to publish the article.

Six months after this, I unexpectedly received an email from the EIC telling me that, upon further review, the journal would not publish the article. The EIC then listed three "incorrect" words (yes, words) in the article (it is 20+ pages in length) as the reasons for not publishing it. The EIC stated that publishing the article in its present form would damage my career goals. The EIC also informed me he would not work with me on the article any longer, as he had "spent enough time on it." The EIC then stated that I needed to re-do the entire article and work with "experts in the field." After this was completed, the EIC stated I could resubmit, if I wanted. Again, all of this is completely out of the blue.

Needless to say, I am stunned. Also needless to say, this situation is unacceptable. How would you suggest I proceed at this point? In my opinion, the EIC made a commitment to publish my article in its present form and the EIC should honor this commitment. Should I attempt to contact the EIC's superior(s) about this behavior? It is very strange, and is a huge breach of academic standards. Any help/advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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    I can't find any mention of any kind of peer review in your question. Can you clarify this point? – user9646 May 2 '18 at 18:59
  • The EIC is also the journal's expert in my field. – Daniel May 2 '18 at 19:27
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    What general field is this in? If that's not too identifying. – Obie 2.0 May 3 '18 at 0:15
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    One important factor you’ve not addressed: does the EIC’s objection have any arguable scientific merit? Of course I presume you don’t agree with it, but is it something that reasonably could be seen in good faith as a serious scientific problem with the paper? (The fact the EIC pointed to three words doesn’t mean it’s not reasonable: three words can be a fatal error in themselves, or can sum up a more general problem in a paper.) Of course, the brusque treatment you describe is still outrageous, regardless of the validity of the criticism; but the validity matters for how you proceed. – PLL May 3 '18 at 8:22
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This is a very bizarre situation—I must admit that I've never heard of a paper being rejected because three words are incorrect. It seems that the level of response from the journal is not proportional to the level of the problem.

I agree with Nate's answer that you will probably need to publish elsewhere. Since the decision has been made by the editor-in-chief, the only appeal would be to the publisher, who would be reluctant to overrule a scientific decision by the editor-in-chief absent signs of foul play.

However, in addition to submitting to a different journal, I would definitely try to get in contact with the editor-in-chief to understand what's going on. If he's someone you already know, I would try to see if I could talk with the person directly on the phone, rather than just email. You might be able to get a better sense of what's going on with this rejection than just in an email. I would not try to force the editor-in-chief to change his mind; I would use this opportunity to figure out what caused the paper to go from essentially accepted to rejected in one step.

If you don't get any response, then you should escalate to the publisher. Such behavior is highly irregular, and should be brought to their attention. (Just state it as: "This is what happened and this is why I think it's unusual." But again don't expect a reversal.)

  • Thank you very much for your insightful response. It is very bizarre and personally upsetting, as I have had positive past dealings with this editor. I thought I could, at the very least, trust him to uphold an accepted verdict. Regarding further communication, I don't know that he would even accept my call, as he was very dismissive, not just with his "spent enough time on it" response, but other indications in the email. Nonetheless, I do agree that more explanation is needed. Thanks again. – Daniel May 2 '18 at 23:30
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    See my edit above—you should make sure that you get some sort of response. If you don't, escalate. – aeismail May 3 '18 at 0:14
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Unfortunately, I think the only practical solution will be to submit to another journal.

I don't agree, in principle, with your argument that the journal has made an iron-clad "commitment" to publish your paper, by having accepted it. If we give the editor the benefit of the doubt and suppose that he really has come to believe, in good faith, that the paper is seriously flawed, then I would say he has a duty not to publish it. His responsibility to the journal's readers and the research community takes precedence over any commitment made to you.

Anyway, consider the alternative - even if you could force the journal to publish the paper, there'd be nothing to stop the EIC from immediately publishing a retraction. If he really believes it is seriously flawed, I'd say he would even have an obligation to retract. That would be much worse for you than simple rejection.

If you strongly believe that the editor is not acting in good faith, but is rejecting your paper from some ulterior motive, and you have evidence to support that belief, then you could take your case to the publisher. If it's clear, I suppose it could lead to the firing of the EIC - but it still probably wouldn't get your paper automatically accepted. At best you might be able to resubmit to the new editor. You could do it as a way to help the journal get better leadership, but I don't think it's likely to be effective as far as actually getting your paper published.

  • Thank you for the response, Nate. I have a question: given your response to my predicament, how do you feel about the situation in this link? It is very similar, but told from the perspective of an editor. I find the comments interesting. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/40732/… – Daniel May 2 '18 at 21:42
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    You can see what I wrote about that situation :-) The distinction is that in the linked case, the objection is not based on the content of the paper. In your case, it is, or so the editor claims. In other words, I think the journal's commitment to you takes priority over economic considerations or commitments to other authors who were accepted later, but not over their obligation to keep the research record clean. – Nate Eldredge May 2 '18 at 21:46
  • Yes, I did see your response, that is why I wanted to know the distinction. Thank you for addressing this and also for your time and suggestions. – Daniel May 2 '18 at 21:56
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    It is then not common for the editor to identify for the author at least the most substantial flaws in the article? I mean, if the article is flawed, then submitting it to another journal would be pointless, wouldn't it? – Gnudiff May 3 '18 at 7:34
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    @Gnudiff: Yes, ideally the editor would explain his concerns. In this case he hasn't, or at least not in a way that the author is able to understand. But I don't see that this failure invalidates his decision to reject the paper. And I don't see any way to make him explain further, especially when he's announced pretty clearly that he doesn't want to. So there isn't really anything else to do except submit elsewhere. If the paper isn't actually flawed, it could be accepted. If it is, then maybe the other journal will give more helpful feedback. – Nate Eldredge May 3 '18 at 12:40
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The EIC has rendered two opinions on the submission:

  1. The submission is correct, and should be published.

  2. The submission is incorrect, and should not be published.

Taking these two opinions at face value, one of them must be mistaken in its judgement. There is no reason to assume that it is the second one. Indeed, it is more likely to be the first one, as it is more likely that someone gets a more accurate opinion with additional reflection. What is likely to have happened is that the EIC did not read the submission with sufficient care the first time, and subsequently found errors.

Yes, it is unfortunate that the EIC made that mistake, and issued that acceptance, which had to be withdrawn. This can be frustrating, particularly if OP has told others about this papers' acceptance in this journal. It is also unfortunate that the EIC's explanation of rejection is not very satisfying. Neither of these issues would merit overturning an editorial decision, much less one based on correctness of the manuscript. Absent any reason to suspect this rejection was not based on editorial judgement (e.g. OP slept with EIC's spouse), an appeal is likely hopeless. Resubmission is the only way forward, however see also the following paragraph.

In a separate matter, the OP's characterization of the explanation as "three incorrect words" is potentially minimizing a very serious error. Even a single wrong symbol could completely change the character and value of a paper. Compare "Hence we have proven the Riemann hypothesis for |s|>2." (which is a million-dollar result) with "Hence we have proven the Riemann hypothesis for |s|=2." (which is a trivial, well-known, result). The OP would do well to reflect carefully on just what is wrong with the manuscript, fix these errors, and submit elsewhere.

  • @Daniel, sorry, but that's the truth. I've had papers rejected after acceptance before. I've also experienced the other side, as an editor, where referees accept a paper and I concur, but then afterward errors are discovered and the paper must be rejected. – vadim123 May 3 '18 at 18:56
  • Thank you for your response. In my case, my article has already been utilized and cited in another researcher's work on the same subject, so there are no fundamental problems. I, too, have reached and searched for simple reasons for this situation. Unfortunately, there are none. Let other authors beware: your article is not really "published" until it is "out there," away from any further interference. – Daniel May 3 '18 at 19:01

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