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I submitted a review paper to a well-regarded A* journal 9 months ago. After about 6 weeks, I received a request for revisions. The email contained general comments from 3 reviewers and an attached sheet of detailed comments from one of them. Unfortunately, two of the reviews clearly referred to one or more different papers; none of the comments were relevant to my article. This included very specific comments, such as spelling mistakes on a particular page, that made it clear the reviewer was reading another article. The third reviewer's comments were so general that, honestly, they could apply to almost any article, with comments such as "The paper needs editing for language and grammar" and "the references can be updated and expanded". I don't think the third reviewer's comments referred to my paper either (it was written and edited by 3 native English speakers and the language and grammar are pretty good) but cannot be 100% certain.

I emailed the editor to point out the mistake. I emailed the journal and received a reply to say my email had been passed to the editor. Time passed. I emailed again. And again. All my communications were extremely polite, thanking the editor for considering my article, explaining the confusion and requesting the correct reviewers' comments. There was no reply.

I contacted a colleague who is on the editorial board of the journal. He wrote 3 emails to the editor and received no response.

In desperation, I revised the paper, updating some statistics and adding a few more recent references. As much as was possible, I responded to the reviewers' comments as if they applied to the paper. I wrote a detailed response to the comments, explaining where they didn't apply and outlining the revisions. I resubmitted the paper.

It is too early to have receieved a response yet. However, I have 2 questions:

1) If I get no response now, what other action is available to me? I think the behaviour of the journal has been pretty bad. What recourse do I have? The nature of the article means there is no obvious alternative journal to submit to. 2) If the revised manuscript is accepted, it will be published as a peer-reviewed article without having been peer reviewed. What are the ethics of this and doesn't it make a mockery of the peer-review process?

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    Yeah some of that isn't so unusual. Now that I think about it the worst examples of bad reviewers have come from the highest-impact journals I've submitted to; the reviewer who went off on my use of the oxford comma; the one(s) who denied the validity of undergraduate-level mathematical fundamentals; the one who I'm pretty sure has a severe vision problem (speaking of which, did you provide the double-spaced single-column version?) and stuff like that. – A Simple Algorithm May 30 '18 at 3:36
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    But at least they looked at your paper! ;-) – doctorer May 30 '18 at 3:49
  • My point is, while all of those examples you noted may support the big picture of a system meltdown, many (most?) of them may actually just be "innocent" crappy reviews confusing the issue further. I've also had reviewers dismiss my manuscript as plagued by grammatical errors, based on only two errors or so. – A Simple Algorithm May 30 '18 at 4:39
  • Nah. I have thought that many times, and re-read the reviewers' comments to make sure. As I say, the third review could possibly, at a stretch, be refering to my paper. But the other 2 definitely are not. One starts: "The paper is a review of x in country y", while the paper bears NO relation to x and doesn't mention y. The second is very specific: "The word x is misspelt on page y", "Figure a on page b is captioned incorrectly" where I have not used the word x, there is no figure a, etc. There is no question in my mind that at least 2 of the reviews were written for diffent paper (s). – doctorer May 30 '18 at 4:49
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This sounds like an incredible botch-up, to the degree that it has me seriously questioning whether the journal you submitted to is the one that you believe it is.

Most reputable journals now use paper-handling and review systems that are highly automated, such that it would be extremely difficult to get a paper attached to the wrong reviews (like, beyond incompetence and into active interference with the systems). One reviewer sending in the wrong review I can see---two that are clearly referring to the same wrong paper is unlikely to happen unless something much deeper has gone wrong.

At this point, the appropriate course of action is not dealing with this handling editor any more, but escalating to the editor(s) in chief (EIC). They should be responsive and able to sort this out quickly.

If you do not get a satisfactory response out of the journal leadership within a week, I would start to wonder whether you are really dealing with the journal that you think that you are. The behavior that you are describing sounds more like that of a predatory publisher: sometimes journal websites are hijacked or reasonable people (like your colleague, assuming you trust them) are tricked into supporting predatory enterprises with names designed to sound almost identical to reputable ones. It is also the case that journals, like any other organization, sometimes collapse and fail, and it is possible that you might be witnessing the last stand of a formerly respectable institution.

In any case, if you don't get a satisfactory response from the EIC within a week, I would suggest withdrawing your paper and sending it to a different and more trustworthy publication venue. But first, if your field allows it, publish a preprint somewhere like arXiv as a precaution against possible plagiarism or refusal to accept your withdrawal.

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    I upvoted but I think some of your conclusions are premature, e.g. a predatory journal is not likely to take six weeks to provide three reviews, especially if some of them are detailed reviews (even if they're for the wrong paper). The journal publisher is also not likely to say "we've forwarded your email to the editor", and besides there's no indication this is an OA paper. I agree with the suggestion though - escalate to the EiC. – Allure May 29 '18 at 23:47
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    All my correspondence has been to the EIC, as he was handling the paper according to the website. Part way through this process, a new EIC was appointed and I continued my one-sided correspondence with her. This is a highly reputable journal in my field, there is no question of that. I presume the mix up is at the journal rather than with the individual reviewers. – doctorer May 29 '18 at 23:49
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    If your correspondence is with the EIC and you are certain you are dealing with a good journal, I would still withdraw, giving a clear statement of why. Bungling at this level and refusal to fix it taints the whole review process, and if they can't fix it, I would reconsider their reputation. Maybe requesting to withdraw will get their attention and they will fix things. If it doesn't, I still say you are better off taking your work elsewhere. – jakebeal May 29 '18 at 23:55
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As a longtime academic editor, I find that your experience is all too common and very, very frustrating. It may be related to the fact that reviewers aren't paid for their work or that journal editors are just too busy to oversee each submission.

Are you sure there is no other possible journal for you to submit to? That would be my first recommendation, given your shabby treatment.

Regarding your second question, I advise letting go of your ethical concern. Yes, the peer-review process for both articles and books is a mockery. It's much worse for books, given their greater length and what's involved in revising them to please sloppy reviewers. You can't do much about that mess. Since you didn't create it, you have no personal ethical responsibility here.

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    I strongly disagree with your statement "Since you didn't create it, you have no personal ethical responsibility here." I think that we have ethical responsibilities even when somebody else is behaving badly---and that is in fact the time when ethics matter most. – jakebeal May 30 '18 at 12:12
  • The question was, "If the revised manuscript is accepted, it will be published as a peer-reviewed article without having been peer reviewed. What are the ethics of this and doesn't it make a mockery of the peer-review process?" – Eggy May 31 '18 at 0:45
  • The question was, "What are the ethics of this and doesn't it make a mockery of the peer-review process?" Ethics always matter, or course. I phrased my answer as I did because the poster is up against entrenched systemic problems and I don't think the poster can influence this system. But if, as others have suggested, the wrong reviews were accidentally attached to the paper, that's a different case entirely. Still, the poster did everything possible to alert the editor to the error but got no reply. I think the poster has made sufficient effort to correct the problem. – Eggy May 31 '18 at 0:53

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