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I have recently received a response for a paper submission. The paper expanded on a conference presentation, and it was submitted to the journal special issue related to that conference.

All three reviewers recommended acceptance (one "definite accept", two with "minor changes") but the editors chose to reject the paper "in light of the reviews" without any additional reason.

Why might the editors have chosen to do this? Is it OK to ask them for an explanation of their reasoning, or even to ask them to reconsider?

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    The editors most likely don't like you for some reason not related to your paper. If they didn't like your paper, they would have explained why. – Joel Reyes Noche Jul 24 '13 at 12:46
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    The editors most likely don't like you for some reason not related to your paper. — Then they have a conflict of interest, and they should have assigned the paper to another editor. – JeffE Jul 24 '13 at 14:09
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    Good journals tend to have an excess of things that they want to publish. – StrongBad Jul 24 '13 at 14:51
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    This so called editor needs to be educated about the difference about "in spite of" and "in light of". You can accept a paper in light of good reviews, and reject in spite of good reviews! "In light of" never means that something is considered which suggests one action, but then an opposite action is taken. It's basically a synonym for "due to" or "because of". – Kaz Jul 24 '13 at 20:24
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    I have gone through a similar situation today. I got 10 days ago reports about my paper. First reviewer said publish in its form while the other said consider after minor changes. The changes where to add some references related to a specified author. I did this and after one week I got a rejection from the editor saying that he found the paper unsuitable for the journal. Because of this I decided not to review for this journal as he does not consider reviewers comments in considerations. – user42116 Oct 5 '15 at 19:08
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First, a note: the editor (or editors, or editorial committee) is solely responsible for the decision to publish or reject a submitted manuscript. Reviewers are often (not always) called in and their reports provide help to the editor in evaluating the manuscript. But, at the end of the day, it is the editor who makes the call, so the situation you describe is possible and not necessarily unethical.

It is, however, very unusual, both for the editor not to follow the unanimous recommendation of the reviewers, and even more so not to explain their rejection any further. You can definitely (and, in my opinion, should) contact the editor to:

  1. express your surprise at the rejection, given the contents of the reviews;
  2. ask whether it may have been an administrative error (with the nice streamlined web-based editor interface, a simple misplaced click might have lead to the current situation);
  3. if the decision is deliberate, ask the editor if he may expand on the reason behind the rejection.

Of course, be professional and polite.


If after contacting the editor you are not satisfied with the answer, the only way forward is to appeal the decision to the editor-in-chief or the full editorial board. Details on how to do so should be found on the journal's website. This should not be done lightly, but if you do not get a decent reply from the editor, it seems warranted by the facts of your case. You may, however, want to consider sending the manuscript to another journal, as it will take much less effort than the appeal…

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    Often these are "appealed" by sending the paper to another journal. Downside is that it is time consuming to go through the referee process again. – Paul Jul 24 '13 at 17:48
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    To reject despite the reviewers recommended it, is not that strange compared to the even stranger fact that the cited reason was "in light of the reviews". – vsz Jul 24 '13 at 18:15
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I should also point out that one issue could be related to being submitted to " journal special issue related to that conference".

While that is the perfect place for the paper, keep in mind that in a regular issue, an accepted paper appears in the first issue which has space. For the special issue, all papers must appear in that issue. If the editors ended up with 5000 pages of accepted articles, they had to trim them down and reject some despite the good reviews.

As your paper had good reviews, it should probably be easy to publish it in some journal, maybe the regular issues of the same one?

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    At least in theoretical computer science, submissions to special issues for conferences are invited by the guest editor, who is almost always a senior member of the program committee. Invitations normally go to the best papers presented at the conference (according to the PC reviews). So the suggested situation could arise only if the guest editor was negligent in inviting too many papers. – JeffE Jul 24 '13 at 14:03
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    Even if too many good papers were submitted to the special issue, it seems strange to reject those papers, as opposed to accepting them to a regular issue of the journal (since special issue papers are typically held to the same scope and quality standards as regular papers) or expanding to a second special issue. – JeffE Jul 24 '13 at 14:06
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    If this theory is correct, "in light of the reviews" would be plain wrong. – Blaisorblade Jul 8 '15 at 17:35
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    @JeffE This is not the case in other fields. – Fomite Nov 2 '15 at 18:30
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    @Blaisorblade: "in light of the reviews" might mean that the reviews were insufficiently enthusiastic, so it was ranked less highly than other papers submitted and rejected due to limited space. – Peter Shor Jun 13 '17 at 20:38
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I fully agree with F'x but would like to add the following. As stated editors are free to make the judgement they see fit with the journal reputation in mind etc. However, an editor should also wed out manuscripts that do not fit the journal's scope etc. already before the review stage. It therefore seems even more strange that a manuscript reeives such a drastic result from a seemingly good response from reviewers.

Another issue is that reviewers provide comments directly to the editor. It is thus possible that the review seems good but the reviewer may voice some concern that he/she feels the editor must act upon and which they therefore cannot voice in the open review. The editor can react to this. I would still expect the editor to then provide more open concerns so as to provide you with feedback.

All in all F'x's suggestion to contact the editor is the way to go. Describe that you do not understand the resulting "verdict" and that you would like to get more feedback so as to possibly improve a seemingly already good manuscript or possibly be given the opportunity to revise for a new final decision.

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    But if this were the case, one would not expect the reviewers to recommend acceptance publicly, and voice concerns privately. The public reviews would likely be of the "major revision" variety. – aeismail Nov 6 '13 at 19:20
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    No, that is true but that is not what I am saying, only that you do not know what information the reviewers might give the editor "privately". Just speculating, there could be something that seems trivial that makes the editor see the paper in a different light; far fetched - yes. It is of course extremely unlikely that someone would say "accept" officially and then say "reject" to the editor. On the other hand I would not bet on it to never have happened. – Peter Jansson Nov 6 '13 at 19:27
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I have a few potential scenarios in mind beyond just "They don't like you":

  • As Peter Jansson said, reviewers usually get a space to address just the editor, rather than the author, and in those comments there might have been a reason to reject your paper. Perhaps the reviewers suggested it's really not a good fit for the journal or something along those lines - the paper itself might not be flawed, but its submission to this journal might be. Yes, that sort of thing should show up in the review itself, but reviewers are imperfect people just like the rest of us.
  • The editor might have made a "Is this a priority?" judgement call and rejected the paper - "in light of..." phrasing might just be journal boilerplate. Don't underestimate the capacity of boilerplate language to generate confusion.
  • The journal's publishing schedule might just be full for a very long time, and so they may be rejecting anything below "My god, this must go in our journal".
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Remember that the editor can have more information than the reviewers and is concerned not only with the scientific quality of the paper. For example, impact and interest is a major factor for some journals.

For example, it is possible that a similar paper on this subject was submitted at the the same time, and the editor decided to send both the papers to review. Upon receiving the reviews, the editor decided to go with the other paper.

Another scenario would be that the editor learned about a different paper (even in a different journal) which will be published in the near future and lowers the impact of your results.

These things can happen in high profile journals, and it does not necessarily mean the editor is doing something unethical or is acting on personal likes/dislikes.

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    Referees are also asked to judge impact and interest, not just scientific quality. The standard response to getting two simultaneous submissions with the same result is to publish both simultaneously, to properly let the authors share credit for their independent discovery. – JeffE Jul 25 '13 at 0:15
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    @JeffE in theory this is true, but there are many variations on this theme which are grayish. For example, if one of the papers was a couple of months earlier and the editor gives it precedence, or if the papers are in different journals. There are also different degrees of acceptance in some journals (e.g. strong accept=landmark paper; medium accept=standard; weak accept=limited interest), which leave some of the decision to the editor. – Bitwise Jul 25 '13 at 1:01
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One possibility is that the editors felt the paper was marginally relevant for their journal. In that case, they might want to publish the paper if and only if it was exceptionally strong, which would allow it to overcome the relevance concern. Three mildly positive reviews wouldn't be enough in that case; but if the editor had seen three highly positive reviews, they would have accepted.

From the author's position, this is annoying, but it makes sense from the editor's viewpoint.

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