32

I've recently been trying to get one of my papers published, and have come across the following issue. I started by submitting it to a fairly high-impact journal. It got three reviews, two of which were positive. The third reviewer seemed to find it personally offensive for some reason and hated it. I felt I could respond to all the comments (the negative ones seemed to me to be based on a misunderstanding of the basic premise of the study), but unfortunately the paper was rejected outright without the opportunity to respond.

So, I edited the paper based on the previous reviews (attempting to address all the comments I received, major and minor), re-formatted it and submitted it to a middle-ranking journal in my field (ecology).

This time, the paper received two reviews, both of which were largely positive - mostly minor suggestions for improvement and comments praising the paper. However, the editor said that following comments from an "informal review", he has concerns about the methodology. When describing this he uses the exact wording used by the negative reviewer from my initial submission. Once again, the paper is rejected without opportunity to respond to the reviewers.

I find this very frustrating - both the actual reviews were positive, but the rejection seems to be based on an "informal review" that I'm unable to see, or respond to.

To me, this isn't how the peer review process is supposed to work. Do you think it is worth emailing the editor to appeal his decision? Or is it a waste of time, and I should submit it to another journal?

Thanks

  • 5
    In my experience, this is precisely how peer reviews work. Not how they are supposed to work, but it is definitely how they do work. – Peter K. Aug 22 '18 at 11:57
  • 4
    I think it is fair to ask for highlights of the reasons that lead to the rejection, for you to be able to improve the paper accordingly. – Captain Emacs Aug 22 '18 at 13:51
  • 12
    Probably the editor of the second journal was the negative reviewer for the first. – Michael Hardy Aug 22 '18 at 17:38
  • 3
    What grounds do you have for your 3 conclusions that 1: the third reviewer found [the paper] personally offensive, 2: that the third reviewer hated [the paper], and 3: That their personal feelings of being offended, and hatred towards the paper are the reason the reviewer rejected the paper? – Martijn Aug 23 '18 at 10:47
  • Martijn - this is probably poor wording by me. The only grounds are my opinion. I could just say "they didn't like it". – rw2 Aug 23 '18 at 15:10
25

I'm going to guess that personalities are involved here and that you aren't going to win any fight you start. However, I think it would be appropriate for you to write to the editor asking for an explanation of "informal" review and how it is considered appropriate. You could mention that your paper seems to have been rejected not using "normal order" and ask, also, if that is appropriate.

I doubt you will get much satisfaction, but it is just possible that they will re-think their process. This might help someone in future, even if it doesn't help you.

But if it were me writing the letter, I would be polite and just ask for information and a judgment of appropriateness.

  • 1
    In my publications, each review I've ever received had two very positive reviews and one reviewer that absolutely hated it. This sounds like something more like @Buffy has pointed out. – SecretAgentMan Aug 22 '18 at 14:08
20

The sad reality is that the answer to "should I appeal about a journal decision" is always "no". Cut your losses and move on. In your case, this means submitting again to a different journal. Given that the reviews were fairly positive I would not downgrade the venue, I would just try a similarly-competitive journal again. Any issues that the reasonable reviewers brought up should of course be fixed. If possible, I would see if the paper could also fit a slightly different community, to lose the weird academic stalker that your paper seems to have picked up.

Also, if you can afford it, never submit to this journal again, because this certainly does not seem like something an ethical academic journal would pull. An editor in a strong journal certainly does not hide behind "informal feedback" and fuzzy, undisclosed methodological problems. Note that this does not mean that a good journal never rejects papers despite positive reviews, but if they do that the editor should take responsibility and clarify why the paper is rejected (even if the reason is just "the paper is good, but I think not high-impact enough for our grand journal").

  • 5
    I disagree that the answer is always "no", but if the editor acts like this... – Anyon Aug 22 '18 at 15:58
  • @Anyon Circumstances when the answer would be "yes"? In case of rejection for obviously spurious reasons, avoiding the journal seems like a good idea (and possibly publicizing their behaviour); in case of rejection for plausible-ish or better reasons, there's not much to fight as the journal can just stand by their decision. – David Richerby Aug 23 '18 at 10:13
  • 4
    @DavidRicherby I've had success appealing the decision when the editor acted reasonably based on the (2nd round) referee reports, but a couple of those reports (the negative ones!) had serious problems that would be obvious to an expert in part of the subject matter of the paper, but not necessarily the initial editor. Assuming the journal has a robust appeal process (in this journal you can suggest the name of another editor to have a look), and is sufficiently high-ranking journal, I think it's worth having a go in such cases. – Anyon Aug 23 '18 at 11:44
9

I want to point out something that the other answers sort of assumed: it's by no means certain that the journal is not acting ethically. I once handled a paper for which all the reviews were positive and was still outright rejected. Why? Because one reviewer gave confidential information that doomed the paper (this was of the form "I have firsthand knowledge that this author is attempting to publish without the consent of his co-authors"). Remember that you're only seeing the non-confidential part of the reviews, and it's entirely possible there were more reviewers whose reviews were not shared with you. It could even be that there was a reviewer who declined to review, but gave a reason which influenced the editor's decision.

What to do now: write to the editor asking for more details from the informal review. I can't tell if he gave you enough information to see why the reviewer disagreed with your methodology, but if he didn't, you can ask for those details. Then, based on how receptive he is to changing his mind, you can decide whether or not to appeal.

  • 1
    In your case, what's wrong with a decision along the lines "This is a good paper (see reviews), but the following ethical concerns have come to our attention: X, Y. Consequently, we are unable to accept this submission." To me, "sources we trust say that at least one co-author does not approve of the submission" is a perfectly valid reason to reject. Why is there a need to not tell the authors why their paper was rejected? – xLeitix Aug 23 '18 at 11:18
  • 3
    @xLeitix it risks jeopardizing the anonymity of the peer review process - the author is alerted that he likely knows one of the reviewers personally (or at least, the reviewer knows his collaborator personally). – Allure Aug 23 '18 at 11:28
3

I'm tempted to say yes, respond to the editor and ask for clarification of the informal review, you could frame this as being in the interests of improving the manuscript.

However, the realist in me recognises this will be a fools errand as either the editor will likely not respond favourably (or even respond at all as you already have your peer review), or they respond with some brief information written only from the editors personal recall, as after all, this was informally reviewed and presumably not officially recorded.

The situation you are in is simply the result of poor/lazy editorial work. Ultimately the decision should come down to the editor/sub-editor as to whether or not you progress with your paper (guided by review - not decided). The editor being so heavily influenced by the views of an individual that was not formally included in the initial peer review suggests that the editor is not independently decisive in my opinion.

I recently published a paper that spent over a year in review, being almost completely rewritten four times before it made it through the process. This was because a single reviewer in the first round decided that they fundamentally objected to the methodology, although it was clear from their comments that they had seriously misunderstood the process. All other reviewers had comments to make of course, but the paper was generally well received despite the revisions. Eventually, the editor removed the reviewer and put the paper out to new reviewers, who in several places wanted to undo the comments of reviewer one, and the paper ended up something close to the original! A frustrating process yes, however, the point is the editor maintained their own views, was not heavily influenced by a single reviewer, and allowed me the leeway to improve the paper within the framework that the review process gave me.

Unfortunately, in your situation all these options have been removed, due to poor editorial leadership. So I feel its time to cut your losses and move on to another journal. Best of luck with it.

3

Have you ever wonder why soccer players complain to the referee (almost) all the time for the decisions of his that go against their team, even though he is (indeed) the "absolute master" of the game, and even when it appears there is no doubt surrounding a specific decision?

The answer is simple, known to everyone involved in the game, but still impossible to nullify its (statistical) effectiveness: they try to influence his future decisions (on the same game), or more accurately, to influence the degree to which the referee will be careful and thoughtful in his future decisions.

And if they do it in a diplomatically correct way, they do have a chance of achieving that goal, which is to the benefit of everybody.

I would suggest you do the same: it is not so much about fighting the rejection with the goal of reversing it, but of letting the editor know, in the appropriate diplomatically correct way, that you have some issues with the way that the rejection of your paper was effectuated and was communicated to you.

The "game" here, is you wanting to submit again to this journal, without being the person who will accept any opaque explanation as regards the possible rejection of their paper.

Then, move on to another journal (except of course in the highly unlikely case that the editor will in response communicate a willingness to re-examine the rejection decision).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.