I rejected a paper after careful review and consideration, writing six pages to justify my decision. In less than 24 h I have received a petition to change my verdict to major changes. The rationale is that the other two reviewers have given major changes and that my review is too harsh and not well enough substantiated.

  • Is this normal?
  • Is this ethical?
  • Any further thoughts?

Thank you

  • 25
    The other reviews certainly shouldn't be a reason for you to change your review. However, "too harsh and not good enough substantiated" -- this is perfectly possible, and the objection would then be normal and ethical. – lighthouse keeper Nov 21 at 12:08
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    You were asked by whom? – henning Nov 21 at 13:08
  • 50
    The idea that a persons opinion should change due to a majority disagreeing is, in my opinion, not normal. – Parrotmaster Nov 21 at 13:51
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    Not normal... the editor could just override the decision of any reviewer's. Is this one of those open review journals that everyone can see the reviews? – Penguin_Knight Nov 21 at 14:47
  • 18
    I'm slightly confused as to why it matters. Generally speaking, with the journals I'm familiar with the reviewer's recommendation (reject/major changes/minor changes/publish as-is) is just that - a recommendation. The Editor has final say. (I don't know if this journal's policies are different, here.) -- In many cases the reject/revise recommendation is a separate private communication to the editor, never seen by the authors. ... Is that perhaps what the editor is asking? For you to remove any mention of "recommend reject" from the comments which will be sent to the authors? – R.M. Nov 21 at 16:40

10 Answers 10

I have written quite a few reviews, with a significant percentage of them recommending rejection. Editors often made the decision to reject; sometimes they deviated and asked for major corrections. This is normal — editors have to take reviews into consideration, but are not bound by them. Not a single time have I received a request to change a review.

  • Is this normal?

No, this is not normal, in my opinion. There is no good reason for the editor to ask you to change the review. If the editor believes the paper deserves a major correction, they simply have to make their decision, noting your recommendation.

  • Is this ethical?

No. Under no circumstances should an editor disclose the recommendation of other reviewers to you to ask you to amend your recommendation to join the majority. You were asked to express your own opinion, which you did. The editor is trying to receive an unequivocal agreement, which is not necessary and not fair to you. The editor does not have to follow your recommendation, but they have to respect it.

  • Any further thoughts?

Please make the name of the journal known. I would refrain from ever using the journal(s) which allow such reviewing process to take place.

  • 18
    While in general I agree that you should never be asked to change your review, one slight sublty is systems like the one they use a eLife. Here, once all the reviews are received, the reviewers have a teleconference, chaired by the editor, and a consensus decision is reached.The authors then receive a single review that is the consensus opinion of the reviewers. If revisions are recommended, then the authors receive a single set of recommendations. All reviews are and correspondence is made public with the paper on publication. – Ian Sudbery Nov 21 at 10:27
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    +1 in general, but I'm not sure I agree about making the name of the journal known here. If it's a respectable journal, the issue is likely with the editor and maybe the appropriate thing to do would be to discuss this privately with the editor-in-chief. – Kimball Nov 21 at 15:29
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    Under no circumstances should an editor disclose the recommendation of other reviewers to you That is simply false, at least in my field. Reviewers are often expected to discuss the paper and reach consensus. In particular, if one reviewer has a concern, the others are asked to comment on it. In my field, it is expected that you will edit your review after conferring with other reviewers. – Thomas Nov 21 at 18:22
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    The last paragraph of this answer advises escalating the situation. That is very likely to be bad advice. Please either remove it or qualify it (i.e., "be sure you are not misinterpreting the editor's intent"). Also there are other, less drastic, options that can be suggested, such as writing back to ask for clarification of the petition, or contacting the editor in chief. – Thomas Nov 22 at 20:31
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    @Thomas : Writing "in my field" might be more useful and more comprehensible if you said what field that is. – Michael Hardy Nov 24 at 1:37

In my experience, the decision whether to reject an article or request major changes is up to the editor. You, as reviewer, give input on this but the editor has to take the final responsibility. In particular, this means that you don't have to change your verdict for the paper to be given major changes.

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    +1 Simple and clear. If they do not like your verdict, the editor can override your suggestion. To ask you to change the review makes only sense if it is insulting or offensive, or grossly and factually wrong. – Captain Emacs Nov 21 at 14:28

This isn't normal. The process I'm familiar with is to simply forward the reject review to the authors along with a letter by the editor saying that "we find your paper acceptable if the reviewers' comments are addressed" etc.

I'd tell the editor your comments are what they are, and he/she doesn't have to follow your recommendation. You might also want to check if they're a predatory journal. I'd probably do the same thing if they are predatory, but it'd still be a good thing to know.

  • 1
    Playing devils advocate: if OP was totally wrong in their assessment, and other reviewers were well respected and gave sound endorsements for the paper (I've certainly seen that a few times...), a proactive editor might reasonably point out the inconsistency and ask the outlier to reconsider. – beldaz Nov 22 at 19:44
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    But can't that editor simply ignore the hypothetically inconsistent review and proceed how they wish to proceed? Why bother asking the reviewer to change? – Greg Martin Nov 22 at 23:26
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    @beldaz, exactly: "ask to reconsider". Not "please change your verdict to 'recommend major changes'". – Mark Nov 24 at 3:32
  • 2
    @Mark agreed - directing someone to give a specific verdict does not sound appropriate – beldaz Nov 24 at 4:07
  • @beldaz But what does the editor gain if OP reconsiders? – sgf Nov 28 at 15:08

You should change your review if and only if you are honestly convinced that your original review was wrong.

As a reviewer, I have no objection to being overruled by the editor --- even if he accepts without changes a paper that I said should be rejected (or vice versa). That is his right as editor. I would, however, object very strongly to a request to submit a review that does not represent my honest assessment of the paper. In my opinion, it is unethical for an editor to make such a request, and it would be unethical for me to comply with it.

(In your situation, I would also feel somewhat insulted that a six-page report is considered insufficient substantiation.)

  • 4
    Re “…insulted that a six-page report is sufficient substantiation”: longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. For my part, I have to admit that a couple of the longest referee reports I’ve written are ones where I got annoyed about some shoddiness or other scientific irresponsiblities in the submission, and got a bit too emotionally engaged in documenting the problems carefully — so, while I do stand by those reports, I could imagine an editor reasonably asking me to reconsider whether I was being overly harsh. (Of course, the editor must be ready to take “no, I stand by them” as an answer.) – PLL Nov 25 at 0:05
  • Any further thoughts?
  1. I recommend giving yourself a minimum of 24 hours before you send back a reply. This will make sure you don’t do anything rash or allow emotional issues to dictate your actions.

  2. Just in case you’re one of those people who have a hard time saying “no”, especially to requests coming from figures of authority, it’s good to remind yourself (multiple times if necessary) that you are not required to comply with the request.

  3. Regarding the ethics question, others have addressed this, but I think it’s worth sharpening the ethical lines here a bit. If the request is simply that you reconsider your position (since it is perceived as too harsh by the editor and other reviewers), I think that’s an unusual request but not an unethical one. It is fine (if usually futile) for either the author or the editor to push back and ask you if you might revise your position based on new arguments or because they believe you haven’t given the matter sufficient consideration (which sounds unlikely in this case, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible). The point is that in that case they are asking you to actually change your opinion, not to change your recommendation to something that is different from your true opinion. People do make mistakes and do change their opinions about things in response to feedback. I’m not saying you should change your opinion, just that if you did, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that.

    Now, if on the other hand the request is simply that you revise what you wrote to some specific recommendation regardless of what you actually believe, then such a request is blatantly unethical. Being a reviewer is a position of trust, and the whole refereeing system is built around the premise that editors, authors and readers can trust that referees are stating their true opinions rather than being influenced by irrelevant factors. Writing something that is not your opinion would be a betrayal of that trust, and undermines the entire system of academic publishing. I assume that such a betrayal is not something you would want to be a part of.

  • 2
    Thanks Dan, this was nearly identical the answer I would post. If the editor wants to allow revisions, they don't need the OP's permission, so for this to be straight up unethical pressure on peer review seems less likely than some sort of miscommunication. I wonder if the editor really just wants to know if the OP would be willing to review a round of changes that address their concerns and possibly accept a revised manuscript, given that they or the other reviewers see them as fixable rather than fatal flaws. – Bryan Krause Nov 22 at 0:43
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    +1 especially for the first two points. There is likely some misunderstanding and a rash response would be ill-advised. However, I would add that there are situations where it is ethical for the editor to insist on changes, such as the review being inappropriate and unprofessional (e.g. insulting the authors). I'm not saying that is the case here. – Thomas Nov 22 at 1:02
  • 2
    @Thomas Or even just not really to the standards of the journal...some journals do reject anything that isn't either essentially perfect or incredibly groundbreaking, others would typically give the authors a chance to revise unless their work is truly unsalvageable in the reviewers eyes. If a reviewer recommended rejection for, say, a missing control experiment that the authors could produce and salvage their paper I'd balk too if I was the editor. – Bryan Krause Nov 22 at 1:32

Ultimately, the decision is up to the editor and in this case they disagree with your assessment. This is not uncommon -- sometimes the reviewer is wrong or it could simply be that the reviewer has high standards and this is a low-quality journal. It sounds like the editor thinks the authors should be given an opportunity to address your concerns, which is reasonable.

Is this normal? Yes. The editor makes the final decision and often deviates from the reviews (indeed reviews are rarely unanimous, so deviation from some reviews is necessary). The editor wants to send the authors more consistent reviews, in order to minimize author complaints. And if your review seems excessively harsh, the editor may want that toned down to spare the authors' feelings (they are human too).

Is this ethical? To some extent it's just necessary. Some reviews do need to be fixed. If you feel that it is going too far and you are being asked to lie, rather than just change the tone, then you can push back and explain why you disagree. If you really feel that your input is being ignored, then refuse to review for that journal again.

Any further thoughts? Editors might even edit the reviews themselves without consulting the reviewers, since that might be quicker and easier. However, I think that is a bit inappropriate and disrespectful to the reviewer.

  • 4
    +1 This is close to what I was about to write. I think it's OK (barely) for the editor to ask you if you could lighten the tone, since the review will be sent to the author. I don't think it's right to ask you to change any conclusions. The editor is of course free to weigh the reviews any way s/he likes. That's the editor's job. – Ethan Bolker Nov 21 at 14:45
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    This isn't a case of simply lightening the tone of a review, they're asking the reviewer to retract their recommendation of rejection. Yes, editors are free to make a final decision irrespective of reviewer recommendations, but I have never heard of a reviewer being asked to change their assessment to be more in line with what the editor wants - this isn't normal. Peer review is supposed to be an unbiased assessment, exposing reviewers to other reviewers' comments or pressuring them to give a positive assessment flies in the face of that. – Nuclear Wang Nov 21 at 15:04
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    @Thomas To me, there's a huge difference between reject and major revisions. Major revisions means the paper can be fixed, maybe there's something missing or something is unclear, but the principle is sound. Flat-out rejection suggests something is more fundamentally wrong - the reviewer cannot even articulate a set of changes that would make the paper acceptable for publication. The OP gave 6 pages of comments, but evidently didn't feel that even addressing all of them would fix the underlying issues. – Nuclear Wang Nov 21 at 17:32
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    @NuclearWang I think the fundamental disagreement between you and me is that I am interpreting the question as one where OP is potentially being too harsh. After all, the editor and two other reviewers feel that way. OP has written 6 pages and yet the editor has said the recommendation is "not good enough substantiated." What seems more likely: OP is being too harsh (perhaps because of inexperience) or everyone else is wrong? – Thomas Nov 21 at 18:12
  • 1
    Is this ethical? To some extent it’s just necessary. Hmm, interesting that you hesitate to use one of the words “yes” or “no”. It’s a simple question, and a good answer would answer it rather than equivocating. If you think it’s ethical, please say so. – Dan Romik Nov 22 at 0:31

I have received a petition to change my verdict to major changes. The rationale is that the other two reviewers have given major changes and that my review is too harsh and not...substantiated.

A more precise understanding of the circumstances is necessary to answer your questions. I wonder whether the editor is trying to establish whether to outright reject or whether to offer major corrections. Since you're the only reviewer that recommends rejection, it is absolutely normal (and ethical) that the editor is consulting you. They want you to further help them in making their decision.

  • 1
    A more precise understanding of the circumstances is necessary to answer your questions. – Yet you arrive at an absolute assessment (“They want”) rather than an educated guess (“They may want”) at the end. – Wrzlprmft Nov 22 at 16:51
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    @Wrzlprmft You're cherry picking. I open with I wonder whether, everything that follows should be considered in the context of that. – user2768 Nov 23 at 9:34
  • (Admittedly, I could have been more precise. But, precision takes time and I aim to maximise those I help, rather than crafting precise answers to all.) – user2768 Nov 26 at 8:43

First of all, I am assuming that the editor is explicitly primarily asking you to change your verdict, and not to reconsider specific rationales of your review in light of the other reviews or to phrase your review more friendly or to substantiate some of your claims.

If this is the case, then it indeed raises some red flags as it is completely unnecessary in a healthy situation: All decision-making processes I know do not allow reviewers to decide a paper’s fate directly. Instead the editor decides on base of the reviews or it is even the editor-in-chief who decides on basis of the editor’s recommendation, which in turn is based on the reviews. Thus, if the editor wants a major revision, there is no need to change your verdict – in particular since this is the least surprising decision anyway, given two reviews recommending major revision and one recommending rejection.

This poses the question why the editor would like your verdict changed, and all I can think about is that they want to bypass some sort of quality control, for example:

  • The decision is upon the editor-in-chief and the editor wishes to illegitimately improve the chances of the paper.

  • The journal is one that publishes reviews, and the editor expects that accepting this paper given your current review could negatively affect them.

  • The journal is rather competitive and has some strict unpublished rules that would force the editor to reject the paper with only one reject recommendation. In this case, it would be completely out of line for the editor to meddle like this. Of course, one may consider such rules harmful, but if that’s beyond your responsibility.

I would thus recommend to do the following:

  • Double-check your interpretation of the mail.
  • Consider asking the editor for clarification as to what they want.
  • Look for further red flags, e.g., that the request was sent privately and not via the journal’s channels (does not apply to those journals that do not have a respective system).
  • Escalate the situation to the editor-in-chief, publisher, or public (in that order if the previous escalations did not yield a satisfying outcome).
  • Another reason to add to your list: The editor may simply want the review changed because he or she thinks the harshness is unwarranted and does not wish to forward it to the authors as is. Academics are people too. – Thomas Nov 22 at 20:39
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    @Thomas: Please see the first paragraph. – Wrzlprmft Nov 22 at 22:08

Given that journal editors are notorious for (almost surely) never changing their "reject" verdict (which is a policy originating in the long-held belief of publishers that writers of any sort are "immature" creatures even though talented, and so they are to be treated with strict authority to keep them in check), it is poetically unjust for editors to ask from reviewers to change their reject verdict.

Serving poetic justice alone demands from you to reject the editor's submitted request, let alone all the other aspects of the matter already analytically discussed in the answers here.

Outright rejecting a paper denies authors the opportunity to correct issues raised by reviewers (and to publish at that venue). By comparison, major revisions afford such an opportunity. Authors might not be able to make the sufficient corrections, hence, reviewers may still reject. But, if they do make sufficient corrections, then the community benefits from the value added by reviewers. By comparison, no such value is guaranteed from an outright rejection, because authors may simply resubmit elsewhere without modification.

Perhaps the editor is trying to maximise community value.

  • 3
    I would think, if somebody writes six pages, they include enough details which allow for a major revision. If it was so bad that it should be rejected, six pages is a lot. I would think a reject decision would be like "We found three unacceptable and unsolvable issues" and six pages with detailed criticism would be constructive enough to create a revision. – allo Nov 21 at 9:37
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    Authors can still revise paper before submitting it to another journal. In fact they should. – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 21 at 9:44
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    @user2768 The mechanism is caller peer-review. If the paper still contains errors, it will likely be rejected again. – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 21 at 10:12
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    No, outright rejection does not deny such opportunity. Given the review, the authors can write a new paper. It seems like you argue that a complete replacement of the paper with something else could still count as just a "major revision"... -1. – einpoklum Nov 21 at 10:55
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    I downvoted because the statement "Outright rejecting a paper denies authors the opportunity to correct issues raised by reviewers." is simply false. Even assuming the paper gets rejected as a final verdict by the editor, that is not an absolute order to throw the entirety of the paper away and never touch the topic again. Rejection denies nothing other than the publication of the manuscript in the target venue as a result of the manuscript's current submission process. – O. R. Mapper Nov 21 at 12:22

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