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I submitted to a journal a couple of months ago. The editorial flow is somehow quick and very transparent. I receive notifications for all events happening to the manuscript.

Unfortunately, the managing editor contacted me three weeks ago. They informed me that the assigned editor could not commit to the job and left. Another editor was immediately assigned.

However, I was contacted today by the new assigned editor. I was informed that all the contacted reviewers so far either refused to review the manuscript or did not respond to the invitation. They are now looking for other reviewers.

Despite the bad luck surrounding the manuscript, all of this happened in a reasonable time and I am satisfied with how quickly they react.

Nevertheless, these events made me reflect. Even if an editorial board possesses a fair network of reviewers, there is still a little risk that all the contacted reviewers either refuse or do not reply.

What happens if no reviewers could be found for a submitted manuscript? Is the journal going to reject the manuscript because of a lack of reviewers?

  • Author-guided, journal-independent peer review is a new concept in scholarly communication that can address this problem among many others. Check out openscholar.org.uk and libreapp.org – user8377 Aug 26 '13 at 17:31
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Short answer: the editor will continue to try and find other suitable reviewers, sending them invitations and waiting for replies. At some point, they may come back to you and ask you to suggest names (additional names, if you had already given some when you originally submitted the paper).


It can happen that an editor has a hard time finding suitable reviewers that accept to review a manuscript. There are a few factors in play, such as:

  • the journal is not well-know;
  • the editor is new, or not well-know in the field, or does not have a very good network;
  • the research reported is atypical, in a very narrow subfield, or joins different areas (so that no one reviewer feels confident in accepting)
  • the elements sent by the editor (title and abstract) are rather boring or tend to confuse the potential reviewers

Note that most of these factors do not reflect badly on the manuscript, so there is no need to feel bad about it. The editor is likely to continue his search of reviewers. I see two other options that the editor could choose from, but I judge them as rather unlikely:

  1. Evaluate the manuscript himself, and make a decision based on his own review. After all, it's his job, and the reviewers' role is only to help the editor reach a decision.
  2. Refer the manuscript to another editor, or to the editorial board, so they can make a decision on it.

Finally, note that it may take quite some time to find suitable (and willing) reviewers. In the case of one paper of mine, it took the editor 3 months to find adequate reviewers, and that was actually for a prestigious journal. However, the paper was atypical enough (and the research was quite novel) that many potential reviewers did not feel able to review it adequately. (And in case you wonder, it was accepted on the first try, once the editor found reviewers.)


Edit (regarding your comment): my advice is don't retract your submission, unless you think it's the journal's fault (unwilling editor or unknown journal). I know it's tempting! But especially if your work is multidisciplinary, it will take time to find reviewers, even if you submit it to another journal. Thus, better let the current submission process go to its end.

  • So is it also unlikely that the journal will reject because of absence of reviewers? Thank you for reassuring me that a lack of reviewers does not necessarily mean that the manuscript is bad :-) – dgraziotin Aug 24 '13 at 15:26
  • @dgraziotin I don't think the editor will reject it based on the lack of reviewers – F'x Aug 24 '13 at 15:31
  • F'x was very fast to edit the answer, even if I deleted my comment after less than a minute. So here is the part of the comment, which brought F'x to edit the answer: ---BEGIN: So is this what happens? Is the journal going to loop up to the point that either they find the reviewers or I retract the submission? Well, it seems reasonable. Acceptance without review is bad as well as rejection without review. END--- I am not thinking to retract my submission. I am just wondering at how things work in this case. Thank you for your answer! – dgraziotin Aug 24 '13 at 15:42
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    If enough people refuse to review a paper, the editor can legitimately reject it. Whether they're likely to reject on those grounds depends on the journal's editorial policies and the individual editor. But I agree with @F'x: You should not retract your submission. – JeffE Aug 24 '13 at 19:52
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F'x's answer looks right to me, but since this actually happened to me once, I'll add some extra commentary which doesn't sound like it applies to your situation, but might apply to similar ones.

Many journals (at least in math) have a de facto policy that every paper which even plausibly might get published has to go to a referee before a decision can be made. Therefore an article which has problems which make it very unlikely to get accepted---being difficult to read, or highly specialized, or involving multiple areas with few potential referees---but which doesn't have obvious flaws which make it an easy rejection might have trouble getting through the process. The editor keeps asking people to review it, and it looks like a hard job, and the paper isn't so interesting to be worth it, so they keep turning it down. An editor can eventually break this loop by asking a reviewer in a way which implies that the reviewer has permission to give a more cursory rejection for the reasons the editor has identified (perhaps based on comments made by other people when turning down the review).

Once an editor has decided to start nudging potential reviewers in this direction, it becomes faster for everyone if the editor politely suggests that the paper should just be withdrawn.

This (I think---I can't say for sure what the editor was thinking) is what happened to me. I submitted a paper involving two different areas to a journal specializing in one of them. After several months I got back a letter from the editor stating that several people had turned down the paper with negative impressions; the editor offered to look for more referees, but before doing so, wanted to know if I would like to withdraw the paper rather than continue to wait when it wasn't clear the paper would be accepted. I (and people I consulted with) interpreted this as a polite indication that at this point the editor would primarily be looking for an excuse to reject the paper, and therefore that it would speed things up for me if I withdrew it. (And, indeed, the next journal accepted it.)

So a notification that the editor can't find reviewers could be a hint that the editor wants you to withdraw it, but isn't necessarily.

  • “Many journals have a policy that every paper has to go to a referee” — possibly field dependent, then, because this is not the case in physics or chemistry… could you add a link documenting such policy, for example? – F'x Aug 24 '13 at 19:11
  • @F'x: I've clarified that statement a bit. I didn't mean that they have a formal written editorial policy (I don't think most journals have much in the way of public, formal editorial policies anyway). Perhaps it's different in other fields, but at least in math, journals seem to feel obligated to send out even borderline-crankery to get an opinion from a referee on it. – Henry Aug 24 '13 at 19:28
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    I didn't have the impression it was so different in other fields. Editors might summarily reject nonsense, or articles well below the threshold of the journal or way outside their topic, and I gather high-profile journals which get a lot of junk submissions get strict about that, but I had the impression that it would be highly unusual for an editor at a typical (not top-tier) journal to reject a borderline article without the opinion of a referee. – Henry Aug 24 '13 at 19:31
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It happened to me once that the editor sent my submitted paper to 5 reviewers (all of them were in my references) and all of them rejected the invitation to review the paper. The editor took this as a sign that my paper was not suitable for publication in that journal and rejected the paper. So, yes, a rejection can actually happen but it is not the rule. As usual, publshing is a combination of good content, a bit of politics, and luck.

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    That's pity. I feel bad for you. No papers deserve a rejection because no reviewers can be found. At least in my field, editors do not hesitate to desk-reject a paper if it is deemed to be of low quality. – dgraziotin Aug 25 '13 at 7:15
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In my experience, as long as one tries long enough, hard enough, one can always find reviewers. It's just a question of how long it takes. After all, performing literature reviews is standard Masters-level work, and it's a small step from that to finding researchers working in the area. In other words, if the first few sets of invited reviewers decline to review or do not respond, one of these things happen:

  • The authors lose patience and withdraw the manuscript.
  • The editor loses patience and rejects the paper due to "unable to find reviewers".
  • Nothing, and the editor keeps trying to find reviewers.

It takes a motivated editor to keep trying, though. Even if the editor doesn't lose patience, it's possible he'll decide the paper can't be very good because otherwise reviewers would be jumping at the chance to review it.

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