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I have been dealing with an awkward situation regarding evaluation of my submitted paper. The publisher is one of the big well known OA, and the journal is one of their leading journals (in terms of niche visibility and impact factor). We were invited to submit a paper by a colleague who'd be preparing a special issue in that journal.

I have submitted a paper for their evaluation, providing few names of potential reviewers under request by the submission system. I eventually received the evaluation results by three reviewers. Two reviewers suggested structural and grammar adjustments, and one produced overly negative vague remarks which mostly missed the point of the paper. The managing editor (not our colleague) rejected the paper but offered the option to Revise & Resubmit.

Fine: we applied changes suggested by reviewers and replied to all comments, in a politely manner. Through the new cover letter we raised concerns regarding the rather aggressive behaviour of a reviewer. After a while we received further comments. The two previous reviewers accepted the paper, and the one negative reviewer produced further negative vague remarks, unrelated to the previous ones. In short, this reviewer clearly ignored the goal and technical background of the paper. Two additional reviewers were added, who made further questions and structural suggestions. Editor recommended major changes, and gave a deadline of five days to respond.

We did respond within five days with the suggestions applied and a cold, technical rebuttal to the one negative reviewer. Again we appealed to the editor via submission system claiming a suspected conflict of interests.

After a while the paper was rejected, no specific reason given. We read the comments by the reviewers: the additional ones accepted the paper whilst the one negative reviewer made further vague, one-line derogatory remarks without any mention to our previous response.

I wrote to the colleague who had invited us and asked him to take a look into the situation. He said he gave instructions that the paper should be accepted. The managing editor now contacted us suggesting minor changes but now presenting personal concerns about our paper followed by general comments which are beside the main scope of the manuscript alongside a long list of cherry-picked typos and grammar suggestions. This person states:

"I suspect that the MS is peppered with more mistakes and great care should be taken to ensure that these are corrected before the MS gets published."

We are given three days to respond.

I have submitted dozens of manuscripts and never went through such an awkward situation. I now strongly suspect that the conflict of interests stems from the managing editor itself, and wouldn't be surprised if the resilient nonsensical reviewer proves a sock-puppet.

I am not sure on what is the best to be done. I suspect the paper will get accepted ultimately, under request of of the inviting colleague.

Regardless of the final decision which is certainly coming, should I later contact the EIC and report this situation and managing editor? In case an editor is playing games other authors might be affected.

  • A relevant side comment on the issue of tight deadlines: I have discussed with a number of colleagues and several complained about suddenly being presented with <10 days deadlines to respond to reviewers. Most claimed encountering this problem with MDPI publisher... – Scientist Aug 8 at 19:51
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It has been decided that your paper should not be published.

The rigid etiquette of the academic world does not allow anyone to admit this. Papers are meant to be accepted or rejected on their merits.

So reasons have to be given for rejection. From what you say, those "reasons" have evidently been synthesised in order to give an excuse for what has already been decided.

Get out. Even if you lose face in front of your co-authors, everyone will have forgotten it all in 12 months' time.

  • Unfortunately I believe what you say is true, but hopefully this is not how is works for all journals. Still, in my situation I believe the paper will ultimately get accepted because of the involvement of my colleague as an area editor , in face of the ridicule of the debated reviewer. I will update the post when I get a final answer from the journal. I’m taking everyone’s advice to not escalate the issue. – Scientist Jul 5 at 11:38
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You have not identified any conflict of interest in your post. The managing editor can, and should, criticize your work.

It seems that the colleague who invited your paper mislead you by failing to clearly state they were not actually editing the special issue.

The reason you have not encountered this situation before is that most editors are not thorough enough to provide their own advice to the authors. This is unfortunate.

Do not claim someone has a conflict of interest unless you have solid evidence. The evidence needs to show that they have some way of directly benefiting from the rejection of your manuscript. Unsupported claims of conflict of interest hurt your reputation. Your negative reviewer is much more likely to be lazy, rather than a competitor.

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    I like your views on the invitation and the chiming in by editors. I fully support editors providing direct criticism and I get that quite frequently. (Desk rejected papers were not rare!..) However the core of the awkwardness comes from the combination of isolated nonsensical comments being used as basis to reject a paper accepted by others, in combination with short communication and deadlines from the managing editor. – Scientist Jul 4 at 23:11
  • Plus it’s next to impossible to make precise claims about an anonymous reviewer. I raised suspicion. The editor would be in a better position to judge. Unless they’re the same person, which is a possible parsimonious explanation. – Scientist Jul 4 at 23:23
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    When you submit for a special issue you have to expect short deadlines. A smart, unethical person with a conflict of interest will not give nonsensical comments. Instead they will craft their comments carefully to ensure you cannot rebut them. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 4 at 23:35
  • I agree on the comments strategy logic, but perhaps they didn’t know the comments were baseless (i.e. not smart). On the deadline there’s a key info I’ll add to my post: initial submissions to this special issue are still open, for more 25 days to come. The 3-5 day deadlines to respond to reviews were set by the managing editor with no comments. – Scientist Jul 4 at 23:42
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I have decided to answer my own question, as the conflict has been resolved. Perhaps my line of response will prove helpful to someone else.

In short, I have persisted in defending my technical points (with references and all) and appealed to other journal editors to take a closer look into the situation. The paper was finally accepted, and I have decided not to report the handling editor directly.

I am now happy with the outcome, and insisted on having the peer review published alongside my paper. The handling editor awkwardly published merely part of the peer review, what added to my impression of a conflict of interests (in the form of a sock-puppet reviewer). This editor claimed that I had not uploaded some responses to the system [?] and that it was then too late to change the online record. Then I appealed to the publisher asking to intervene -- but only on the specific issue of making peer review fully available as offered by the journal system vs. editor's response -- and this editor had to abide, yet again.

Now my paper is published alongside complete peer review, making the ludicrous behaviour of one anonymous person public (appropriately aliased as reviewer 2). The publisher is at least mildly aware of awkward behaviour by the handling editor.

I believe this person will at least think twice before playing the same game next time, particularly as I believe this is a professional (paid) editor. This should be enough in this case.

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    Splendid news! Thank you very much for coming here and posting the outcome as an answer. I wish more people would do that. And you have shown how one can grind down an institution in the end, by playing the game politely, patiently, and insisting that it should adhere precisely to its own rules. – Martin Kochanski Aug 9 at 13:11
  • @MartinKochanski Thanks, I always encourage OPs trying describing conflicts in SE to present the outcome later. In my specific case, I felt in advantage because (i) paid journals see authors as clients; (ii) this reviewer's comments were truly loaded; (iii) an editor knows my established published record in the topic. Perhaps the strategy would have not worked in a different scenario. – Scientist Aug 9 at 16:54
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Just pull the paper. Should have pulled it earlier. There are a lot of fish in the sea. Don't waste time on this journal. You know how to submit elsewhere.

Don't bother with some complaint on the editor or reviewer. There is nothing special to show rivalry and given anonymity, you can't really discern it even if true.

There are a gazillion of these little tiffs with writers and reviewers. Sometimes just bad papers and author won't realize it. Sometimes academics who like to puff themselves up as gatekeepers. But who cares which. Move on. Their loss. Getting into it further just reduces yourself.

  • I totally agree with this view, and will be happy to move on as soon as they give me a final answer. In fact I am mainly saving face in front of coauthors because I promised I’d handle the ridiculous situation, and it’s a prestigious journal in their eyes. I am not such a big fan of ‘OA mega journals’ for some reasons, dodgy peer review is one of such. – Scientist Jul 5 at 0:00
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    Yeah, I hear you on the co-author situation. But just move on. – guest Jul 5 at 0:13
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    I absolutely second this answer. You do not even have to wait for a response from the editor, it will be of no value for you. I have heard enough stories where a paper was rejected by Major Journal A for 'lack of impact' or 'methodological flaws' only to be accepted as an accelerated publication in Major Journal B. Also, the co-authors will probably be fine with a re-submission to another journal. Most are familiar with that process. – Theo Tiger Jul 5 at 23:15

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