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Here's the scenario: I was asked to review an article for a given journal. I did, the authors addressed my comments/corrections, and now the manuscript is back with me for a second time to review the reviewed version.

I don't think that there's anything particularly wrong with the article at this point, but I don't think it has enough merit to be published in a Scimago Q1 ranked journal.

Since the editors sent it to me twice now, I have to assume that they do.

Will it look out of line if I suggest the editors that they should suggest the authors to publish the article in a more "modest" journal?

Again: there is nothing wrong with the article in itself, I just don't think it is notable enough for the submitted journal (considered by Scimago to be a top ten journal in my field).

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    When you did the first round of review, did you think that it would be of high enough quality if your comment and corrections were addressed? – Patricia Shanahan Nov 15 '19 at 19:27
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    Did you make clear that the acceptance would be conditioned to them running the extra mile and what that means exactly? Make your expectations clear, please. It saves everyone's time. – The Doctor Nov 15 '19 at 20:03
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    'address the comments/corrections ...' - so the authors did address your comments? If yes, then the authors have met your requirements. At the end of the day, you can recommend what the editor should do, but the editor has the final decision. Also, be aware that many reviewers make mistake about the significance of an article -- search for the many rejection letters of top papers that later won the authors Nobel prizes, or if you are in the EE field, search for why reviewers don't think Claude Shannon's seminal paper was good. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 15 '19 at 20:06
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    Since the editors sent it to me twice now, I have to assume that they do. — You really shouldn't assume that. The only thing you can conclude is that the editors do not think the paper is obviously weak enough to desk-reject. – JeffE Nov 15 '19 at 20:36
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    @Gabriel from your comment, it seems you reviewed what you hoped the paper might be after it was revised in the way you wanted it, not the paper that was in front of you at the time. If your initial review concluded "this is not acceptable for publication unless X Y and Z are changed" it should have said exactly that. Of course the other reviewers (and the editor) may disagree with you, but you can then say "X an Y were not changed, therefore reject" in your second review without getting into your current dilemma. – alephzero Nov 16 '19 at 11:40
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Referees and/or editors should not invite the authors to submit a revised version unless there's a real chance that the revision will be accepted. Also, most things could be made significantly better than they are. If your feeling is that the paper, even though not flawed in any way, does not meet the standards of the journal, then I think you should recommend rejection unless you can identify explicitly which improvements would change your mind. Even then, in a field with a sufficiently large number of reputable/good/great/... journals (my own field, mathematics, is certainly like this), it would be reasonable to suggest improvements that could make the paper suitable for a journal of the caliber submitted to while rejecting the paper. A top journal is going to get more than enough papers that are good in every way than it can publish. And finally, if you revise and improve your paper enough then at a certain point you can justly claim that it's not the same paper. Nothing stops authors from submitting the new, better paper to the same journal. (Once I was added as a coauthor on a paper after the first version was rejected by a strong journal in the field. I saw how to improve the paper so significantly that I thought: why not send it back to the same journal? They accepted it.)

Having said all that: from the comments it doesn't sound like the authors spent much time and effort making significant improvements to their paper. So while there may have been a miscommunication of some sort among you, the editors and the authors, it doesn't seem to have caused much harm to them. In my opinion you should reject the paper for the reasons that you say: there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not good enough for the journal. A top journal must reject many papers for this reason -- that's what makes it a top journal.

(If they had spent a lot of time and effort: well, I would feel bad about it if I were you, but it doesn't really change the decision to reject the paper. Anyway the time they spent improving their paper did after all result in an improved paper, which they can then submit to another journal.)

Maybe the lesson is to be more clear in the future. It feels nice to give people a chance, but in fact you're being asked to apply your professional judgment in a way that's going to have a negative outcome much of the time. When your judgment is negative, the nicest you can be is to deliver the bad news relatively quickly and with sufficient justification.

Finally, the fact that the editors asked you to referee it again might or might not mean that they are more positive about the paper than you -- you have no way of knowing. Anyway, their opinions are their opinions, but they're asking you for yours. Once or twice I have been asked to referee a second draft of a paper that I recommended for rejection the first time. I did look at the revised versions, quickly, but my answer was essentially: "I told you that I didn't think the paper was suitable for your journal. If you disagree, okay: ask someone else to look at it."

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  • Thanks everyone for the comments and suggestions. – Gabriel Nov 18 '19 at 13:13
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Actually, don't assume anything. They sent it to you for your honest evaluation and feedback. Give it to them. But, make it complete. Say what is good, but also where you think it fails to meet the standard, either of scholarship in general or the standards of the journal.

Don't make recommendations to the editor about the alternatives, I think. But if you are "kinder than you should be" then it will, over time, bring down the standards of the journal.

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    +1 put simply: you are expected to offer your honest assessment, even (actually especially) if it may not be the editor’s – Spark Nov 16 '19 at 3:08
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One point I have not seen raised here that I think you should pay attention to in the future: if you think the paper is not up to the journal's standards you should say so in your first referee report. Suggesting changes too would be a courtesy to the authors.

Replying just with the list of changes and saving your reservations for later may cost the editors time and raise false hopes for the authors.

That said, in this case I agree with the other answers that say you should tell the editor you don't think the paper is good/string/important enough for this journal.

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  • This is the correct answer. The others are at least mostly correct. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 '19 at 21:47
  • As I said, I did mention that the article in its current form did not meet the minimum requirements to be published. I also sent a comprehensive list of corrections. I did not reject it immediately, because I felt it could be improved if the authors did some substantial work (which they did not). – Gabriel Nov 17 '19 at 1:20
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You should. The editors aren't likely to know otherwise. A review that says "there's nothing wrong with this paper, but it uses a well-known method to investigate a not-too-different system and discovers something that's unsurprising" - this is perfectly fine and the editors are likely to appreciate it. After all they're not likely to know all three points. It's up to you whether to check "reject" or "revise", though. With a review like this, the recommendations are effectively the same and the editor will have enough information to make the decision.

Them sending it to you twice doesn't mean they think the paper is good enough to accept - as JeffE wrote in a comment, it just means they don't think it's obviously poor enough to desk reject.

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  • "It's up to you whether to check "reject" or "revise"" No, that is the editor's decision. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 '19 at 21:45
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    @AnonymousPhysicist no, it's up to the reviewer whether to recommend reject or revise. It's up to the editor to make the decision, but the reviewer makes the recommendation. – Allure Nov 17 '19 at 0:43
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    Your comment is correct, but your answer is ambiguous. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 17 '19 at 4:24
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The editors do not read the paper carefully. They browse the paper and check the general framework of the study to see 1) whether it fits the scope of the journal and 2) to be able to find the appropriate reviewers.

It is the duty of the reviewer to technically evaluate the study and decide whether to accept it or not. If you, as a reviewer, find the quality of the paper poor to be accepted in the journal, then you should clearly state it in your review, e.g. a statement like "the reviewer believes that the novelty of the study is not sufficient for the current journal". Alternatively, you can reject the paper right away (of course with enough reasoning) and write a confidential message to the editor and say that you don't find it suitable for the journal.

Just remember if you review the paper once and the authors address all the issues raised by you then it is very unprofessional to declare that you don't find it suitable for the journal. Unless, you expect something from the revision and you don't get it. In the latter case also, you have to state clearly why you don't find it suitable.

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Check if the journal provides some reviewing guidelines and/or assessment criteria. For example, in my field, it's usually expected that a paper argues for its own significance. If the authors don't do a convincing job with that, it's fine to point that out in the review (with a detailed and fair argumentation), give them the chance to improve that in a revision, and recommend rejection if they don't make a substantial improvement.

(However, it would really be important to have pointed out the weakness in your first review already. Raising additional issues late during the review process is a mess, if these issues were obvious from the beginning.)

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The role of reviewers is supporting editors to enforce their own editorial lines which, more in general, ought to fit the accepeted standards of scientific discourse. In this light, you have to inform the editor of your evaluation and justify it. In other words, the editor's decision must be informed, and delegation is the mechanism of gathering decision-supporting information.

Rather than 'not just thinking that this is notable enough', please provide positive arguments to the editor (and authors, for transparency) as to why you do think that the manuscript does not fit the journal.

Please move away from injecting the suspicion of a false positive towards providing the case for either a true negative or a true positive.

In my view, the yardstick should not rest in the Q-so-much ranking --- which is statistics hence subject to intrinsic uncertainties ---, but on the editorial line of the journal, which should be stated somewhere clearly. Ask the editor for it in case of uncertainty.

In sum, your honest and argumented opinion is crucial to the integrity and transparency of the reviewing process. The final responsibility of a decision remains on the editor. Not to scare anyone, but please also note that the editor might well think that a reviewer is not concentious enough for his/her reviewing team.

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What does the 'guide to reviewers' of the journal say? E.g. The Guide to Reviewers of IEEE states, that if you accept with minor changes required, then the paper has to be accepted when the list of changes was completed.

So if the journal you were reviewing for has a similar policy, you made a mistake if you accepted the paper under conditions of minor changes. How come it was not obvious during the first round that the article is not notable enough?

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  • This is not an IEEE journal, and I did not "accept it with minor changes", I sent it to be revised and chose to see the revision. – Gabriel Nov 17 '19 at 15:30
  • I understand its not IEEE, but since the journal is not mentioned: what does the section of the guide (for the correct journal) say what the condition/procedures for the evaluation you submitted in the first round (of course you dont have to post that here, since then the journal could be identified). – lalala Nov 17 '19 at 17:09

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