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After being in "Under Review" status for 4.5 months (before that it stayed in "Reviewing" status for 3 weeks), I get the following cold rejection without any review report or review comments. How to deal with this cold rejection? If it had come much early, without going into "Under Review", I would have saved time (valuable for an independent researcher. I am not disheartened by rejection but the lack of review report or comments.

Dear Professor XXXXX,

This message concerns the manuscript

XXXXX A XXXXX(XX) XXXXX XX XXXXX by XXXXX XXXXX

submitted to the Journal of XXXXX & XXXXX.

We regret that we cannot consider it, in part because at present we have a large backlog of excellent articles awaiting publication. We are thus forced to return articles that might otherwise be considered.

Thank you for considering the Journal of XXXXX & XXXXX.

Sincerely,

XXXXX XXX University of XXXXX, XXXXX Editor - XXXXX & XXXXX

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    Editors can't control how reviewers behave. They can stop sending them papers, of course, but reviewers, being volunteers, work to their own schedule. The editor may be as frustrated as you are. It may be that an assigned reviewer just gave up for lack of time. You can't conclude anything beyond what it literally says here. – Buffy Dec 28 '19 at 13:01
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    Just send it to another suitable journal. – Buffy Dec 28 '19 at 13:06
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Educated guess of what happened: they invited reviewers (which automatically updates the status even if the reviewers don't agree to review). Some/many of the reviewers then declined to review, giving reasons that made the editor decide to desk reject your paper.

I'm not a mathematician, but from what I've heard, 4.5 months is not a particularly long wait for mathematics papers. If so, it's not really fair to say the journal treated your manuscript in a subpar manner.

There's nothing you can do about this except submit to a lower-tier journal.

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    Hmmm, why "lower-tier"? That makes no sense. A journal with a smaller backlog is what you want. You can't conclude anything about the perceived quality from the letter. – Buffy Dec 28 '19 at 12:47
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    @Buffy chances are, they're desk rejecting, but are pleading "too many submissions" to be polite. – Allure Dec 28 '19 at 12:51
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    But that is actually insulting, even subversive. I hope you didn't do that when you were an editor. Authors need accurate information, not soothing words. Chances are if they are at all honest, if their backlog is filled with "excellent articles" then they are also rejecting some excellent ones as well. – Buffy Dec 28 '19 at 12:59
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    @Buffy: Most likely in this case, all journals with smaller backlogs are lower-tier journals. – Alexander Woo Dec 28 '19 at 17:57
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    @AlexanderWoo Actually, Trans-AMS and Journal-AMS both have a 1 month backlog. Low-tier? – Buffy Dec 28 '19 at 18:02
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As always there’s a 1000 combinations of situations where this can arise. Let’s assume as stated there is a surplus of submissions.

One scenario would be the editor cannot so easily find a referee from the usual pool - the usual referees are busy with other papers - so the editor contacts someone who agrees only to write back to the editor after 3 weeks “Sorry I really have no time I can’t help you”. The editor gives up, rightfully claiming everyone busy.

If this post is current, note that this is end of term in many schools, with exams to prepare or mark on deadlines.

There is no reason for an editor to “lie” if the manuscript is contemptible: it just shovels a bad manuscript in the lap of someone else. Much better be concise and polite and state - if this is prima fasciae unpublishable, that the manuscript in its current form does not raise to the level expected of articles in the journal. No hard feelings. Move on.

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