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I received a decision notice on a paper this morning. Reviewer 1 gave a positive review, suggesting relatively minor cosmetic adjustments, etc. However, the editor was apparently unable to obtain a second review, replying:

... the Editors have decided that your manuscript cannot be accepted for publication in XXXXX, as we have been unable to secure enough agreements from peer reviewers to examine your submission.

I admit that I'm puzzled by this response, and am curious what if any response from me could be useful. Is it possible that the paper was just not a good fit for the journal? If so, I wish the editor had rejected it right away. I'm curious if anyone has another explanation or suggestions for steps forward. And if the step forward is just "find a different journal" that's kind of what I'm expecting at this point.

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    I've been in a similar boat. But if it's good work, it'll eventually get published. Just glean what you can from the reviews, and try again elsewhere. – user108403 Jan 24 at 16:35
  • At the time of the submission have you suggested any reviewers? (if you could) – Massimo Ortolano Jan 24 at 17:18
  • Yes, I supplied three possible reviewers on submission. – gregmacfarlane Jan 24 at 17:20
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    @gregmacfarlane Consider suggesting more reviewers. I usually suggest at least half-dozen, sometimes even 10. There are two befits to this. First, you give the editor more possible people to pick. Second, it makes it hard for you to know who reviewed your paper (and therefore, the editor more likely to use both reviewers you suggested if they have trouble finding reviewers.). – Richard Erickson Jan 25 at 0:26
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    @artificial_moonlet I agree, and I think this tends to happen if your paper is in between well-established areas. In this case, it may take multiple tries to find somewhere that considers your paper a good fit, and the best thing you can do is try to look for similar papers in prospective journals. – Kimball Jan 25 at 0:40
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It seems to me that the editor asked people to review your article, but not enough people were willing to do so. Apparently, the editor thought your article had enough of a chance not to give you a desk-reject, but your article (or your abstract) was not exciting enough to convince potential reviewers to review it.

Maybe it is not the article/abstract, but your article is dealing with a very narrow subject, thus limiting the potential reviewers. You had the bad luck that all of those few potential reviewers were all busy.

I don't think there is much you can do, other than have a good look at the abstract, and see if it is excessively boring. If that is not the case, then you probably just had bad luck.

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    "Not a good fit" - is a probable reason for your rejection, but the editor may have originally had a different opinion on that. – Captain Emacs Jan 24 at 16:19
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Based on my experience in academic publishing, I'm guessing that the editor invited multiple reviewers, most of whom declined but one agreed. The one who agreed wrote the review you received. The editor discerned that it's not particularly deep - as you write it's mostly cosmetic - and so was not willing to accept it based on the one review. However, since the reviewer had already written the review, the editor decided to share it anyway (they could equally have said "reject because insufficient reviews" and not sent the review report).

Another possibility is that a reviewer gave confidential information that led the editor to reject. This could be when the reviewer declined to review (e.g. "I'm too busy but at first glance this manuscript looks like a simple extension to a known experiment leading to unsurprising results, so is not a good fit for your journal") or there might be a confidential review that the editor isn't sharing.

If you really want to publish in the journal, you could write back to the editor saying you're willing to wait while they find reviewers, but otherwise yeah, submit to another journal.

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This is a little unusual, and it's hard to know what happened. I have seen many papers accepted on the basis of a single report, even if the editor solicited more. One possibility is that the editor contacted potential reviewers who declined to provide a full review, but did make negative comments. It is also possible that the editor has some concerns about the manuscript, and felt that the one positive report did not adequately address those concerns. Finally, the editor may have felt that the number of unwilling reviewers was unusually large (if the paper is so great, how come nobody wants to review it?).

The whole thing is obviously somewhat unfair -- the whole point of the referee process is to provide useful feedback, and this did not happen in the present case. Most reputable journals have an appeals process. While you may not be successful in getting the paper published, you may at least get more useful feedback.

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A similar thing happened to me. It's possible that, had reviewer 1 written a substantial report, the editor would have asked you to revise and resubmit. But precisely the fact that, as you suggest, it was positive but also rather superficial didn't help your case much.

In any event, the lack of available reviewers is useful information: it might indicate that you were targeting the wrong journal, for example.

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