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I submitted a paper together with other people to an important journal. A couple of days ago we received the answer from the editor and the paper was rejected (I was 3rd author) with very bad comments. One of the reviewers wrote that the paper was lacking innovation or originality. Another one sent us more than 20 comments. To be honest the comments weren't really appropriate because we did particles loaded with gold or FITC and one of the comments was "It seems that the FITC and gold are encapsulated inside the nanoparticles, not the other way around." He did not understand a lot but still, he also did a lot of interesting comments.

Anyway, the main author yesterday emailed the editor saying that the reviewers do not have enough knowledge to correct this paper, that they are unqualified and that people like this should not correct this kind of work. This person sent the email to the editor without speaking to any other authors, therefore we discovered today what happened and some of us still don't know.

Do you think that the journal, following this email, can do something to the authors of the paper? Like, e.g., sue us? or ban us to publish there? or stuff like this?

What should we do now?

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    If they are really upset then they'll have a good laugh and let it go. They've gotten angry replies in the past. No biggie. No, you won't get sued or banned. Journals need authors as much as authors need journals.
    – Buffy
    May 3 '20 at 18:42
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    Depending on the tone of the response, the editors may decide to accept your rebuttal, to ignore it, or tell you off for insulting the reviewers. It is never wise to directly challenge the aptness of the reviewers (the reviewers may think the same about the authors, and they have more power), but certainly ok to comment on their mistakes and point out so many of their mistakes that the editor will come to that conclusion themselves. It's definitely not ok for your co-author to send such a mail without consulting you. That's a real no-no. But no, they are unlikely to sue you unless defamed. May 3 '20 at 20:32
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    In order to sue, they would need to be able to demonstrate a loss of some kind. There's no loss here - except to your colleague's dignity
    – Strawberry
    May 4 '20 at 8:27
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    One issue is that if reviewers (even if actually incompetent) misunderstand key things about your article (e.g. the nanoparticle issue), then it's a sign that random readers may also misunderstand these things, and that is something that needs to be fixed until that idea is clearly transmitted also to a less-competent reader.
    – Peteris
    May 4 '20 at 8:30
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    Sue you?? How?? May 5 '20 at 19:17
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What do editors do when authors send them angry emails questioning the competence of the reviewer? When I edited a journal, if the author provided technical arguments against the reviewer's comments, I would forward those to the reviewer(s) and see what they say. If they didn't, I would usually say something generic about our faith in our peer review process and apologize that we cannot accept the paper. Either way the dispute does not usually escalate beyond the three of us (author, editor, reviewer).

Filing a lawsuit would be unprecedented. Banning you from submitting is more conceivable, but still unlikely. After all, it's to their advantage that authors submit potentially-publishable papers there. If it happens my guess would be that the author wrote something that crosses into the realm of personal attacks: for example, "tell your reviewer to take a gun and shoot himself".

In any case it is not something to worry too much about - after all it's not you that sent the bad answer - unless the author did write personal attacks, in which case you could send the editor an email distancing yourself from the author's behavior.

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    Three answers down to find a good one :) +1
    – 6005
    May 4 '20 at 4:03
  • "Filing a lawsuit would be unprecedented." The journal where you were an editor, has never been sued by an author? May 4 '20 at 20:19
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    @user1271772 I interpreted the question as asking if the journal could sue the authors, in which case I've never heard of it happening; the journal has never been sued by the authors either.
    – Allure
    May 4 '20 at 20:27
  • Actually your interpretation is correct I'm quite sure. I would have imagined the authors are more likely to sue than the editors, because authors sometimes feel that the paper was not given a proper evaluation. May 4 '20 at 20:29
  • RE: "Banning you from submitting is more conceivable, but still unlikely." -- Yes total banning would seem very extreme, but the editor is likely to remember a hot-headed response in the future. That of course isn't a positive outcome.
    – MaxW
    May 5 '20 at 18:00
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Papers get rejected. It happens. Sometimes they get rejected for good reasons. Sometimes they get rejected for bad reasons. Sometimes they get rejected for a mix of reasons. And, yes, when there's a not great referee's report, appealing to the editor is an option, but it rarely works. The best course of action is generally to take the useful critical comments and use them to improve the paper. And make sure to have explicit detailed explanations added which address any of the misconceptions. Then, send it to another journal, probably a journal slightly less prestigious to the one one sent it to the first time.

But you definitely need to make some of the changes. Not only will some of them almost certainly been good changes, but you make get one or more of the referees again. It is really tiring to referee a paper for one journal, and then a few months later to referee the paper again for another journal and find that the authors have made none of the changes one recommended in one's previous report.

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  • Let me say that I disagree with the statement done by my colleague. Paper can be rejected and you should just take the comments and use them to improve your manuscript for the journal or for future submission. What I am really worried about is if the authors can have any consequences even if the first author sent and signed the mail by himself.
    – micuzziddo
    May 3 '20 at 19:41
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    @micuzziddo That aspect seems less of a big deal. Unless the letter was really rude, the editor is going to forget it five minutes after they read it. They also are strongly limited in how they could retaliate even if they wished to do so.
    – JoshuaZ
    May 3 '20 at 19:54
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    I'm not sure if the question was edited, but this does not seem to answer the question that was asked: "Do you think that the journal, following this email, can do something to the authors of the paper? Like, e.g., sue us? or ban us to publish there? or stuff like this? What should we do now?"
    – 6005
    May 4 '20 at 4:02
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    @6005 The answer is specifically on the "What should we do now."
    – JoshuaZ
    May 4 '20 at 12:53
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Do you think that the journal, following this email, can do something to the authors of the paper? Like e.g., sue us?

Sue you for having had a research colleague privately express the view that someone is unqualified for a piece of work they did? No, of course not.

....or ban us to publish there?

Yes, they could do this.

...or stuff like this?

Those two things are completely different. The journal editors could do any stuff they have authority/control over and no stuff they don't have authority/control over.

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    Banning is pretty unlikely for anything short of ethical lapses. Possible, yes. But you probably don't want to publish with such a place anyway.
    – Buffy
    May 3 '20 at 19:32
  • I agree entirely. But considering that OP is not even sure if he can be sued, it seems that a more basic answer of what is actually possible will be helpful here.
    – Ben
    May 3 '20 at 19:34
  • Let me say that I disagree with the statement done by my colleague. Paper can be rejected and you should just take the comments and use them to improve your manuscript for the journal or for future submission. What I am really worried about is if the authors can have any consequences even if the first author sent and signed the mail by himself.
    – micuzziddo
    May 3 '20 at 19:41
  • @micuzziddo I do not think that you are going to be in trouble if only the first author's signature is there. It's unpleasant, but unless it's a really bad email, I'd let it go. Else, you could send an apology with the other authors for the form of the mail - but that will likely create a rift with your first author, unless you can convince him of it, too, so handle with care. May 3 '20 at 20:35
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  • If a referee did not understand your paper, it indicates that it was not written clearly (this is the mindset you should take, especially if you want later people who read it to understand it)
  • Worst thing what can happen is that this criticism is forwarded to the referees. I know some researchers in higher position who are vengeful. These people decide who can attend conferences, survey grant applications and also are referees for multiple journals.

Of course the chance of this is not so high, probably people will just remember your name but not the incident so this could be a good thing.

My suggestion would be that the person who sent this email sends another one to retract the email and apologizes. Also the head of your group should send an apology that he didnt instruct the author well enough and this wont happen again.

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To me there are two important criteria:

  • Did the main author send their angry email while giving the impression that they were speaking in your name too, or only in their own name? (e.g., do they say "I" or "We"? do they sign with their own name only, or also yours?)
  • How bad was their email? i.e., is it just some understandable or reasonable disagreement with the reviewers, or something worse like aggressive personal attacks?

If the email was especially bad, and/or gave the impression to be speaking also in your name, you could send a quick email to the editor to clarify that this email wasn't written or approved by you.

In terms of consequences: most likely nothing, and certainly not a lawsuit. In fact, if the journal takes any measures except against the specific person who sent them the email, I'd argue that this is misguided.

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Editors have better things to do than sue over angry rebuttals. After all, he or she can simply decide not to publish the paper and that’s punishment enough.

The editor sent the paper to referees, who also function typical readers with (presumably) an interest in the topic else the referees would have declined. It is unlikely that all referees were not qualified.

Unless a rebuttal points to technical problems with the report, it usually is a bad idea to attack referee: what is more likely is that the text while correct might not be clear to a typical reader.

The concrete proposal would be for this person to write a short email to the editor apologizing for the outburst. I would also recommend all authors prepare a point-by-point rebuttal and explain why some comments are not applicable.

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If the Idiot Reviewers misunderstand your work, that is prima facie evidence that your work can be misunderstood. Revise it.

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    Although I agree, I think the question is more what to do about the fact that the coauthor wrote an angry response.
    – 6005
    May 6 '20 at 2:33

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