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I have recently received an email from the editor manager of the journal. In this email, they mentioned, because of unforeseen circumstances, they need to cancel their request.

I am really confused because I spent a lot of time reviewing the article and I don't know why they did that.

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  • 4
    Just curious: If it turns out that it is or is not ethical, what do you plan to do with the answer?
    – user111388
    Jun 8 '20 at 13:36
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    I have received a very similar email recently. I was very grateful because I had planned to review the paper the very same day. There are at least two possible reasons why the editor would do this: (i) the authors withdrew their submission, (ii) a second reviewer submitted a review and the editor has already decided to reject. In both cases, the editor would want to spare you unnecessary work.
    – Roland
    Jun 8 '20 at 13:37
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    Would it be ethical for them to let you do the review when it is no longer needed? As an aside, a lot of questions throw 'ethical' around when it really doesn't seem applicable.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 8 '20 at 15:11
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    @Jon Custer, whenever I see this, my fingers go on autopilot and replace the term by "appropriate".
    – henning
    Jun 9 '20 at 12:24
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    carefully gone over the author's proof (this was a mathematics paper), and I was told that another reviewer had already sent in a report saying that several aspects of the proof were not correct. Indeed, I had my suspicions because the paper was very poorly written, in ways that go well beyond issues with English language competency (although for this journal, the writing would definitely need to be upgraded quite a bit), but I hadn't gotten around to looking at the details yet. I was happy to get that email because I wound being busier in late December than I had expected. Jun 10 '20 at 7:49
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Is it ethical for journal to cancel accepted review request before deadline?

In some circumstances, it would be ethically required to cancel the review request. The editor has avoided wasting more of your time by cancelling the request.

"Unforseen circumstances" probably means the authors withdrew the manuscript.

Canceling a review request can also occur when another reviewer has submitted a review which ensures the manuscript cannot be published.

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I don't see an ethical issue here. It wasn't very courteous, of course, to not give you any reason at all. They could have just let you submit it and then buried it, I suppose. But it might have been done to save you some work if you weren't ready to submit it yet.

They have probably made some editorial decision that makes your review moot. I can't predict what that would be, but more likely a flat reject. Or possibly the paper was withdrawn by the author(s).

And neither is it very courteous to the author(s) unless it was withdrawn.

If you want an action item, write back that you've nearly completed the review and that you can send it along and that it might be useful to the authors.

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    "Useful to the authors" +1 - I have done that. After all, this is the most important part of the review. You already did the work, there is nothing to lose. To be honest, I would prefer that advisor role to playing the journal bouncer. Jun 8 '20 at 15:11
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    Totally not my field, but I don't get why you say "It wasn't very courteous, of course." - why would not letting reviewer know that no more efforts to review is needed would be more courteous? Jun 10 '20 at 0:02
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    @AlexeiLevenkov, telling them why would be courteous. Leaving it unsaid resulted in this question.
    – Buffy
    Jun 10 '20 at 0:03
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    I wouldn't call notifying the reviewer not very courteous. In fact, I'd call it the opposite. They were being courteous by informing the reviewer as soon as possible (presumably) once they know the review won't be needed. Doing so is the most considerate they can be of the reviewer's valuable time. They can't go back in time and not request the review. The best they can do is save the reviewer any future time and effort. The alternative would be to not inform the reviewer. If they didn't inform the reviewer ASAP, then I would consider that to be quite discourteous.
    – Makyen
    Jun 10 '20 at 2:24
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A journal I handled once received a paper which was proceeding as normal, except one of the reviews came back very quickly. The reviewer said he had firsthand knowledge that the author was not behaving ethically, and had submitted the manuscript without the consent of his co-authors, who in fact did not think the manuscript was publishable. When I saw that, I wrote to all the other reviewers telling them effectively what your editorial manager told you, and desk rejected the paper.

It's obviously a less than ideal solution and it's possible some of the other reviewers have wasted their time, but what else should (could) I have done? The alternative would be to let the reviewers finish the reviews and then desk reject anyway, which wastes even more time (for both reviewers & authors).

Therefore I see it as ethical, if only because the other option is even worse.

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    Just curious, in such a situation how do you determine if the reviewer is telling the truth?
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 9 '20 at 0:57
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    One unclear point: Did you verify with the authors that they didn't consent or find it publishable, or did you desk reject solely based on the referee's report?
    – Anyon
    Jun 9 '20 at 0:57
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    @GoodDeeds I verified bits of it (e.g. the reviewer said the author is the student of the co-author and they had had a falling out, and it was possible to verify the former statement with Google). The reviewer also gave details that would not have been knowable except to insiders, and there was other indirect evidence. I believed the reviewer. In retrospect it's possible I should not have, but I'd still be surprised if the reviewer was incorrect.
    – Allure
    Jun 9 '20 at 1:11
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    @Anyon: Presumably the “desk rejection” included some explanation. If the information was inaccurate, the author could have responded to this with a defense of their position.
    – PLL
    Jun 9 '20 at 13:54
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To give an unorthodox answer: if you're unhappy that you spent time reviewing the paper, and feel frustrated that the review request was canceled, one idea would be to look around the Web to check whether the paper you were reviewing has been posted publicly online as a preprint.

If it is, then in principle you could have discovered and read it by yourself. So you could try to use the reviewing work you already did to some benefit, e.g.:

  • give some private feedback to the authors (e.g., if you found mistakes, to point out relevant work, etc.); or
  • post an open review of the paper somewhere, in the spirit of open peer review

Of course, some additional efforts may be needed: reviewing for a journal anonymously is not the same as directly contacting the authors or posting the review publicly in your name. So you'd have to work more on this, which you'd have to see if you are interested in doing.

To be fair, what I'm proposing here is somewhat unconventional, so maybe there are reasons not to do it. But in my opinion, if you already did substantial work on the review, it'd be a shame to have it go to waste and these are options to put it to some use.

(Come to think of it, what happened to you is a pretty good reason to only accept to review work which is publicly available as a preprint, so as to ensure in advance that your work won't become useless if the request is rescinded.)

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  • Probably not appropriate for reviewers to be contacting authors directly. Finding a "sneaky" way to do it is possibly even less appropriate.
    – Buffy
    Jun 9 '20 at 22:32
  • If you have read for reviewing purposes a paper which is publicly available online, I'm not sure I see a problem of ethics with contacting the authors as if you had read the online paper. If you're really concerned about not giving them clues about the reviewing process you were a part of, you could wait a bit -- but honestly I don't see a real problem. (Reviewer anonymity is mostly about plausible deniability anyway, IMHO.)
    – a3nm
    Jun 9 '20 at 22:42
  • If I were your editor you would probably not get new assignments from me if I learn of it.
    – Buffy
    Jun 9 '20 at 22:45
  • Then too bad, right? :) Reviewing is volunteer work. And here the editor has asked OP for voluntary work and then rescinded the request and wasted their time. IMHO, they don't get to also be outraged if OP does something else with the work, which doesn't use privileged information (preprint is available online) and does not break reviewer anonymity (public preprint means you have plausible deniability).
    – a3nm
    Jun 9 '20 at 22:49
  • @a3nm The point is, since reviewing is indeed voluntary and unpaid, the editor doesn't really have any teeth to bite the reviewer with . So they have to rely on trust. If you have just made two posts saying "my attitude is that I'll do whatever I like, unless you can sue me for it," bluntly I wouldn't want to have any dealings with you. I might just warn other editors about your attitude, as well. Two can play at sending private messages behind people's backs :)
    – alephzero
    Jun 11 '20 at 19:25

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