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I find myself in a very unusual situation. After sending the paper to a top journal, we received two positive feedbacks after 12 months, asking only for minor revisions.

We promptly did the revision and 6 months later we received the reports: one reviewer recommended acceptance and the other rejection, saying simply that the paper was not suitable for such a top journal.

The editor sent out the rejection to us saying that he agrees the paper is not suitable for such a top journal.

I wonder if this is a reasonable behavior of a reviewer (and editor). Is it reasonable to simply "change your mind" about the paper (without a justification)? I feel disrespected as a researcher for receiving their honest opinion on my work only after a second round of review.

My question is: Should I reply to the editor or not? What should I say?


Edit: I replied to the editor pointing out two things: i) How should I have replied to the minor revisions to meet the journal standard? ii) Asking for a third reviewer given the unusual radical change of mind of the reviewer

Edit 2: It turns out the paper has been handled by an anonymous associate editor. The editor in chief replied agreeing that the reviewer and the associate editor made a poor job in the first review. However, at this point, there's nothing that can be done.

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    Did the reviewer actually change their mind? They literally said they think the paper should be accepted, and later that it should be rejected? And are you sure it was the same reviewer?
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 5, 2021 at 3:37
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    This has happened to me, and also as a reviewer, where an editor seek my comments on a paper after existing reviewers recommended minor revision; unfortunately for the authors, I recommended a reject. In the review process, many things can happen. A reviewer may not read an article in detail in the first pass. In the second pass, he/she may review the paper in more details if an editor is thinking of pursuing a paper. Moreover, authors may reveal more information after a revision, and reviewers finally 'understood' the paper, and hence, recommend a reject or an accept. Apr 5, 2021 at 3:46
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    @Prof.SantaClaus It is seriously unfair to an author to first ask for minor revisions only to later reject on something that was present in the first round, especially when turnaround times are so long. If you are going to reject, do it right away. It is ok to ask the authors for clarification before a decision, but a minor revision decision should be just that: "minor revision". Apr 5, 2021 at 13:26
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    @CaptainEmacs I disagree. I've had reviewers recommend major revision because they thought that their comments required major work. However, in most cases, at least for my works, most comments can be addressed with some clarifications and no major work on my part. On the other hand, a minor revision could result in a major work or even a withdrawal of a paper! In general, I only see 'revision'. The point is, any type of revision does not guarantee eventual acceptance; all the journals I submit to note this fact in all correspondences. Apr 5, 2021 at 20:45
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    @Prof.SantaClaus Well, if the reviewers require only minor changes and then change their mind because they didn't pay enough attention in the first round (yes, that does happen), I think they should not agree to be reviewing in the first place. I am not talking about unraveling an issue that looks small initially and turns out to be big; that can happen, of course - I am talking about minor issues that were in the first version and they bother only mentioning in the second round and use this to kill the paper. Sorry, that's seriously disrespectful to the authors, their time and priority. Apr 5, 2021 at 22:00

5 Answers 5

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The last time this happened to me, it was because one of the two original reviewers was unable to review the revision, but journal policy mandated two accept recommendations before acceptance. So the editor invited a third reviewer, who recommended rejection. I do think it's pretty unfair to the authors when this happens. After all, if the paper is not suitable for the journal, the journal ought to desk reject immediately and save everyone's time.

I suggest writing to the editor and asking them if they're sure of their decision. After all, they did say minor revisions in the first decision. If they say they're sure there's nothing you can do but submit elsewhere, but there's a chance they'll agree they have been unfair.

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You do not say whether the journal has a policy on how soon revisions must be returned. Some "top" journals only allow a return within a specific window of time. Otherwise, the dust gathers, new information appears that supersedes the publication, and what was once acceptable is no longer acceptable. Otherwise, some "top" journals consider anything submitted after the deadline to be a new submission worthy of an entirely new round of first (not second) reviews.

You should confirm that you submitted your revisions within the allotted deadline.

Considering the case where you did submit the revisions promptly enough, a period of 6 months or 12 months to hear back is rather long. Have you maintained a record of email correspondence asking the editor for a status report over those periods? In such a case, the onus can fall on the editor to explain the change in opinion. Otherwise, the long delay may be a case where the work simply and inadvertently fell through the cracks, as the saying goes, both from your side and from the editor's side.

In the meantime, you may also want/need to justify that your paper is still "top" quality in terms of meeting the guidelines for the journal. Have findings from your work already been published in the meantime, so that what you once submitted those 18 months ago as fore-front work is no longer fore-front work? Have the findings from your work long since faded out of the appeal for the journal, so that what once was occupying a significant chunk of reports in your field is now occupying perhaps only a sporadic hiccup in some on-line journal in a foreign language? You can only do well to present supporting information to show that your work is still worthy of publication in the "top" journal even after the 18 months time. You may even have the foresight to provide a revision to the citations with any updated information to support your case (e.g. a recent publication that shows the continued relevance of your work even after this time). If you are inclined to put in the additional effort and if the option seems to arise, you may even consider asking the editor whether, in light of the circumstances, you might have permission to resubmit with revisions that will highlight the article's relevance even after the 18 months. Given the previous history of long delays, I suggest that you may want/need to negotiate a definitive frame with the editor to get this done in short order if at all.

You can also do well to determine whether your report represents an anomaly or not. What are the typical turn-around times from submission to publication in the journal? You can generally find this by looking at the submission and acceptance dates. Is a period of 12 months representative? Are there clear cases where the turn-around was even longer? Also, this report is being considered in a time-frame under COVID-19 contingencies. Does the journal provide any notice of grace periods for such contingencies?

In summary, you are within bounds to ask the editor why your paper was accepted with minor revisions (after 12 months) and then, 6 months later after those revisions were submitted on time, is flatly rejected. You are within bounds to go one step further above the editor as supported by any records of follow-up contacts with the editor over that extended period.

Unfortunately, even with all this, your paper may remain rejected, you may not be able to find out entirely to your satisfaction why, and you may have a suspicion that something was "dishonest" about the process. Reflect that your perceptions may not be the full reality. Perhaps, all things considered, this is a case where the work simply got lost in the administrative shuffle for the two periods of time and that, after 18 months, the same reviewer had an objective change of mind.

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  • I replied promptly. It’s the same editor and same reviewer.
    – Shake Baby
    Apr 5, 2021 at 13:36
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    I see now. The reply from the editor and reviewer are 18 months late. Perhaps you can improve your question this way: "We returned the minor revisions promptly (within xxx weeks). About 18 months later, we received the second reports ... ". In such a case, the onus can fall back to the editor for the untenable lapse in time. Apr 5, 2021 at 14:30
  • So suppose the onus can fall back to the editor for the unreasonable lapse in time, even so, what is the editor to do as a remedy? Print an article he doesn't think should be in the journal, because it was their error? This kind of thing doesn't seem to have any resolution that won't leave most involved people unhappy ...
    – davidbak
    Apr 5, 2021 at 23:23
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    @davidbak The editor was apparently (fully) prepared to print it 18 months ago. If the OP has followed up routinely, the onus could be on the editor if nothing else at least to provide an objective explanation why it is abruptly not acceptable at all now. That does not mean the editor has to publish it. Perhaps the editor could offer a compromise to propose edits that will make it publishable. Yes, the outcome may leave some unhappy. It does not have to leave the OP feeling that the process was tainted. Apr 6, 2021 at 0:28
  • Sorry for not being clearer. The first review took 12 months, and the second one took 6 months.
    – Shake Baby
    Apr 6, 2021 at 5:28
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In principle, this is what the second round of reviews (review of the revised version) is for. The referees should read the revised version again and they can change their opinion. That is normal. The main difference between top and not-so-top journals is that referees and editors for top journals try to find reasons to reject while the referees and editors of other journals try to find reasons to accept.

In practice very much depends on whether the editor told you before the revision that your paper is accepted subject to minor revisions or not. If not, there is nothing you can do.

If the editor told you that the paper is accepted, it makes a big difference and you can and should complain first to the editor and then to the managing editor of the journal.

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I can imagine two different scenarios in which this might logically happen and possibly be appropriate.

First, a fair amount of "stuff" has been published in the interim, perhaps making the paper appear less important/innovative.

Second, it might be that a reviewer has been "thinking about it" ever since the first round, and now thinks they were overly positive and now see some deficiencies that they didn't previously.

You can ask the editor, of course, for reasons and for any advice. You can try to submit elsewhere as well, but if the first case holds, then you may need to revisit the problem in light of recent research.

But that first case is also especially unfortunate if it was delays in review that resulted in the paper being less "current". You might have a complaint to make about that.

But in future, I hope you follow up before an 18 month delay becomes a factor. Ask for updates fairly regularly.

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    While "thinking about it" could also include delaying a reply to get own stuff published that's almost ready.
    – usr1234567
    Apr 5, 2021 at 22:48
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    "First, a fair amount of "stuff" has been published in the interim, perhaps making the paper appear less important/innovative." This is arguably an antipattern. A paper should not be considered outdated just because it took long to review! (Besides being unfair, this would create a major temptation to plagiarize and publish in fast-turnout journals.) I think a more likely backstory is that the referee learnt more about the topic in the interim, which made him hold the paper in less regard. Apr 5, 2021 at 23:01
  • @darijgrinberg, I think that is a good guess. And I agree that the long review shouldn't affect publish ability.
    – Buffy
    Apr 5, 2021 at 23:45
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Two things from my experience:

  1. In the journals I'm involved with on the editorial side, reviewers give a response to the authors and a separate one to the editor. The editor will not normally disclose the individual decision recommendations of the reviewers. It is absolutely possible that the reviewer in question already had doubts about the suitability of the paper for the journal in the first round. They may not have written this to the author (because it doesn't have implications about how the paper should be changed) but only to the editor. The editor may have recommended "minor revision" because they tended (maybe just about) to the positive side, maybe not being sure whether the paper is acceptable, but deciding that revisions required are only minor in any case (more major revisions wouldn't save it either if the minor revisions don't). Now, having finally rejected the paper, it seems like the editor has made the wrong call initially, but these things happen. Such a decision can be very narrow, may in the perception of the editor rely on the revision (even if called "minor"), without the authors knowing. Of course it's unfortunate that is took so long.
  1. As reviewer, I often ask for revisions because something is not clear. I may even ask for "minor revisions" in such a case, not expecting ensuing problems. However, after the thing is clarified in the revision, I understand more and may realise that the whole approach is more flawed than I initially thought. I am not proud of situations in which I have recommended minor revisions in the first go, then changed to "reject", but it has happened, and the reason was that either the authors were not able to clarify something that is essential and I would have expected them to do it, or where the clarification has made me see more fundamental issues with the paper.

In such cases, complaining will not help. In order to accept this, you may think about it in the following way: Had everything turned out in the same way with the only exception that the initial decision letter would have sounded slightly more negative and asked for "major revisions", you wouldn't be in any better situation than you are now (in fact you may have put more time into the revision, only to find out afterwards that it was in vain), but you wouldn't have any reason to complain.

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  • I agree in general with your answer. However, I would expect that when a reviewer changes from minor to reject, he should make it clear in his report why he did so, which didn't happen. The minor revisions he asked were only typos, and then he recommended rejection simply for not being suitable for the journal.
    – Shake Baby
    Apr 7, 2021 at 22:12

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