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Is it true that in most peer-reviewed journals the editorial office can decide to publish a paper without at least one reviewer approving some version to be published as is? I am asking whether they technically have the right to do so in some kind of exceptional situation. Say, for instance, the reviewer has approved the paper for publication modulo some minor corrections, but after these corrections have been made they stop responding to communication.

Or do most journals have strict protocols forbidding publication without a final approval from at least one reviewer? In case "most peer-reviewed journals" is too broad, my field is pure mathematics.

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    Note that editors are likely to be employees (or even officers) of the journal. Reviewers are likely to be volunteers with no say in business decisions.
    – Buffy
    Jul 22, 2021 at 22:27
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    Your question seems to misunderstand the roles of people involved in the publishing process. Decisions regarding what does or does not get published are made solely by editors. Reviewers may be asked to provide advice to help the editor make this decision, but the editor can choose to disregard the reviewers' views.
    – avid
    Jul 23, 2021 at 7:47
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    "Allowed" by whom?
    – yarchik
    Jul 23, 2021 at 8:35
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    In other words, the concept of a "reviewer approving some version to be published" is already an inaccurate frame. Reviewers provide expertise and opinion to the editors, but that's all. Editors approve or decline to publish submissions. Jul 23, 2021 at 17:32
  • For some journals, "minor revisions" vs "major revisions" is precisely about whether the reviewer would like to take a look at the revised version (of course the editor doesn't need to follow that request). Jul 24, 2021 at 10:33

4 Answers 4

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Yes

The ultimate arbiter of what gets published in journals is the editor-in-chief, not any reviewer.

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  • Thank you, this is what I believe to have heard more than once but the circumstances forced me to double check =)
    – i.m
    Jul 22, 2021 at 21:36
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In all the mathematics journals I'm acquainted with, the editors' decisions on publication are final, and the referees' opinions are just advisory.

So, yes, if an editor wanted to publish a paper despite some negative remarks from referees, that'd be entirely within protocols. Still, I'd think that generally they'd have scant motivation to do so.

I'd think that disagreement would generally be one-sided, namely, that editors might decide to publish something despite negative remarks from a referee, while rarely deciding to not publish something despite high praise from referee(s).

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    Agree totally with the first two paras, but I am not sure about the third. In my experience there are corners of pure mathematics (they probably vary over time) where every paper is hailed as the best thing since sliced bread. In deciding how to use one's space one has to evaluate that high praise against more measured support for other papers. Jul 23, 2021 at 6:33
  • @erstwhileeditor Are there journals so flush with papers that they can accept them for review, and still have that problem? Or is that it's own question?
    – fectin
    Jul 23, 2021 at 22:53
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I had a paper published in a decent niche journal without review at all (there. It got reviews and final verdict of "good content but too niche, reject" at another journal by another publisher). Editor read the paper and decided to publish it straight away, skipping the usual review process. While field is physics and this was the only time it happened to me (or any of coworkers), it can happen.

While it is evidently possible although unusual to accept even without review, I doubt any journal will decide to publish after receiving 2-3 negative reviews without any positive one. The only somewhat plausible scenario I can imagine is similar to mine - that reviewers feel content is good but not a good fit for the journal. Then editor overrules that particular objection (unlike in my case) and publishes it despite having all reviewers suggesting reject. It would be fairly exceptional, but I believe it could happen.

On the other hand, if the problem is in content, ignoring one critical reviewer when two feel the paper is fine is already slightly unusual though not too out of ordinary. Ignoring all of them raises all sorts of red flags. Reviewers will be pissed for wasting their time and the journal will look predatory: "we publish everything no matter the quality, we don't actually do reviews at all".

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Ultimately, the answer is that it is up to the journal editors what they choose to publish. The final decisions about acceptance or rejection are always in the hands of the editorial staff. However, some journals (such as the Physical Review journals) do indeed have a standing policy that they will not publish any research papers without at least one positive referee report—although the policies may also allow for the journal editors to referee papers themselves, should they choose or should the need arise.

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