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I've just had a paper rejected by a certain math journal -- nothing new so far, but the journal made a (rather unusual?) offer in the rejection email, and I'm not sure what to make of it.

They said that, if I want to, they can disclose the identity of the referee to the next journal I submit to. To do that, I would need to tell the managing editor of the next journal to contact the journal that has rejected my paper.

Here's more background info:

  • The reason (they think) I might want that is that the referee report is actually positive, so (they think) it might help me.

  • Yes, the paper was rejected despite the fact that the report was clearly positive. The journal acknowledged the fact that it's positive, but said they have to choose from the papers with positive reviews. (In fact, I even submitted a major revision a few months ago, and the referee was happy with the changes. The whole process took almost a whole year and there wasn't a single negative or even lukewarm report. I'm naturally quite sour now.)

  • The journal is a well-known strong-but-not-top generalist journal. (Think something like Crelle / Compositio / Math. Annalen -- it may or may not be one of these, but that's the level.)

  • For my next submission, I'm aiming at the same level and type of journal. I'm worried though that I might run out of journals of this sort, so I have to play my cards carefully (this is 'only' the second rejection, but all these journals seem to have issues).

  • The paper is in my opinion strong and reasonably significant (and the referee seems to agree), but not in a 'hot' subarea. Also, I'm completely unknown, and the more senior people working in this subarea are good, but not superstars either.

  • I'm genuinely unsure which of the editors handled my paper.

In any case, here are the questions.

  1. Is this common? Did it happen to you/someone you know? What do you think of it?

  2. What should I do?

If I accept the offer, the downside is obviously that strong journals aren't eager to publish papers that have been rejected by similar journals, and it doesn't help me to put a "I was rejected" label on my paper's forehead. The upside is that the same referee seems fairly likely to recommend the paper for publication if they're chosen.

  1. Will the managing editor even bother (to contact the previous journal, if I ask them to)?
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  • 3
    I have no comparable story to report, so will comment rather than answer. I think the positive review and the editor's offer suggest that reporting the original reviewer's name to the new editor is a good idea. You can explain your reasoning in a cover letter. If you get a second rejection then ignore the history when you submit elsewhere a third time. Jul 22 at 21:53
  • A gamble, for sure... I'd wager that the referee report was not positive, and that they're thinking that you'd want to avoid having that same referee again. Do you know for sure that the referee report was positive? I'd be surprised if you paper would have been editor-rejected in that case... clarify? Jul 22 at 21:54
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    @paul garrett -- yes, the report was positive. I saw it, and the journal commented too that it's positive
    – ouf
    Jul 22 at 22:00
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    Hm. Then the situation is a little hard for me to understand. Positive referee report but editorial rejection. What in the world is the "next" journal supposed to think about this? Is it conceivably some prestige-gate-keeping thing? "A good paper, but not good enough for us"? Seems a volatile game to be involved in... Jul 22 at 22:02
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    @paulgarrett It's become (relatively) common in some biomedical journals to directly forward peer review on to a lesser, affiliated journal. The model is that a flagship journal is responsible for publishing the most exciting/impactful results, but they also have discipline-specific and/or broad open-access offerings that will publish anything that meets standards of scientific rigor rather than also considering impact. I'm still not sure what I think of this model, but it seems like OP's editor is aiming for a "manual" version of what some publishers are doing automatically in-house.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 23 at 19:42
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This is reasonably common. I've had this happen to me as an author and as a reviewer - note that the identity of the reviewer should not shared with anyone without the consent of the reviewer.

You should take up this offer if you are resubmitting to a journal clearly lower on the prestige scale. It's not clear what you should do for a journal roughly equal on the prestige scale.

I might add that all the generalist journals have various biases in favor of or against various areas. You should definitely take this into account when considering where to submit. You should also be trying to submit to journals where some member of the editorial board is known to like your subarea. If, as you say, some of the senior people who do work in the subarea of the paper are good, then at least one of them should be an associate editor for some reasonably high level generalist journal.

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This has happened to me once or twice, and is becoming more moderately common in math. My understanding is the main reasons to do this are to:

  1. Get a quick turnaround because the reviewer shouldn't take long to re-review it.
  2. Save overall refereeing efforts.

Taking the journal up on this offer may result in a quick acceptance, or a quick rejection. In my opinion this is the main upside you are missing.

However that the new journal you submit to may or may not take you up on this offer, and refereeing may take the usual amount of time, or they may want a second referee anyway. And if it happens to be the same editor, they might send the paper to the same referee whether or not you mention this (or even a different editor may do this by chance).

As for the downside you mention, that is a potential drawback if it is a different editor, but also sometimes journals have long backlogs and accept very few papers, so it could be chalked up to this.

I think this is a personal choice with no right or wrong answer, but if getting a quick decision is important for you, then I would say try disclosing this information when you submit, at least once.

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  • But, Kimball, what is the intellectual content, if any, of such a "judgement"? Is it just a side effect of the game? I'm asking seriously. Jul 22 at 23:09
  • @paulgarrett Sorry, what/whose "judgement" are you asking about?
    – Kimball
    Jul 22 at 23:21
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    I'm confused about the meaning of the "rejection" judgement. What does it mean, then? That the work is flawed? Redundant? Incoherent? Or just not high-status enough for the given journal? I realize there is an accidental "omuerta" about refereeing in higher-end math, but it's not really defensible or informative, I think. I know other people have other opinions! Jul 22 at 23:27
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    Sure rejection could be for any of those reasons, or a fit issue, with the "not good enough" reason of course being the most subjective. For reject after positive report, my guess is this is mainly from editors having to follow either rough or strict quotas imposed on them, and so they have to somehow pick the articles with the most effusive reviews or which best fit their personal tastes. Of course behind this is journals wanting high prestige and editorial opinions about what is good math... I suppose I personally thing the systems has both pluses and minuses.
    – Kimball
    Jul 22 at 23:40
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    @paulgarrett I'm not sure about math specifics, but in other areas a reasonable rejection reason might be essentially "the paper is good, but we intended to publish X papers and we got X other papers which seemed a bit better than yours".
    – Peteris
    Jul 23 at 10:25
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I can't advise you what to do, but only point out a few things that might help you make a decision.

Keep in mind that a paper can be rejected for a variety of reasons not related to the quality of the paper, though a breakthrough paper wouldn't get such treatment.

First, a paper can be rejected if it is out of scope for the journal. It is less likely in a generalist journal than a specialized one, of course. Second, the editor might not have a "slot" for the paper. This can happen if the queue is full (especially for a print journal) and the editor has the next year or two already laid out and committed. Third, a paper might be rejected because it is too similar (in field-specialty, probably) to papers already in the queue and the editor is looking for balance so as to make each issue appeal to a wider audience.

If your review/reviewer is sent to another journal, the editor there is likely to understand all of these things, and for a positive review (that has been through a few cycles) decide that it was rejected for one of the "extraneous" reasons, not the quality.

The upside of letting this happen is that your time to publication would likely be reduced if the review time is reduced. You already pointed out the downside.

Perhaps there is something in the letter you got from the editor that lets you grok the true reason. I would guess that if the coin flip is unbalanced a bit it would be in favor of doing this. But you may have more information.


I can't predict what the managing editor of the new journal would do.

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