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I am an early-career researcher in mathematics. In general, after submitting a paper to a journal, it is advised to wait six months before requesting information about the status of the review process. In other words, in mathematics peer review takes a lot of time.

Having said that, I tend not to fully understand why a reviewer would take 3+ months before recommending to reject a paper. Certainly there are cases where this is inevitable (e.g., if the paper is highly technical), yet I would expect reviewers to keep a manuscript for more than 4-6 months only if they are willing to recommend acceptance.

So my question is. Is it ethical/generally accepted for a reviewer to recommend rejection after months from receiving the manuscript?

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    why need so many questions here that are purely technically always this "ethical" link/connotation?! A journal operates like a small enterprise, not like a conformistic church or politicians. If the review time is too long for your taste, choose another journal!? There is balance between ethical and free choice of behaviour in science or there was at least once....Reading this website one gets the impression there is for every question here a ethical criterions framework and the answer relating best to this imaginary often not existing framework gets the most upvotes,but already the Q is wrong Jul 3 at 11:03
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    "I would expect reviewers to keep a manuscript for more than 4-6 months only if they are willing to recommend acceptance." Why? What's your reasoning here? Unless the paper is clearly flawed at first glance, why would you expect writing a positive review to take less time than writing a negative review? I don't know about other people, but I find that (in math) explaining why a certain part of the paper is mistaken or not important or novel enough takes more time than writing a report which simply says that the paper is great, does not contain any substantial errors, and should be accepted. Jul 3 at 12:15
  • How long is your paper and how hard is it?
    – High GPA
    Jul 5 at 0:13
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    I have had a paper get rejected after over a year of being in review. Journals can reject a paper after any length of time spent in review. Ethics don't really apply. Jul 11 at 6:56

2 Answers 2

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Actually, time isn't the important variable here, quality of the paper is, as well as the required correctness, of course. And authors are warned about the time in any case.

Every reviewer should be willing to accept every paper when it arrives. They should also be willing to reject every paper.

But reviewing isn't the first priority of people willing to review. They have their own work. They have their own students to attend to. And, to do a good job on a paper likely requires work of its own along with several readings. In fact, in mathematics, and perhaps other fields, it is busy people who you want to be the reviewers: active mathematicians with a deep interest in the field, not novices with time on their hands.

What wouldn't be ethical is to agree to review a paper and then ignore it completely after receiving it or to come to a conclusion and not communicate it to the editor. But, otherwise, there is no ethical concern about the time of a review, whether the paper is recommended for acceptance, revision, or rejection.

The goal is to get good work published, not to win a race.

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  • Well, for some PhD students it's really a race: some PhD programmes require students to have at least an accepted publication by the end of the PhD, and if you have a one-year review time in a three-year programme, the student might be in trouble.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jul 3 at 12:30
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    @MassimoOrtolano, there are ethical implications of such policies, of course. Making student success completely dependent on things that can't be managed in any way is the issue, not the time to review. Arguably, such policies can also lead to lots of inconsequential papers that are easy to review. Don't conflate the two issues. By their very nature, important papers in math take time to review.
    – Buffy
    Jul 3 at 12:56
  • I don't conflate the two issues, but one should also be realistic, and for early career researchers long review times can put them at disadvantage with respect to researchers in nearby field. After all, what is the fraction of actually important papers with respect to the total?
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jul 3 at 13:18
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I can understand why you are upset. However, you do not know all relevant facts. It could have been that your reviewer only took a couple of days, because the first reviewer had a problem and could not review it, such as an illness, and the reviewer then was a replacement selected by the editor. It could be that the reviewer was the original reviewer, but something such as an illness or a similar catastrophe delayed the review. That should not oblige the reviewer to recommend acceptance. It could be that there was an accident relaying the review such as an unsent email.

There are many possibilities other than the reviewer deciding to sit on the manuscript to make your life harder.

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