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I recently receive an editorial letter that is unwilling to share referee reports. The letter explicitly mentions the existence of such report but the editor don't want to send it to me.

Is not sending referees reports normal and happen frequently?

Related: How to interpret this rejection email from Journal of American Math Society? Anything to read between the lines?


I decided to accept the second answer, though all answers are very good. The editor told me that the referee is unwilling to share his report. This is exactly the case suggested by the David's answer.

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  • 7
    What are you looking for that isn't already explained in the question you link to?
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 6, 2022 at 18:47
  • 9
    The editor's answer may be unpleasant, but it does not seem unclear. What is your question? Sep 6, 2022 at 18:49

5 Answers 5

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Contrary to other opinions here, in my experience as an author, reviewer and editor it is entirely normal to receive referee reports that should not be shared with the author. This is an action taken by the referee and not the editor normally. Some reasons why referees don't want the text of their opinion shared with the authors.

  1. They know the author well and their identity would definitely become obvious should the report be shared.

  2. The report contains technical details that impact on the paper, so need to be in the report, but would definitely break anonymity if shared, because it would allow the author to immediately work out the referee.

  3. The referee is unsure about whether they are correct in what they are saying. They might say something like "I think this might have been done before, but I'm not sure where. Try X, they are likely to know for sure."

  4. The report is very short, and the referee simply doesn't think it's particularly useful to give the author. This is particularly true of quick opinions, which many journals in mathematics try to obtain before a full referee's report, which can take a long time.

  5. The referee wrote a report, and it contains personal details about somebody -- the author, referee, or a third party -- that they think would be inappropriate to be shared with the author.

  6. The referee clicked the wrong box in the form.

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    Out of curiosity, what is your field and how common is it not to receive referee reports? In my area (pure math), I'd say it happens from time to time, and it is more common for weak papers, but even in the case of initial rejections (no request for revisions), you get back referee reports/quick opinions most the time.
    – Kimball
    Sep 7, 2022 at 23:47
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    @dodo I mean that if there is anything 'unprofessional' in the report, the referee will flag it as not for author consumption. Suppose I write a report that says that the results are fine, not particularly interesting but good enough, but I'm worried about X, and you should check with John Smith about that, as it could collapse the whole thing'. I'm not going to make that report available to authors. Then John Smith gets back and says that X is fine, but he doesn't think the paper is that good, just in an e-mail rather than a report (this happens very often)... Sep 8, 2022 at 8:36
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    Now the editor has enough to reject the paper, but no report to give the author. He either rejects, or tries to convince either me or John Smith to write a second report to hand to the authors. You have to understand that editors are grateful if any referee responds, so bothering them again is not an option. Sep 8, 2022 at 8:36
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    @dodo to answer your question about 5, at least in my field things are quite close knit. Often, the editor knows the referee and author personally. If I have sent a paper to be evaluated by X, and I sent one a few months before for another quick opinion by X, the referee's report might make a comparison between the two. "This paper is much better than the one you sent me before by Y, so if you accepted that you should definitely accept this." No way can I send that to the author, but it's a very useful report for the editor. Sep 8, 2022 at 11:24
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    @dodo No, I mean that the editor might send two different papers to the same referee over the space of a few months, and the referee might reply that the newer paper is better than the previous one they were sent. Sep 10, 2022 at 21:14
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In my experience, the web sites for sending in referee reports often have spaces for two reports, one for the author (and editor) and one for only the editor. I've often left the second space blank, so that all my comments could (and presumably would) be forwarded to the author. But it's entirely possible for a referee to put almost nothing in the first space and put almost all comments in the second space. (I wrote "almost" because the web site software often requires you to put something in the first space, but it can't detect that your something is worthless.) In such a case, the editor could make a decision but couldn't forward anything useful to the author. (Of course, the editor could also look for a new referee.)

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    That's a nice description, but it's not an answer to the OP's question: is it normal not to get a review, and implicitly, what is the possible reason for not getting a review.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 7, 2022 at 0:34
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    @Dilworth - I would imagine that a comment about the paper being effectively gibberish/plagiarised/valueless would be something you'd share with the editor but not the author. I'm not saying that's what's happened here, but those are examples
    – Valorum
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:49
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    As editor and reviewer I value the second (undisclosed) box very much. Your comments to authors can be tough, but should focus on possible improvements (or fatal flaws) of the manuscript. In the closed section the reviewer can give a more straightforward explanation/recommendation summary why a paper should be given the chance for improvements or whether it should be rejected. This is valuable to the editor. It may be that these are the reports the that the editor does not want to share (but it would be strange to report this to the author) May 5 at 18:03
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As far as I'm aware of, this is highly not normal. Peer review in journals normally means that you get to see the review as an author. Any other decision may show some lack of trust between the editor and the author. For example,

  1. the editor thinks the author is a "crank";

  2. or does not deserve a serious treatment;

  3. or that the specific paper submitted was clearly below the acceptance threshold of that journal so that a serious review was not even conducted (in this case there is a "review" containing one or two paragraphs, stating the paper is clearly below the bar). This case is called "desk reject".

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    There may be a distinction between a "referee report" and a review. Authors typically see reviewer comments on their manuscript; they may not see referee comments that the editor uses to make a decision, such as a decision to accept or reject the manuscript. As mentioned in the Q&A that OP linked to, this may happen when reviewers are asked not to review a paper but to decide whether they think it is worth reviewing.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 6, 2022 at 19:07
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    It's not clear what the editor is calling a "referee report".
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 6, 2022 at 19:16
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    Peer review in journals means that you get to see the review as an author This is surely not the case. You get a decision, not necessarily a review (e.g. if the manuscript is desk rejected).
    – Allure
    Sep 7, 2022 at 6:31
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    @Allure but a desk-rejected manuscript hasn't been peer-reviewed. Sep 7, 2022 at 11:38
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    @Allure, correct. That's what I said. To clarify I added the word "normally" now, thanks.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 7, 2022 at 13:51
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This is definitely not normal. It implies something went wrong. One possible explanation is that the reviewer wrote something highly confidential and the editor isn't sharing it. Alternatively, the reviewer wrote something really bad (e.g. rude/abusive/sexist/irrelevant) and the editor isn't sharing it.

Still, when that happens (I've seen it as an editor), the more common thing to do is to just not tell the authors of the existence of the confidential review, which avoids the authors asking questions like this one.

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It is probably not normal (in my field anyway) not to see any form of the referee's report at all. These days, ( again in my field), a referee usually submits two sets of comments, one for the editor alone, and one which will/may be made available to the author. If the referee is told that part of his/her comments will not be made available to the author without consent, then it is proper that those comments should be withheld from the author if that consent is not given.

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