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In their response to a review, the authors insult the reviewer, question their professional knowledge and the comments made regarding the finalization of the publication. The reviewer cannot refuse them on the basis that they are insulted and requires revision of the work based on the comments they made. The reviewer does not agree to withdraw from reviewing the submitted publication, and the authors rudely refuse to correct the comments they made.

Does the editorial board of a journal have the ethical right to refuse publication for insulting the reviewer?

08.24.2023. Dear colleagues!

I want to inform you how this particular situation was resolved. The authors withdrew the article a few days ago in protest against the reviewer's remarks. Thank you very much to everyone who took part in the discussion! Your thoughts helped us a lot not to make a hasty rash decision.

Best regards, Anatolii Smikhula.

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    I realize that it is too late now, but I think the editor should have insisted that the authors rewrite their response, before sending it on to the referee. Referees are volunteers, they shouldn't have to put up with abuse. Aug 11, 2023 at 14:44
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    The first sentence summarizes three very different types of behaviour: insulting the reviewer, questioning their professional knowledge, and questioning their comments. I think it would be good to distinguish more clearly between them. Aug 12, 2023 at 0:38
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    @DavidESpeyer At least in my field, all exchange are done via a peer review system automatically, and it's not common (if exist at all) to have a period of time where the review is visible by editor/area chair but not by the reviewers, it's sent directly to the reviewers and editors at the same time.
    – justhalf
    Aug 12, 2023 at 10:56
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    What is the context for mentioning that the "reviewer does not agree to withdraw from reviewing"? Did the authors request that the reviewer withdraw? Or did the editor raise this possibility? Or is this journal not double-blind and there is some pre-existing conflict between the reviewer and the authors? Aug 12, 2023 at 14:55
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    "The reviewer cannot refuse them on the basis that they are insulted" — I recommend rewording as "cannot" is ambiguous here. Is that a description of journal's documented policy, an ethical position taken by reviewer/editor/author, or merely a fact that the review software did not offer such an option? Aug 13, 2023 at 14:58

6 Answers 6

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A journal has no obligation to publish anything, actually, so I don't see an ethical issue. If they refuse to publish something of value then there is an opportunity cost but nothing more. The authors are free to go elsewhere.

But the reason for rejection might be much more complex than you present. In particular, a refusal to address the comments of a reviewer can, in itself, be grounds for rejection whether the authors insult the reviewer or not.

Authors demanding that they are correct and the reviewer is an idiot isn't a proper argument in determining the value of a paper.


Edited to add:

I haven't said and don't believe that there are no ethical concerns with publishing. But some commenters seem to be conflating an obligation to treat people fairly with an obligation to publish any particular paper. These things are not the same. No, you can't discriminate. Yes, you must obey the law. But a paper is a paper, not a person.

Some papers are rejected for space considerations alone. Some because the journal has a different focus. And yes, some because the authors ignore advice and insist on their view. It may even be that a few are rejected because the authors act so badly that the editors just want them to go away. It might be different if a journal had a complete monopoly, but they don't.

Even Einstein was humble about Special Relativity and commented on it at the time, in spite of the fact that it countered the "received wisdom" of the leaders in the field at the time.

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    A journal has no obligation to publish anything, actually, so I don't see an ethical issue. – I strongly disagree. If there were an obligation, it would be more than an ethical issue, namely a legal issue or similar. Of course, publishing decisions are governed by ethics. For example, a journal that publishes everything ignoring peer review or that only publishes articles from authors who are friends with the editors is clearly not acting ethically.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 12, 2023 at 8:21
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    @Wrzlprmft What are you disagreeing with exactly? Buffy is just saying that there is no ethical problem with a journal rejecting any particular paper. He/she is not saying that there are no ethical issues involved in choosing what to publish.
    – gib
    Aug 12, 2023 at 9:37
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    Although I do not see any ethical issue in this instance, it's pretty easy to come up with a counterexample to the argument "A journal has no obligation to publish anything, [therefore there is no ethical issue for rejecting a paper for any reason]". For example, there is an obvious ethical issue if a journal rejects a paper solely because of the race of an author. If I misinterpreted your statement, I doubt I will be the only one to do so, so some rewording may clarify your intended meaning.
    – Vaelus
    Aug 12, 2023 at 12:56
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    @gib: What are you disagreeing with exactly? – The logical step: no obligation ⇒ no ethical issue. Also see Vaelus’ comment. — Buffy is just saying that there is no ethical problem with a journal rejecting any particular paper. He/she is not saying that there are no ethical issues involved in choosing what to publish. – I fail to understand the contrast here. Rejecting any particular paper is a choice on what you publish. I also disagree with the first statement on its own: Any particular rejection can be unethical.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 12, 2023 at 18:31
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    "A journal has no obligation to publish anything, actually" <- That is false. A journal has an obligation to publish in line with its scope and the process it has declared for screening and reviewing potential publications, and so as to further the knowledge of the (scientific) community it targets.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 13, 2023 at 12:39
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To dissect the ethics, it helps to first think about what ethical obligations journals have in general. The ones that I can come up with and that may be relevant to this situation are:

  • Avoid publishing unsound or misleading work. – This is the main point of the peer-review process. To conduct this process, it is necessary that the authors address the comments of the peer reviewers, whether they follow the suggestions or disagree with arguments. Moreover, if authors do not do this, this suggests that they are not interested in delivering sound work, which in turn reduces trust in the manuscript as a whole.

  • Do not impose disproportionate constraints on the authors. – Behaving in a civil manner and engaging with the arguments of the reviewers (even in disagreement) is certainly not expecting too much.

  • Treat all submissions equally and fairly. – If the journal rejects all manuscripts of authors behaving in a similar manner, no problem here.

  • Avoid harm to their volunteers. – Reviewers (and often editors) are volunteering for the journal so they should not suffer from insults. Insults to the reviewers can be avoided by the editors checking the responses, but they can also be deterred by a policy to reject any manuscript when the authors engage in such behaviour. (Mind that such a policy needs not be public in my opinion, since it can be expected by common sense.)

For whatever it’s worth, as a reviewer I have several times successfully recommended the rejection of manuscripts on account of the authors not engaging with my comments. While my educated guess in these situations was that the authors did not understand my comments (on account of not fully understanding what they were doing) and wanted to distract from that, the ethical rationale is similar to your case.

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Where do ethics come into this at all?

First, any authors dumb enough to insult the reviewers are probably too dumb to write a good paper. Sure, you can disagree with a reviewer's comments. I've been on both ends of that, many times. But you disagree politely.

Second, presumably, the authors didn't make the changes the reviewer wanted. That's grounds for refusal. I have, as a reviewer, recommended rejecting a revised MS for failure to make my suggestions.

Third, what about ethical obligations to the reviewer? I do statistical reviews for two journals. For those journals, I do many reviews; I get paid, but many reviewers don't. The journal should also be protecting the reviewers, both from a practical POV (reviewers who are treated badly may leave) and even an ethical one. You shouldn't be insulted at your work place.

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    Actually, with respect to your first point, brilliance and arrogance are pretty highly correlated. I've met a few such folks.
    – Buffy
    Aug 12, 2023 at 12:32
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    Fair enough, but the really brilliant people I know and have worked with know how to tone it down. You tell your colleagues the reviewer is an idiot. You thank the reviewer for their time and make your counter-argument. (I've worked with a lot of smart people, two of whom were really geniuses. Insulting the reviewers is stupid.).
    – Peter Flom
    Aug 12, 2023 at 12:35
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    @Buffy I have met lots of very smart mathematicians (not going to name drop them), some of them I know them very well, and actually most of them are very humble and not arrogant in the slightest. It might be subject dependent.
    – Tom
    Aug 12, 2023 at 13:29
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    the authors didn't make the changes the reviewer wanted. That's grounds for refusal. – But that’s not the question here. Of course, it is ethical for an editor to reject a manuscript when the authors refuse to make changes the editor is convinced are important, but that would be unrelated to the insult. For example, if the authors refuse to insert a hyphen suggested by the reviewer, you wouldn’t reject the manuscript on that basis. If they insult the reviewer for suggesting this, you might.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 12, 2023 at 18:50
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    It doesn't really matter how dumb the review is.
    – Peter Flom
    Aug 13, 2023 at 13:27
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As an editor, you have the power to ignore reviewers or/and authors. You can refer the authors to the many resources on the Internet on how to write a proper response. Request for the paper to be returned to the authors, and ask them to 'fix up' their responses. Similarly, you can do the same for reviews submitted by reviewers. In some cases, reviews can be edited to remove unprofessional remarks before being released to authors.

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I think the editor has a duty to reject the paper for insulting a reviewer as they have intentionally or unintentionally gamed the peer review process by making it difficult for the reviewer to recommend rejection without apparent conflict of interest. Personally I think there should be a zero tolerance response to insulting a reviewer or any other attempt to subvert peer review.

Anybody that insults a reviewer is shooting themselves in the foot. The purpose of review is not just to accept or reject the paper, it is to improve the quality of the paper. The author is getting for free the services of an expert reviewer whos time and effort they could not afford to buy (at academics usual consultancy rates) [I borrowed that from a good paper on peer review, but I can't remember the details]. If the reviewer hasn't understood your paper, it is your fault for not writing it clearly enough and you should go back and rewrite it. If your paper still doesn't get past review, act on the feedback you have had so far and send it somewhere else. Insulting them probably means you will continue to write papers that are hard to understand and have little impact - not a good choice!

Note sometimes we will get reviews that are just wrong, where the reviewer is wrong even though you have spelled it out as clearly as can be (in my case I remember an example where the reviewer wouldn't accept an algorithm was O(n^3) rather than O(n^4) even when I wrote out the algorithm as three nested for loops with only scalar quantities in the inner loop). We are all only human, and the right approach is to remember that you are only human and it is only a matter of time before you submit an equally dumb review (if you haven't already). Thinking you are incapable of writing a dumb review is the best recipe for writing one.

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Any reviewer deserves respect as they spend their little free time reading and commenting on your manuscript. The scope of this process is to improve the publication and catch mistakes that the authors have overlooked. The authors have the right to respectfully disagree with a reviewer's comment, and explain their reasons in the rebuttal letter. If the controversy cannot be resolved, the editor comes into play and takes the final decision. When this happens, the editor usually consults several experts including the other anonymous reviewers. There is always a way to appeal if you firmly believe that you have been treated unfairly. Insulting is definitely not the approach you want to pursue as you have much better alternatives to argue in your favor (provided that you have any good argument based on scientific evidences).

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  • This post does not appear to attempt to answer the question asked.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:28

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