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I received a rejection of my paper. It was a simple case report of 750 words of a very rare disease.

After almost two months of no-answer, I wrote a polite mail to the editorial board asking how much time it would take to receive an answer from the reviewer. They answered that I was going to receive an email within days.

Another month passed without any answer and I wrote another gentle mail asking how much time it would take, and after four days, I received an answer from the reviewer stating that my work added nothing new to the knowledge in my field, which is acceptable nonetheless arguable since it was a rare case with just another similar case in literature, but worst of all the reviewer said that a "significant amount of text was from other publications".

I interpret this statement as a plagiarism accusation. Am I wrong? Should I answer the editor in chief and ask him for the cross-reference documentation or should I let it go and maybe submit to another journal?

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  • 2
    Is your manuscript a review, a review of reviews whether systematic or narrative? Aug 14, 2023 at 21:39
  • 7
    Generally it is very hard for editors to say how much time a reviewer will take. The reviewers have deadlines, alright, but they do unpaid work, and often other things get in the way. As editor you can't do much more than reminding the reviewer and hope for the best, and at some point nominate another reviewer with whom the game begins again. Aug 14, 2023 at 22:08
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    Did you or did you not plagiarize (or self-plagiarize)? This might be an obvious thing for you, but it might help to specify it in your question. Aug 15, 2023 at 11:34
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    I justed wanted to add that it was not the reviewer who rejected the paper, but the editor. The reviewer may have suggested rejection, but it was the editors decision.
    – Dirk
    Aug 15, 2023 at 14:03
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    Did you or any colleague upload a copy of your paper, or earlier drafts of it, anywhere in the intervening months? It's possible to get a very high similarity score if the similarity checker managed to get a copy of your work into its database. The fact that it is the same paper might be missed by a hasty reviewer who doesn't have time to give your paper a serious look; or it might even be that someone else plagiarised from your work, and their paper found its way into the similarity checker's database.
    – kaya3
    Aug 15, 2023 at 23:30

4 Answers 4

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The devil is in the details. Your report is 750 words, which is roughly 1.5 A4 pages.

Let's say you took the 25 words literature description of the pathology: it will make 3% of your report suscetible of plagiarism suspect to automated plagiarims detection tools, and also to peers familiar with the work you are citing (not useful for the discussion, but please remember it is possible the reviewer is one of the author of the "just another similar case in literature", exactly because of that).

You can re-formulate that part in a couple of ways, as follows:

  1. The pathology has been described in (REF, year) as

    a well defined and separated literal quotation of the 25 words in a separate box

  2. For the pathology description we forward the reader to its first description given in REF (year);

In the first case, you have a block describing the pathology, in the second case you save 20 words that can be better used in other parts of the report.

Although the editor is not accusing you of plagiarism, they clearly are not confident on the novelty or on the opportunity of publishing your work. Take the bite, improve your work and submit it for publishing somewhere else.

You may feel your work has been misinterpreted, we know only your side of the story and it may be that the reviewer wrongly missed you properly referencing previous work.

The reviewer may be wrong, the editor is supposed to spend some time on the paper under review, but the editor is now facing the situation where you submitted your best possible work and the reviewers found some big flaws in this work. Since the editor is strongly rejecting your paper there is not much room for discussion: the wording "significant amount of text was from other publications" leaves no room for discussion. Stick to the facts you are facing, not to the interpretation of their motives, the editor has nothing to gain to prove you have bad intentions (plagiarism!) or to prove you are simply naive/sloppy (no novelty, work is a repetition of referenced works), they are simply annoyed and they judge your work not worthwhile of theirs and other people time.

Do not worry for the long-term consequence to your reputation (not even for the short-term), the editor that rejected your work is unlikely to remember your name or to put you in a sort of black-list (unless you start arguing, escalating the situation).

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    "unless you start arguing, escalating the situation" - this is the sad reality of research now, with the race to publications. I hope that someday people will start to publish on blogs or similar decentralized platforms bypassing the "kneel before the journal" situation we have now. I understand the need of peer review, but this review is one or two people today, who can be seriously biaised.
    – WoJ
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:38
  • @WoJ I do not disagree with you. I try to balance the author view with the reviewer duties. If I see one reference too less, or a sentence partially word-by-word without adequate reference, I ask for major revision (major in quality not quantity), if the consequent work is still meaningful, new and interesting. OP has 1.5 paper report: it is a very short text, ea. (trivial) flaw weights a lot. My review leads to slow paper, wasting time/money to add a couple of proper reference only. Please compare the wasted resources with the funds spent on projects mentioned on retractionwatch.com
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17, 2023 at 13:00
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    I left academia quite some time ago - so my perspective is mostly "out-of-universe". We teach people to not rely on a single source - but this is what a journal is. Worse, it is the opinion of the authors and the reviewers. If you compare this to general news (technical ones for instance), people got used to sourcing across many sources, and some of them evolved to be trustful. This way you get independent opinions (that can wildly vary).
    – WoJ
    Aug 18, 2023 at 8:56
  • (cont'd) There is not a case where someone has to wait months to pass information or is not published because someone does not like them. Of course, this leads to false information - but if someone wants to believe in homeopathy, no amount of data will change their minds. If they are truly curious, they will find sources that say yes and sources that say no and it is up to them to decide.
    – WoJ
    Aug 18, 2023 at 8:56
  • To pass informations there are lot of ways, peer-review publication is only one of the many ways and it come with (cumbersome for some) requirements. There are plenty of other venues, for example www.medrxiv.org , or even just sending an email to peers working on similar cases, to pass informations. Said this, if one has enough "guard systems" in place to defend their work, they can use whatever system to pass informations. Unfortunately, because of laziness and inertia, the scientific word hinges strongly on the peer-review system.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 18, 2023 at 9:18
36

Being a physician and clinical researcher myself, I can just encourage you to keep submitting the case report if it covers a "rare disease". There are numerous diseases / syndromes out there which are covered by less than n = 100 case reports. Every single one of them (given a decent quality) matters to compile knowledge that later goes into treatment recommendations. Cite the case report under discussion and clearly state to what extent your case was different. Consider a head-to-head comparison as a supplementary table. Try another journal and do not give up. You do not have to "add to the literature" with a case report in a classical sense. "Another case report on a rare disease" alone might be of high interest itself.

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  • if the disease is a novel one, "Another case report on a rare disease first reported by xyz (year) " is what makes the difference between the paper being perceived as an interesting addition to a paper being questioned with "are they trying to be the first reporting this disease?" ... especially if the disease is being described with very close wordings. The importance of the credits to the first discoverer of something is unfortunately a disease of our research&progress thinking.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 16, 2023 at 10:12
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    @ EarlyGrey. Sorry, I do not understand. I wanted to express that reporting diseases and approaches towards recovery / symptom reduction is what counts.
    – Dr.M
    Aug 16, 2023 at 14:17
  • I am not against your goal. If you want to publish it in a peer reviewed venue, then it must be formally correct. The statistical risk of publishing bullshit is otherwise too high (compare it with requirements to be blood donor: many of them are in place to reduce the risk of diseases on a purely statistic basis, not on the basis of the single donor). I am not against publishing on medrxiv.org either.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17, 2023 at 12:50
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    @Dr.M I must sincerely thank you for your comment. It gave me another perspective, and sometimes as young researchers and clinicians, we take personally every failed attempt, even the ones not worthwhile of a double thought.
    – Heart
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:06
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    @Mike I must say that I was not given the opportunity to resubmit the revised paper and to submit a better version, since it was rejected after three months of procrastination with a review stating the phrase above. Since the editorial board answered me two times that my reviewer was on holiday for a period time of three months, I must say that it sounds like the paper was not even given the chance to be revised in a proper way.
    – Heart
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:16
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It's not necessarily a plagiarism accusation - a possible interpretation is that the manuscript contains a significant amount of material that is already published elsewhere, and hence is not novel. This seems to match your description of the paper.

Assuming you didn't plagiarize, then asking for the iThenticate report (I assume this is what you meant) is kind of pointless. If the journal were rejecting your paper due to alleged plagiarism, the manuscript should not have reached a reviewer in the first place. In other words, the fact that the paper reached a reviewer implies that the reject reason is not plagiarism.

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    The paper is about a rare clinical case in the cardiology field. I found in the literature only another case similar. Nonetheless, I checked with attention in the paper and there are a few phrases similar to other papers that cannot be changed, such as the definition of pathology. the text is not similar to other cases, and despite some pathologies can have something similar there are other details that are shared and can actually change the outcome. Should I write to the editor-in-chief about the revision to ask explanation? Does someone have advice in this case?
    – Heart
    Aug 15, 2023 at 10:54
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    Resubmit elsewhere and use quotations where appropriate. Aug 16, 2023 at 0:40
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    @Martina I edited the last line to make what I meant clearer.
    – Allure
    Aug 16, 2023 at 1:13
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It does sound like an accusation of plagiarism, but I would ask for clarification (it could be that the reviewer is being very literal - if you quoted a lot of text from others), if you were planning on submitting another version to another journal so it doesn't get rejected again (or worse be accused of plagiarism after it is published in another journal). You want to get to the bottom of what made the reviewer think it was plagiarism (if indeed that is what they thought).

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    Before asking for clarification, I'd suggest checking using Ithenticate / Turnitin or a similar platform. Maybe OP's university has a subscription, or in the worst case it costs 100$ to check a single paper. Aug 15, 2023 at 11:41
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    @FedericoPoloni 100$? a time-cost benefit analysis points strongly at resubmitting to a different venue rather than investing so much in a tool :D !
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 16, 2023 at 13:20

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