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I recently submitted my first paper to a journal. It was recommended for minor revisions and ultimately accepted after they were done, but about a week after the acceptance, I received a new email that it was rejected. I'm disappointed by this, of course, but not blindsided by the general concept of it being rejected (it was a very long paper that I finally admit now needs to be split). What's more confusing is the post-acceptance rejection.

I've looked into questions about post-acceptance rejection here (Rejecting a paper after final acceptance notice, Is it ethical to reject an article after acceptance?, Can a paper get rejected in the copyediting phase (after peer review acceptance)?) and found very little evidence that this is a thing that...exists. The primary causes seem to be clerical error or extreme problems (e.g. plagiarism), neither of which seem to be the case here (I was sent an "accept pending minor revisions" with peer reviews, followed by an "accept", so clerical error doesn't seem likely, and the reason the editor gave for deciding to reject was the length -- there wasn't plagiarism or anything).

Is this -- the rejection of a non-plagiarised article post-intentional-acceptance -- a thing that happens at any meaningful prevalence? "Once in an average career", "I know a guy who knew a guy this happened to", "I saw it happen once in several thousand papers I handled as an assistant editor"? Or is it impossibly rare, and I got impossibly unlucky?

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    How did the second email explain the fact that the paper is being rejected after it was already accepted? Was it written by the same person who had earlier accepted your paper, or two different people? Did you try to argue or ask for an explanation? Consider the possibility that this is a genuine mistake (e.g., the editor clicking the wrong action in their editorial dashboard) with the original acceptance decision being the one they actually intended. If you alert the editor to this issue the decision may be corrected.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Apr 27 at 4:56
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    The exact quote in the rejection was that "your article has been revalued following revisions", and that they had decided to reject it due to length (for what it's worth, it's an online-only journal, so while there are logistical copyediting concerns for a long article there aren't print cost ones). I'm taking this at face value, i.e. that they were genuinely rejecting it rather than misclicking. Commented Apr 27 at 5:00
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    One data point: In the 54 years since my Ph.D., I've seen just one instance of such a rejection. Commented Apr 27 at 19:58
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    I've never seen this, and I've been around for some time. It may depend on the field though. Commented May 27 at 9:55
  • @vaticidalprophet Have you considered revising it according to the word count allowed? I've seen editors reject pieces due to word count before, so this isn't unheard of.
    – Parrever
    Commented May 29 at 18:38

3 Answers 3

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Anecdata from someone who's worked in academic publishing for many years and seen several hundred papers:

Of the papers I handled personally (here meaning I have firsthand knowledge of the process from submission to acceptance, including who made the decisions and the reviews received) I remember only one paper which was rejected after acceptance out of maybe a couple hundred accepted. The handling editor decided on accept, triggering the decision letter, and then the editor-in-chief overruled the decision.

Of the papers I've heard about (from acquaintances in academic publishing), there was at least two which were rejected out of ~a hundred.* Apparently the papers were accepted by mistake, but since the decision letter was already sent it couldn't be retracted easily. There was however a careful plagiarism check that led to some of these papers being rejected (I don't know why this wasn't done automatically before the papers went into consideration).

Of the papers I've read about (from/by people who I don't know) it certainly happens, but I have no way to tell what the denominator is. Example, example:

In 2012, Sage was named the Independent Publishers Guild Academic and Professional Publisher of the Year. The Sage publication that accepted my bogus paper is the Journal of International Medical Research. Without asking for any changes to the paper's scientific content, the journal sent an acceptance letter and an invoice for $3100. "I take full responsibility for the fact that this spoof paper slipped through the editing process," writes Editor-in-Chief Malcolm Lader, a professor of psychopharmacology at King's College London and a fellow of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, in an e-mail. He notes, however, that acceptance would not have guaranteed publication: "The publishers requested payment because the second phase, the technical editing, is detailed and expensive. … Papers can still be rejected at this stage if inconsistencies are not clarified to the satisfaction of the journal." Lader argues that this sting has a broader, detrimental effect as well. "An element of trust must necessarily exist in research including that carried out in disadvantaged countries," he writes. "Your activities here detract from that trust."

*This is an educated guess of the number of papers accepted by this person. It does not mean that I've only heard of a hundred papers from all the people I know in academic publishing.

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  1. It (almost) happened to me. I am a mathematician. Once upon a time, me and my collaborator wrote a long (70 pages) paper. The refereeing process took 3 years, eventually the paper was accepted and went through the galley proofs. Then, when we did not expect this, we received a letter from the editors stating that the paper is rejected since the journal "no longer publishes papers in this particular research subarea." We complained to the editor-in-chief who reversed the rejection decision (without much of an explanation) and the paper was published. The whole process (from submission to publication) took 4 years. I think, our paper was indeed the last paper published by this journal in that particular research subarea.

  2. I am not sure if this example counts but here it is. There was (still is) an open problem in my field of geometry and for over 10 years there was a preprint in circulation claiming a solution. The mistake in the proof was not particularly subtle and spotted by various people who informed the author. Pretty much everybody aware of the problem knew about the mistake in the proof. However, the author decided to send the paper (without changes) to a journal. Editors chose a "wrong referee" who did not know about the issue (most of the "proof" was analytical while the mistake was topological and the referee was not a topologist) and recommended the paper for acceptance. The paper appeared in an online version of the journal. I saw this and wrote to the editors explaining the situation. The editor-in-chief apologized and the paper simply disappeared: It disappeared from the online version and was never published in the printed version.

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I have published (peer-reviewed papers) in the triple digits in my career, and have never had this issue. I've been rejected once early into my independent career after receiving an "accept with minor revisions" as one of the referees had a change of heart even after we addressed everything. This case in particular was handled by a less experienced editor, and my guess is the referee was someone well-established which they did not want to second-guess. It was frustrating for me, the work got published anyway, it is now well cited, but I actually killed that project anyway, and am not overly proud of it (it was derivative and although well done, it was not that interesting), so in hindsight I could see why a referee just didn't think much of the work.

I think such circumstances are so rare they aren't even worth worrying about.

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