We submitted a paper to a journal published by Cambridge Press. The paper was submitted last year (2013). After five months we got the decision yesterday. We don't mind the decision, however, we are shocked by the editorial comments that although they have the reports they don't relay the reports to the author/s for papers which are not proceeding further. Is this approach common in journals? We feel this is very unethical from any author's point of view.
I consider that not giving authors the ground on which the decision was taken to be both unethical and bad for science. How should the authors improve the paper if they don't even know why they have been rejected? How can they get a sense of what the community expects from them?
I am not alone in this: the International Mathematical Union issued ethical guidelines for journals, including that the default policy should be that referee's reports are forwarded to author. However many journals give the referees the opportunity to give comments solely for the editors, and some editors prefer not to forward some reports to avoid pissing off the authors. I never heard of a journal with a policy of never forwarding reports of rejected papers before; this sounds absurd or really cowardly.
The reports are the property of the editor of the journal as they are the commissioning body. They do have the ability to share parts of the reports to the ms authors but they are under no legal obligation to. In some cases (especially with negative reports), the referees may ask that the editor to not share the comments.
There are really no
grounds for effective mechanism to appeal this type of policy.
The best suggestion would be to go to another journal -- perhaps one with a faster turnaround time. And ask some of your colleagues to read your ms and see why it might not be getting the positive results you had hoped for.
Followup: The journal has no legal obligation to tell you why they denied your paper. They might have a moral one (such as the disciplinary association urging them to), but no legal one. If they have it written in their bylaws that they will, then of course they will, but there is no legal requirement to.
This is similar to universities not having a legal (as opposed to moral) requirement to tell you why they didn't hire you or private granting agencies not having a legal requirement to tell you why they didn't give you funding. Again, if their policies (or if there is a federal/state/local requirement, etc. then they will) dictate they they must, then they will but this is rare to non-existent for private institutions (including non-profits).
Source: I've sat on the editorial board of the flagship journal of my discipline (in the social sciences).