This is a follow on from Is it ethical to withdraw a paper after acceptance in order to resubmit to a better journal?

If a journal is willing to publish your submitted manuscript "as is", can you prevent them? Clearly if they want you to make changes you have the right to say no, but once the manuscript is accepted can you really withdraw it against the publisher's wish? Further, who has the final say on copy edits and type setting?

In my field we electronically sign a copyright transfer when the manuscript is submitted that comes into affect if it is accepted for publication.

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    Have you signed over copyright yet?
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 22:20
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    @ff524 I am pretty sure most of the journals I submitted to, you electronically sign the copyright release upon submission.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 7:58
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    "In my field we electronically sign a copyright transfer when the manuscript is submitted that comes into affect if it is accepted for publication." One must keep one's head when encountering cultural differences, but....my honest first reaction is that sounds outrageous. How can you transfer the copyright on a product that (i) doesn't necessarily exist in anything like its final form and (ii) might not actually ever exist? Could you provide a link to an example of such a form? I would be very interested to see it. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 8:30
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    For some journals copyright transfer happens on submission, for some only when the paper is accepted for publication.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 13:35
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/15589/2692
    – earthling
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


Of course I'm not a lawyer, but I'd distinguish between two thresholds:

  1. Before the paper can be published, you need to grant legal permission via a license or copyright transfer. If you haven't done that yet, then the publisher can't force you to let them publish the paper. That gives a narrow window in which you could still block publication after the paper is accepted (but whether you could ethically do so depends on your reason for objecting).

  2. Once the published version has appeared (even just on the publisher's website), there's nothing you can do without a powerful reason. At that point, you would be retracting a published paper, which is a far more serious act.

In between these thresholds, I don't know what would happen. I'd guess that if you asked the publisher not to publish a paper you had already signed a copyright transfer for, then they would probably agree. After all, publishing a paper against the author's wishes could look bad, even if they were legally entitled to do so. However, if you didn't have a very good reason (such as a major error in the paper), then the publisher would be rather unhappy. I wouldn't be surprised if they asked you to cover any copyediting or typesetting costs, and this sort of unprofessional behavior would be terrible for your reputation.

Further, who has the final say on copy edits and type setting?

In principle this depends on the publishing agreement. In practice, the ones I've seen usually give the publisher final say, but the publisher usually defers to the author about anything intellectually substantive during the proofreading stage. (On the other hand, the author gets more or less no input into matters of style such as font choice, British vs. American spelling, etc.)

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    It is interesting that you interpreted the question as "after signing over copyright". I was thinking of it the other way....in which you are legally golden but there may still be ethical issues if you want to look hard enough. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 0:24
  • I focused on the after copyright transfer/license case mainly because it seemed to be the more subtle case, at least regarding whether it's even possible to stop publication. (Ethically, I think it's the less subtle case: you've now gone ahead and legally confirmed that publication is OK, so you'd better have a good reason to change your mind.) Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 0:34
  • When do you normally sign the copyright transfer? In my field it is all electronic now, but I am pretty sure the transfer happens upon submission.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 8:00
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    @StrongBad: In mathematics the copyright transfer is normally dealt with after acceptance. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 13:21
  • @StrongBad In (theoretical) computer science, after the editor accepts, after the paper is copy-edited (if the paper is copy-edited), and after the author approves the galley proofs (if there are galley proofs). Or, if it's an open access journal, never.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 18:39

Further, who has the final say on copy edits and type setting?

Short answer: everyone. In more detail:

Acceptance of a paper means that the editorial board approves it for publication. Once the editorial board signs off on the paper, some combination of the author(s), the editors and the publishers must arrive at a mutually agreeable final draft.

In my experience, the role that the editors play here is highly variable: sometimes they work directly with the authors on the copyediting: e.g. the American Mathematical Monthly is incredibly picky (relative to other math journals, anyway) about copyediting issues, and they surprised me by withholding final acceptance of a recent paper of mine until I had (myself, under their very specific instructions) completed all the copyediting and formatting. And they seemed serious about this: a change to the bibliography would be solicited and uploaded as a separate revision. It ought to be evident that I was not completely happy that the acceptance of the paper was held over my head during a discussion of the copyediting, but that's a way to play it and I'm sure they have their reasons.

(The MONTHLY has, I believe, by far the highest circulation of any mathematics journal. It is published by the Mathematical Association of America, which is the more teaching-oriented of the two professional societies for mathematics in the US. On the other hand, there are three selective MAA journals, and of these the MONTHLY is by far the most "serious". Long story short: many roads lead to them, and they are forced to be very selective indeed in what they publish, although they select for different things than a top research journal.)

I had another experience in which the final editorial acceptance in a prestigious journal was made conditional on the submission of a new draft containing less "pompous language".

More typically the copyediting and formatting is either left to the authors themselves or done by an employee of the publishing company (who in many cases does this for papers in multiple academic disciplines and thus cannot have high-level subject area knowledge most of the time). In the end both the authors and the publisher have the final say: both parties must approve the final draft in order for it to published, and the documentation of this mutual approval is the publication contract.

Of course in practice this mutual approval is done in an asymmetric way between the parties: the publisher sends you a form in which everything has been spelled out in advance, in the pushy manner of big corporations everywhere. But if there are clauses in the contract that the authors have a problem with, they are certainly entitled to ask, and in my experience some minor "concessions" (i.e., changes to the boilerplate agreement) are often made by the publisher. A big part of the asymmetry is that the authors generally have a much larger stake in the publication of the paper than the publisher does, so insisting that one be able to refer to a paper in the bibliography by [Cl14] rather than [3] or one will take one's wares elsewhere looks like a strange arrangement of priorities, but if you really do feel strongly about it you are entitled to ask and who knows -- maybe you'll get your way. Asking them to mess with aspects of the typesetting that are part of the journal's standard style seems less kosher to me: one would reasonably expect the journal to want to keep its standard style, and if this was really important to you, you should probably have brought it up earlier.

Making sure that one really does send in the copyright form last of all is a good tip. I stumbled on this point recently when dealing with one of the world's largest scientific publishing companies. They kept doing something weird in the proofs, I kept pointing out their mistakes and though I took pains to indicate in every correspondence that I was not giving my final approval, after a few go-rounds they didn't get back to me, and eventually I noticed that the paper was published online...still with one strange typesetting mistake that was not in the version I sent to them. Next time I'll save the copyright form until the end.

  • This is, of course, the less interesting part of the question. I want to get some clarification on @ff524's key comment before tackling the ethical question, but short answer: if you haven't signed anything, then of course you can legally cease all dealings with the publisher. Whether this is ethical depends, as usual, on why you are doing it, but I know of at least one specific case in which this was done for what I consider to be a good ethical reason. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 1:07
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    The journal has an obligation to fix mistakes that you pointed out but that they failed to correct (or introduced on their own.) I've had a journal issue a correction because they left off a change in the title of an article (they dropped off an "s" at the end).
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 16:42
  • @aeismail: I agree. When I pointed out these issue to the editor, he told me that he had learned that the publisher would not change the document itself (which at that point and even now has only been published online; the print version might or might not appear in 2014) but only issue a correction if necessary. Since in this case the error was something like an extraneous character like @ introduced in the statement of a result, it would be way over the top to publish a correction. But still it was a bad experience, and with what I had thought was the world's leading scientific publisher. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 17:36

If a journal is willing to publish your submitted manuscript "as is", can you prevent them? Clearly if they want you to make changes you have the right to say no, but once the manuscript is accepted can you really withdraw it against the publisher's wish?

You can withdraw a manuscript at any time unless it is officially published (usually on-line). I cannot see that any journal could stop you from doing so and signing copyright forms should not cause problems since those forms usually concern the work done by the publisher to get the manuscript into publishable form. By this I mean copy-editing and type-setting and not generally the review process. Exactly what is covered by the agreement must be checked in each individual case (journal/publisher).

The fact that you can withdraw a manuscript does not mean it is necessarily a frictionless process. A case such as this falls outside of legal terms and into the ethical realm where you can do whatever you legally can or want but it may not reflect very positively on yourself. To withdraw a manuscript from a journal that has put in a lot of efforts, including, most likely, non-paid reviewers and scientific editors, with the excuse that you want to go for a higher ranking journal seems at least morally wrong. You should have thought about that much earlier.

Further, who has the final say on copy edits and type setting?

The journal will likely have rules for how things should look and be expressed. You have the opportunity to agree or disagree with any changes the journal makes, through its copy-editing and type-setting. However, when it comes to journal style, it supersedes your own views and an editor also has the right to remove material that can be considered offensive, rude or unethical in some way. The latter is to protect the journal reputation. Hence, you cannot expect your view to be final in such extreme cases.

Despite what I have just said, there are of course overzealous editors who do not know where to draw the lines. So because human interaction is involved also in publishing, all may not happen as you expect it but usually such circumstances in the extreme are exceptions.

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