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You submit a manuscript to journal A. The paper is rejected, either with a short dismissal ("not good enough for this journal") or with a longer rebuttal from the referees. You wish to resubmit it to a different journal B.

Should you inform the editor at B of the previous rejection?

What is ethically correct? What do people do in the real world?

Possible arguments in favor:

  1. It is important information regarding the manuscript, you shouldn't withhold it.
  2. In this way the editor at B can contact the editor at journal A to solicit an opinion from the same referees, who already know the paper and are in a better position to give a report.
  3. It is not honest to submit and resubmit the same paper at different venues until you are lucky enough to get better-inclined reviewers; mentioning all previous history is needed to expose this practice.

Possible arguments against:

  1. The editor at B will perceive what has happened as an indication that you consider journal B to be lower-tier than A, and possibly get offended (and biased against publication).

  2. If the information gets to the referees, they might be negatively influenced, too.

  3. Ultimately, is it fair that the previous referees are brought into the picture again, or should you start with a clean slate and new reviewers?

  4. It feels silly to write "we got a negative report with no suggestions for changes, so we are sending the exact same manuscript at you with minor modifications".

The arguments against look weaker in my view, because they all imply a bias that "perfect" editors and reviewers should not have.

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    I'm not aware of any precedent for this, and it seems to me to be similar to noting your rejection to University A on your application for University B. – Carser Jun 2 '14 at 3:09
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    If you don't reveal the previous rejection, the previous referees may be brought into the picture again anyway. (I have written at least one referee report that said, in toto, "I previously refereed this paper for journal X. Since the authors have not addressed any of the issues raised in my earlier referee report (attached), I cannot recommend acceptance.") – JeffE Jun 2 '14 at 18:42
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    Right @JeffE, revealing a previous rejection won't change the outcome you described. I think what you've given is one of the many arguments for not ignoring reviewers! :) – Carser Jun 2 '14 at 18:57
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    Right, but not revealing a previous rejection is no guarantee of a clean slate, and editors might be annoyed to learn of the previous rejection from the referee. – JeffE Jun 2 '14 at 21:45
  • No doubt, not revealing is not a guaranteed clean slate. But wouldn't you agree that there is no question of whether it is ethical to resubmit a revised article? As a reviewer, I should be happy to see my advice heeded, whether it be in the form of a submission to journal B, or re-submission to journal A. – Carser Jun 2 '14 at 22:26
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Regarding your arguments for: 1. and 3. seem to be more like "axioms" than arguments. 1. in particular seems almost to be begging the question. As for 3., journals have (increasingly!) long lists of requirements for authors, some of them serious but also others that those "in the know" know that they may safely ignore: e.g. many journals ask that you submit papers in their own template, but there's no good reason for that, most papers that I've written or refereed do not do that, and no one cares. So the negation of 3. seems more reasonable to me: if journals wanted you to provide this information, they would ask for it. (Maybe you are trying to argue that they should ask for it. Interesting, but a different question, I think.)

Argument 2. is much more pertinent: if the referee's careful opinion is that your paper is valuable and deserves to be published in a research journal but just not in the journal that you have submitted to, one can indeed save a lot of people's time by carrying over the same referee to a different journal. If you want to do this, it seems best to ask the editor of journal A to get in touch with journal B. I've done this both as an author and as the carry-over referee.

But this is an option that the author gets to choose to exercise or not. In terms of the current practices, this is certainly true and I don't think anyone expects otherwise. Again, it is interesting to argue about whether it should be true....and yes, I think it should. The refereeing system is not strong on incorporating "responses to referees": when authors write back to the editors pointing out factual mistakes in a referee report, they are often told something like "I am inclined to believe you and that is most regrettable. You should definitely resubmit your paper to another journal of similar stature. Best of luck." Very often the referee acts not only as the jury but also the judge and the executioner in the current system. But for a paper whose work is agreed to be correct and novel -- or for which this evaluation was not even made -- then fundamentally, "not good enough for a journal like X" is nothing but an informed opinion. If that opinion is a sound one, a different referee will probably come to it independently. If it isn't, then I think the author has every right to start out fresh.

Let me also say that as a frequent referee, I do not feel the desire to know the provenance of the paper, and I don't think that would help me with my decision. I already have what I think is probably too much information at my disposal: namely the author's identity and thus their professional reputation, my personal view of them, and so forth. Being a good referee doesn't mean taking all possible information into account; it means taking exactly the right information into account to evaluate the paper on its own merits.

In the course of arguing against the "arguments for", it seems that I have espoused some of the arguments against: 2. and 3. I hope these arguments have been shown to be more convincing. (Arguments against 1. and 4. do not seem very compelling to me.)

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    "I already have what I think is probably too much information at my disposal: namely the author's identity and thus their professional reputation, my personal view of them, and so forth." That's an interesting observation. Knowing who the author is definitely brings in some bias. Do you think that peer review sistem would be improved if the paper authors (and other metadata) were anonymised before passing them to the referees like yourself? – Davor Jun 2 '14 at 9:04
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    @Davor What you suggest is called "double blind peer review" and is already done in many fields; see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review#Different_styles_of_review. A frequent objection is that there are many details that give away the author's identity anyway (writing style, topic, talks at conferences). – Federico Poloni Jun 2 '14 at 9:07
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    @Davor: I agree entirely with Federico: in principle it seems like it would be a good idea. In practice, in my field (especially with the prevalence of preprint servers like the arxiv!) it seems like it would be hard to pull off. – Pete L. Clark Jun 2 '14 at 17:15
  • I agree with @PeteL.Clark who agrees Federico. Given just the handful of blind reviews I've done, I knew who the authors were before I finished reading the abstract (sometimes even the title). Although I'm sure it varies across fields, it's more and more difficult to achieve anonymity since researchers and communities are so specialized now-a-days. – Carser Jun 2 '14 at 17:54
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You should not mention previous rejections. You should definitely revise and take into consideration the comments from the reviewers in Journal A.

I think it would be silly to simply resubmit the identical article at a different journal (unless it is the case mentioned below by @user11192 that you received a rejection with NO feedback), and if you are submitting a revised article then the critiques of the previous reviewer are no longer relevant!

Of course, if you are resubmitting, then you believe that your work is an original contribution. If the journal A reviewer simply didn't like your writing style or you didn't effectively communicate your work, then resubmitting is quite common. If the journal A reviewer pointed out that your work was unoriginal and had been published previously by someone else, then it is simply unethical to attempt to re-submit. In the more subtle case that the first reviewer felt that your contribution was not "substantial" enough, then you still want to revise, and may just end up changing your introduction/motivation more than your core work.

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    Why not mention it? I don't think this is necessarily wrong, but you should try to support your answer. – Behacad Jun 1 '14 at 23:05
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    Many, many people resubmit the identical article at a different journal: sometimes I find this out by refereeing an article, recommending it for rejection, and then seeing the same version published elsewhere. Also I have done it myself. Your list of reasons for rejection does not include what is probably the most common reason for rejection among career academics: the referee found nothing specifically wrong with the paper but simply felt that it was not good enough for the journal it was submitted to. In that case it is certainly not "silly" to resubmit an identical article. – Pete L. Clark Jun 1 '14 at 23:16
  • @PeteL.Clark, of course resubmitting an identical article happens! I still think it is silly, and speaks to laziness. The question is not about reasons for rejection... when you resubmitted your un-revised articles, did you also include a note saying where it had been previously rejected from? – Carser Jun 1 '14 at 23:23
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    Reasons for rejection are clearly relevant to the question: e.g. if you learn in the referee report that your work is fatally flawed, then resubmitting without taking this into account is one of the most serious ethical violations I can think of. Other than that: your accusation of laziness makes me less interested in replying to your questions. If you would like to publicly identify yourself and explain your own superior professional practices, please go ahead. – Pete L. Clark Jun 1 '14 at 23:27
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    @Jedediyah When reviewer/associate editor/editor-in-chief feedback is nothing other than "not a good fit for this journal," I will happily (and "lazily") resubmit elsewhere without modification. – Mad Jack Jun 2 '14 at 0:28
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Many journals ask for information on previous submissions their electronic submission systems along with asking if the manuscript is under consideration elsewhere. The fact that some journals have rejection rates way in excess of 50% means that rejections are not necessarily terrible and down-grading your work. Part of rejections are also because the material may not be suitable for the journal in question, which involves no judgement of the quality of your science.

So, if your paper has been rejected as not suitable for the intended journal or some other technical reason, I see no reason to mention this at a resubmission. You made a mistake, full stop.

If the paper has been rejected for some scientific reason, particularly if it has been through review I think mentioning the history is worthwhile. There is of course no law that states you must.

The importance of mentioning the history of a paper is not so much to convey its rejection but to provide the editor with information on why it was rejected and what you took away from this to improve your manuscript. I very much doubt editors will contact other editors to check on previous submissions, none of the parties typically have the time to spare. Instead it is your description of why you think the manuscript should be published, the value of your science, and how you have improved it which is of use to an editor.

I have found out by accidentally assigning the same reviewers to manuscripts, submitted as new, that they have been considered elsewhere. As an editor, this raises a warning flag for me: "is the manuscript so poor/controversial/other that the author wants to hide its past"? The fact that people prefer to send material to certain journals before others is known to most of us. Editors are usually scientists that make the same choices, except perhaps to send it to their own journal.

I therefore think that being open about the problems can help. Of course,if your manuscript is poor, it just is; but if it can and has been improved, rejection by another journal should not stand in your way to get it published elsewhere.

Regarding reviewers, there are two form of replies I usually get when accidentally assigning the same reviewer as for a previous submission: (1) don't want to touch it again, or (2) want to see how it has been improved. The fact that a manuscript was rejected does not mean reviewers were dead against its content. Or, perhaps, some where but for reasons disguised as scientific. I therefore think it is also useful to know something about the previous process when a paper is resubmitted. the place for this is in the accompanying submission letter. Just make it brief but clear.

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