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I am the editor of a student-edited journal at a graduate school. We extended a publication offer to an author that has published with the journal in the past, and with whom I do not wish to burn any bridges. The normal process of an offer goes like this: (1) extend the offer, (2) author either accepts or rejects, (3) send copyright agreement, (4) author signs and returns copyright agreement, (5) we edit and publish the article.

The author accepted the offer within the time frame (step 2), but we have not progressed beyond that. I have to withdraw/rescind the offer because we have maxed out our page numbers for this year. I tried telling the author that I would be happy to work with the incoming editor in chief to see if they want to make him an offer to publish next year, but he insists that because he accepted the offer we are now obligated to publish it next year. I reminded him that we have not sent him a copyright agreement or entered into a publication contract, and even if we did so the journal reserves the right to terminate the agreement at its sole discretion. He essentially said that his acceptance of the publication offer formed the publication contract and now we have to publish him or else (said he turned down other offers, etc.).

I feel terrible about the situation (we've tried our best to never put authors in this position, and have never had to rescind/withdraw an offer before). Since I've only experienced this from the editor's point of view, I'm wondering what published authors have to say about the situation? Is it your understanding that once you accept an offer you've formed a contract with the publication, and they are obliged to print it? Have you ever had an offer withdrawn, and did it burn all bridges with that institution/publication?

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    Absolutely, and offer is an offer, and after its acceptance "to rescind" is to "go back on your word", that is, to abrogate a verbal (or in-writing) agreement. As in the answer, you were/are only an agent acting on behalf of the journal, so the fact that you'll not be editor is irrelevant: the journal accepted the paper. Done. – paul garrett Feb 27 '15 at 23:08
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    It sounds to me as though you not only accepted the paper, but you also originally solicited it from this author. Retracting your offer at this stage would be grossly inappropriate and could cause significant damage to the reputation of the journal if the word were to get out. – Corvus Feb 28 '15 at 0:35
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I believe the author is in the right here. Accepting an article is morally binding and should commit the journal to publish it, barring exceptional circumstances. Authors should be entitled to rely on that commitment.

Although you may not have any legal obligation to publish the paper at this point, to refuse to do so would be extremely unprofessional and reflect very poorly on the journal. Given the deadlines, you can't publish in the current issue, but you should queue it for publication in the next issue with available space, ahead of any other articles not yet accepted.

Your idea seems to be that the incoming editor should have sole authority to determine the content of the next issue, and as such that he should have the right to decide not to publish the article if he so chooses. I would disagree with that. I believe the incoming editor has a professional duty to treat your acceptance of the article as binding on him as well. If you want to think of the journal as a continuing entity, rather than a sequence of unrelated anthologies, there needs to be continuity of this kind.

It is somewhat awkward for the incoming editor, as now he will have less space to fill with articles he selects. He may have a right to be annoyed with your poor planning, but that's between the two of you; you shouldn't make the author suffer for it.

I'd make exceptions only in very unusual cases, such as if the incoming editor discovers fraud or plagiarism in the article, or finds that your review process grossly violated the journal's stated standards.

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    The situation is a bit unusual, as it's common for an editor to work on more than one issue, and it's common for journals to have a note that says "This paper was accepted by the previous editor" on some articles. I think you need to accept that you (Student Editor) have screwed up, and you need the incoming editor to get you out of the mess. You're going to owe them a favor or two. – Jeremy Miles Feb 27 '15 at 22:41
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    I can say as a former editor that what Nate Eldridge said is correct. The missing link here is that the journal is not the personal property of the editor; rather, the editor has custodianship over the journal. Thus the journal accepts the author, and the editor is the agent who makes that decision. It is completely standard that some papers are "in the pipeline" for the upcoming editor, like it or not. – user6726 Feb 27 '15 at 22:48
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I presume this is a law review. If so, you should really talk to your faculty advisor, who is, presumably, a lawyer. From my non-lawyer perspective, where is the consideration necessary to form a contract? What are his damages if he were to try to sue? Specific performance doesn't seem likely if he were either.

The legal publishing world is very different from the typical academic publishing community. He probably shopped this article to lots of different journals, and he strategically chose among several offers. There's always a chance something could have fallen though at any stage after your verbal/email acceptance. He might have not liked your edits or some other aspect of your (now unsigned) publishing agreement.

Reneging on an agreement certainly agreement isn't professional. I presume there were some extenuating circumstances that caused the delay in the process. Is there a reason the page count cannot be extended?

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    Oh, interesting thought; in particular the mention that the author "turned down other offers" suggests we are in a field in which multiple submission is acceptable, and so other norms may also be different from my experience. – Nate Eldredge Feb 28 '15 at 2:22
  • @NateEldredge, I think this is really important. Also, what other field besides the law, has a tradition of student-edited journals? – Bill Barth Feb 28 '15 at 3:24
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… lists a number. I believe that "publishing X" and "X to be published" constitute the consideration, as with all royalty-free publishing. The best legal hope may be that there was no meeting of the minds, based on the journal's unannounced (?) intent to assert in the future a right to terminate the agreement at its sole discretion, and that seems a bit sketchy. "Turned down other offers" points to damage, so the question would be, how much. – user6726 Feb 28 '15 at 5:37
  • @user6726, I doubt other offers count as quantifiable damages in a US court, but IANAL. How much money did the prof lose as a direct consequence (not some future failure to get a raise, etc) by the failure of the journal to publish? I doubt seriously that this journal is going to get sued if they don't publish, but they should talk to their attorney. Everyone agrees that this is bad behavior, but I don't think the prof can force OP to publish. There's plenty of discussion on the opposite problem out there, btw. – Bill Barth Feb 28 '15 at 15:26

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