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Is it common for a journal to reject a paper after previously accepting it?

When a paper of mine was first reviewed, one of the reviewers was okay with the paper and the other one requested minor revisions. The journal clearly said that the paper was accepted, subject to minor amendments and even went on to mention tentative publication dates. I then quickly made the required revisions.

Both the initial reviewers accepted it, but the editors solicited a third reviewer. These reviewer’s comments were not that specific but just referred to things like some of the citations are too old and he had problems with the methodology and contribution and then in other places he goes completely off topic saying that the paper implies certain things that I certainly do not say and are very far from what I am discussing in this paper. Now the journal has rejected the paper.

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    Was the acceptance letter unconditional, or did it say that the paper would be accepted if certain changes were satisfactorily made? In the former situation, I don't see that the journal has a very strong case. I would consider sending a polite but clearly worded letter to the editor in chief saying that they gave you their word in writing and you will hold them to it. – Pete L. Clark Sep 22 '15 at 21:56
  • It clearly says accepted, subject to minor amendments and then goes on to even mention tentative publication dates and that I should turn in my revision as soon as possible to meet those dates, otherwise discuss other dates if I could not meet the turnaround time – Faith M Sep 22 '15 at 22:01
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    @PeteL.Clark: Demanding that they "stick to their word" doesn't seem productive here. The editor seems to be convinced that the paper is seriously flawed, and if he were right, then I'd say it would be appropriate for him to reject it at any time before publication has actually occurred. Otherwise, what are they going to do? "Stick to their word" by publishing it, and then immediately publish a retraction of the seriously flawed paper? I think it would be better to try to get a higher-up to look at the new review and notice that it's crazy, and that the paper is not actually flawed. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '15 at 0:41
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    @Nate: It is not actually clear to me that if the editor thinks the paper is seriously flawed, the right thing to do is to back out of publishing it. The OP hasn't mentioned her field; in many academic fields whether a work is "correct" is something that community members can disagree on, and in certain other fields (like physics) publishing a paper with an interesting idea or hypothesis that turns out not to hold water is not considered shameful. Here's the question: why did the editorial board do further vetting after the paper was accepted? – Pete L. Clark Sep 23 '15 at 0:56
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    None of the comments so far are addressing OP's actual question. The answer is: No, it is not common. In fact I believe it is extremely uncommon, and I personally never heard of such a thing happening. The only situation where I imagine it would make sense for the acceptance of a paper to be withdrawn is if new information came to light that suggests that the paper is fraudulent or largely incorrect. From the OP's description that doesn't sound like what happened here. – Dan Romik Sep 23 '15 at 4:56
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Is it common for a journal to reject a paper after previously accepting it?

It’s certainly not common, but it’s also not entirely unheard of or something that should never happen per se. Coincidentally something along that lines happened to me yesterday.

See this from the journal’s point of view: When they consult somebody as a reviewer, they assume them reliable and thus it would be odd to fully ignore their judgement. If this reviewer raised severe objections, it would be unwise of the journal to leave them unaddressed.

On the other hand, if two reviewers gave a positive evaluation of your paper, it seems equally unwise to reject your paper without even giving you the opportunity to react to the third reviewer’s criticisms. I thus strongly suggest that you check the wording of the journal’s decision letter and your paper’s status carefully as to whether your paper was actually rejected or they just want you to address the third reviewer’s comments and decide upon that. If your paper was actually rejected, you might want to consider a rebuttal due to the above reasons.

What seems a little odd is that a third reviewer was considered at this stage. Could it be that this reviewer was asked in the first round of revision and turned their review in only recently for some reason?

Finally, a sidenote: If the reviewer actually argued against your paper because it “implies certain things”, this gives you a strong argument for rebuttal. Even if a paper’s result imply that the first law of thermodynamics does not hold, it should not be rejected on that basis.

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Journals do whatever they want without oversight or logic. It is generally a tactic used with new authors who aren’t well known or have a long track record with the journal. It can be due to many other reasons ranging from blithe idiocy of some apathetic whimsical or unqualified reviewer. But, there are certain nefarious impulses that are at play (i.e. power struggle within an institution or journal or an industrial contact asks them not to accept a certain paper). Integrity in publishing is present in certain journals, in many other journals it is who you know. Nepotism, even when it’s double blinded (so called) reviews! Go figure the world of print works like the world of people!

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    This seems more like a rant than an answer which addresses the question. Perhaps you could trim it or tone it down, while maintaining the core point? – Yemon Choi May 8 '18 at 3:52

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