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Is it ethical for a journal editor to provide the same response to many authors?

Here is an example generic rejection comment made by a journal editor:

All manuscripts are initially assessed by the editors to ensure they meet the criteria for publication in the journal. After careful evaluation of your manuscript, I regret to inform you that I do not find your manuscript suitable for publication in Journal because it does not meet the impact requirements of the journal. Therefore your article has been rejected from Journal.

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    Ethical sure, informative probably not but I guess journals that handle a very large number of submissions would have such a system in place. – o4tlulz Feb 5 '16 at 1:39
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    The edit does not clarify the question enough. We have a one sentence question, to which the answer is clearly "There is nothing inherently ethical in giving the same response to many authors. Rather there are situations in which it would be unethical to give different responses to different authors whose submissions share a common feature (e.g. not meeting a deadline or not submitting files in the requested format)." Just quoting a paragraph which is -- presumably! this is not stated -- received from a referee report does not provide enough context. I have voted to close as "unclear." – Pete L. Clark Feb 5 '16 at 1:45
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    @PeteL.Clark The question is about form letters. I find it very clear. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 5 '16 at 2:23
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    Did a journal actually reply by literally saying "Journal" rather than the name of the journal?? – curiousdannii Feb 5 '16 at 8:49
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    @curiousdannii it is customary here to not give revealing details, specially when it could indicate a wrongdoing on the part of the journal, as the OP is fearing. – Davidmh Feb 5 '16 at 15:20
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Yes.

It is ethical—and moreover, common and accepted practice—for a journal editor to provide the response that you quote to many authors.

You've received what is commonly known as a desk rejection, where the editor uses their own judgement to determine whether the paper is suitable for and likely to be accepted for publication in the journal. If the editor's professional judgment is that your paper is out of scope, or that there is no realistic chance of acceptance, then this response is not only ethical but the best response you can hope for, because the near-certain alternative is several months waiting for referee reports followed by rejection.

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    I agree, but I think form letters are unprofessional, especially when they contain obvious errors. Editors should at least take the time to insert one sentence which shows they determined the topic of the paper before rejecting it, as a matter of courtesy. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 5 '16 at 2:25
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Letters with errors (and certainly letters with obvious errors) are unprofessional. A form letter, if accurate, is perfectly professional, if perhaps not as helpful as it can be. Editors should take the time to verify that letters they send out are accurate and error-free, and that's all they are ethically obligated to do. Anything beyond that is certainly courteous and in general good practice, but I wouldn't say that it's required for the response to be considered professional. – Dan Romik Feb 5 '16 at 5:10
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    "courteous" and "good practice" are examples of professionalism. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 5 '16 at 5:30
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    The editor's salary comes from the subscribers. Would it be ethical for the editor to waste their time and the subscribers money on individual responses for the large stack of unpublishable submissions they get every day? – Stig Hemmer Feb 5 '16 at 9:21
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    @StigHemmer you are asking a loaded question by deeming such responses a waste of time. Actually it would be ethical for the editor to do their job in whatever way they think is most appropriate. If they feel that that includes writing individual responses to authors (and my answer explains why that might be a good policy to have), then yes it would be ethical, and would not be the waste of time that you assume it is. – Dan Romik Feb 5 '16 at 12:10
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Nobody likes to receive form letters, just like nobody likes their call to a customer service center to be answered by an agent reciting some form script and answering our questions with equally canned responses (not to mention having our call answered by an automated answering service that doesn't even let us talk to a human being). We all appreciate getting individualized service that reassures us that the person answering our service request has thought about, and is answering, our specific request. Conversely, getting a canned response, whether it's from a journal editor or anyone else, makes us feel dehumanized, unappreciated, and unvalued, as if our request was not even thought to be worth the minimal effort of crafting a simple English sentence for. In this age of increasing automation it also makes us wonder if our request was even looked at by a human at all, and can leave a nagging suspicion (especially among the more neurotic among us) that some error might have occurred and that the response we got is simply incorrect.

With that said, for a journal editor to provide an individualized response to authors is not an ethical obligation; it is simply good service. Like any service provider, some journal editors provide good service, and some don't, either because they care less about doing so or because their workload simply does not afford them the time to do so. If as a "customer" you are unhappy with the service you got when submitting a paper to a journal, the sensible thing to do would be to avoid submitting to that journal in the future, and to avoid supporting that journal by refereeing papers, suggesting to colleagues to submit there, etc. (Indeed, there are several journals that are personally on my black list due to mistreating me in various ways as an author in the past.) Presumably a journal providing poor service of this type to authors will become less successful than a journal that provides good service, all other things being equal (which of course they rarely are).

TL;DR: The practice you describe may not be the best policy to ensure the journal's long-lasting success, but there is nothing unethical about it.

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