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I am early in my career (postdoc) and don't get many papers to review. Thus when I do, I try to put in the work, do a good job, and write a constructive report that is actually useful to the authors. This is the story of how a report I wrote got ignored.

A while ago I was asked to review a paper. I had 3 weeks to do it. Partly due to my own fault and partly due to a lot of work coming up around the review deadline, I was not able to finish on time. Before the deadline, I sent an email to the editor and asked for two more days to finish the review. There was no response to this. Two days later I submitted the review, as I promised. I repeated most of the calculations in the paper (something I don't expect most reviewers do in this field) and found some – fixable – mistakes that affect the result.

Since I was interested in this paper, I checked its status in the editorial system several times, and it always said "under review".

Then about 6 weeks after submitting the report, I got a new request, with a revised version of the paper. Surprisingly, the authors were clearly responding to only a single reviewer who only recommended fixing typos ... it was obvious that they have never seen my report.

Thus I contacted the editor and asked if there was a mistake and if the report was sent to the authors. Just to be clear, at this point my report was still clearly shown as submitted in the editorial system and could still be downloaded. I got back a (probably canned) response from the editor within an hour, saying that: (1) they asked me to review a paper but they never received a response from me (2) due to time constraints they decided to make a decision without my input. At the same time, my access to the manuscript in the editorial system was revoked.

I wrote back again, explaining that I did in fact send a report – which was confirmed received by their automated system –, and offered to send it again. The editor never responded after this.


Questions:

I am extremely disappointed because of the time I put into this and because of what I see as dismissive treatment by the editor. It's really hard to let this go.

  • Should I keep pushing this and write again, or just let it go? I want at least an acknowledgement and and explanation of why the report wasn't sent out.
  • Is being two days late with the report (though giving advance notice before the deadline) a serious offence?
  • I am worried that the misunderstanding that I never sent a report will leave a permanent black mark on my record with the publisher. Is this possible? This is another reason why I want to push it.
  • At this point I am quite tempted to just send the report to the paper's authors privately. While I would have preferred to remain anonymous, I would rather reveal myself than let it all go to waste. I made an effort to keep a constructive tone throughout the report. I do think they will find it useful, whether they will act on it or not. Is it a bad idea to do this?

I posted this question because I am upset and want to do something about the situation but I am worried that I might end up doing something stupid that will damage my career. Some comments from people who are themselves editors will be helpful.

In the end I am thinking of just giving the report to the authors privately with a short explanation and not bother with the publisher any more.


Update: In the meantime the problem got resolved. It turned out to be caused by an editorial system problem, and the rest can be explained with the editor being busy, as many people suggested. The moral is to always have good faith ...

closed as off-topic by Ben Crowell, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, D.W., David Richerby, Jeromy Anglim Jun 24 '16 at 1:03

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  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – Ben Crowell, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, D.W., Jeromy Anglim
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    "I am worried that the misunderstanding that I never sent a report will leave a permanent black mark on my record with the publisher. Is this possible?" Anything is possible, but this extremely unlikely. Even if they kept such a record, what should be the consequences? That they don't invite you for reviews? Their loss. That they don't accept your manuscripts? Again, their loss. In particular since not submitting reviews in time is probably pretty wide-spread. – Roland Jun 22 '16 at 10:29
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    "Is being two days late with the report ... a serious offence?" No. Many reviews are late. – user2768 Jun 22 '16 at 10:43
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    If you would like to send your review while staying anonymous, you could also use an anonymous email service. Or open a new email account especially for this purpose. Just explain the situation in the email. The authors probably will be happy to be able to fix the mistakes you found. – Danny Ruijters Jun 22 '16 at 10:57
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    You didn't have the time to finish the review. The editor didn't have the time to process your overdue review. Everybody has the right to be upset at everybody else - but do you have the time to do so? : ) – Agent_L Jun 22 '16 at 12:32
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    Just for future reference, you don't write commas after em dashes. – Azor Ahai Jun 22 '16 at 20:51
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I agree with Patrick that you should let things go with the journal and not take things personally--what happened was probably just a result of everyone being too busy. I doubt your relationship with the journal or editor will improve by pushing more.

To address your last question, yes I think it's worth contacting the authors. You have a chance to fix some mistakes in a paper before it gets published, so I would probably contact the authors, and just say that you were asked to review but couldn't finish on time so the journal didn't accept your report. (You also don't have to send them the exact report, but could just point out the mistakes.) Edit: To be clear, I am suggesting your explanation of this situation is short, and matter-of-fact, in a way that doesn't blame anyone or anything except your tardiness.

I think this is okay, because you did not end up being a referee for the paper, you don't need to maintain anonymity. There should certainly be no problem if their preprint is publicly available, in which case you don't even need to tell them you were supposed to be a referee. However, if their paper is not public, you may want to first check any secrecy agreements you may have made when you agreed to referee the paper.

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    Directly contacting the authors sounds like a very bad idea to me. – Scott Seidman Jun 22 '16 at 18:22
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    I agree there's probably no compelling reason to maintain anonymity here, but I can foresee this leading to an awkward situation for the authors. Next week this site may have the question "A random postdoc claims to have reviewed my paper and been ignored; am I obligated to draft a response to his criticisms, especially the ones I don't agree with?" That is, if not acting in the capacity of a formal referee, one probably shouldn't even mention that capacity. – user4512 Jun 22 '16 at 20:09
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    @ChrisWhite The main reason to contact the authors is that there are mistakes in the paper, which affect the results. Those mistakes the authors are under a moral obligation to correct. Another option would be to wait for it to be published, then point out the mistakes, at which point the authors could publish a corrigendum. But if I were one of these authors I would much prefer to correct the paper before it gets initially published. – Kimball Jun 22 '16 at 23:35
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    @ScottSeidman To be clear, I was not suggesting the OP describe the "soap opera," just say something matter-of-fact like in my second paragraph that doesn't place any blame on the editor. – Kimball Jun 22 '16 at 23:44
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    Then perhaps you should clarify and leave no room for misinterpretation. IMO, any mention to the authors that the OP was involved in the review in any way is ill advised. – Scott Seidman Jun 22 '16 at 23:48
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Let it go.

Occam's Razor would suggest that what happened is that the editor, a busy person just trying to get their own deadlines met, didn't see (or read) your email, looked at the automated system and concluded that your review had not been submitted, and proceeded before reading your email. It's unfortunate that the review process was so impersonal for you this time, but that's sometimes the way it is, especially when interacting with people that you haven't met.

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At the same time, my access to the manuscript in the editorial system was revoked.

Maybe you could aim to review the revised version, contact the editor explaining that you no longer seem to be able to access the system but that you're happy to send in a review. You've already done most of the work, you can return the review in good time, and the authors benefit from your comments. Just make sure they haven't already fixed the mistakes you noticed. Editors won't normally have reviewers falling over themselves to submit a review.

  • The OP states their access to the system was revoked, which I take to mean they can't submit a review on the revision. – Kimball Jun 22 '16 at 11:59
  • oh I missed that, sorry – Phil Jun 22 '16 at 12:00
  • hope edited version is food for thought. – Phil Jun 22 '16 at 12:03
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If this was a single-blind peer review, contacting the authors directly would mean divulging your identity. This might go against the journal's confidentiality policies, and could lead to complications for you and the authors. I think it would be better to leave a comment on arXiv as suggested in a comment above.

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