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Is it ethical for a journal to cancel an accepted review request when they have obtained sufficient number of reviews to make a decision?

This happened to me recently and I think this is not the first time. They set a deadline for submitting the review, and sent a reminder. I did not reply, as I felt that I should be able to meet the deadline and even if I couldn't, it should not be a problem to submit my review slightly later. I am in the midst of reviewing this paper, and have spent some time on it, when suddenly they told me that my review is no longer needed.

I cannot know for sure if the way they work is as I described above, but that seems to be the case.


Edit: Sorry my mistake, they had actually sent only one reminder, not a few reminders, as I stated earlier.

Update: This is from the cancellation email I received earlier (note that I had accepted their request to review the paper less than a month ago):

We have now received sufficient peer-review reports from other referees and would like to cancel our request for you to review the following manuscript:

...

However, if you have already started your report, please forward any valuable comments you have as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and hope that we will be able to call on you to review for ... in the future.

Since I have started reviewing the paper, I wrote to them saying that I would like to send my review as soon as possible. The journal agreed to accept my review. In their reply, they say

Since we have received enough review reports and have processed this manuscript further, the link to submit your review report was closed automatically. We have reopened the link for you.

I finished my review today and just submitted it to them. I could see from their system that there are two other reviewers, and both of them recommended minor revision.

I know that I should have informed them if I missed the deadline, but other journals seem to be OK with this. I think a 2-3 week deadline that this particular publisher gave is a bit short. In my field, 3 months from submission to acceptance is really fast. The average is more like half a year. Some can take more than a year.

Additional point: In this journal/publisher, communication with reviewers are not handled by the editor.

  • 17
    So, had you submitted the review on time then this problem likely would not have arisen. I'm not an ethicist, so I won't speak to the ethics of what they've done, but I can see that soliciting a review they didn't, strictly speaking, need may be a mild inconvenience to you. But then again, you failing to submit your review on time may be a mild inconvenience to them too. – Ian_Fin Nov 7 '16 at 9:44
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    The problem here is that "what is necessary" is difficult to define. Consider for a simplified example an editor that would like to set the bar high and accept a paper only if 2 out of 2 reviewers give a positive report. So they send the paper out to two reviewers. The first one answers, and gives a completely negative report. – Federico Poloni Nov 7 '16 at 9:44
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    Think it differently, if the editor has made up their mind after seeing two reviews, than it actually saves your time if you still work on it hardly. – Arctic Char Nov 7 '16 at 9:46
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    @adipro Because they didn't know they would only need two until they read those two. They don't know whether the reviewers will agree with each other. They don't know whether the paper will turn out to be a borderline case. They don't know if one of the reviewers will miss the deadline without any communication, despite the fact it would have taken two minutes to get in touch to let them know his/her situation. – user2390246 Nov 7 '16 at 10:03
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    If there's a deadline, and you miss it, then that's your fault. The ethics of the journal is an entirely separate matter. – Strawberry Nov 7 '16 at 13:10
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My experience is as a mathematician, and I was in a somewhat similar situation. In my situation, the referee request came from the publisher (and not a scientist on the editorial board) and they tried to unilaterally impose a deadline of one week. In mathematics referee reports typically take six months or more; I found their deadline absurd and I told them that I had no intention of meeting it. They told me that they were willing to wait, but then after I had started they tried to tell me they didn't need my report after all. I complained to the (scientific) editorial board, and the publisher relented again and waited for my report.

Did they act unethically? Not egregiously so. But I believe that it is helpful to remember that you are not required to do something just because a publisher or editor asks you to. If they try to unilaterally impose a deadline that you can't meet, or even that you find inconvenient, tell them (immediately) that you can't meet it. They might withdraw their referee request, or they might decide they have the extra time after all; it's up to them.

You are obliged to keep whatever promises you make (or, at the very least, to apologize if you find you can't), but you are not obliged to keep promises that others try to impose upon you.

If you actually agreed to this deadline at some point, I would contact them and apologize. If your communications were with an actual scientist in your field, then again I would contact them and apologize. But it sounds possibly as if an unscrupulous and not-well-regarded journal tried to take advantage of you. If that is the case -- then although I can't quite fault their ethics, and although you made a misstep as well by not responding to their reminder, in your situation I would decline future refereeing requests from this journal.

  • Thanks for the pointer to that question. It looks like it covers what I need to know. – adipro Nov 8 '16 at 10:18
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I think that in this particular case, the journal behaved ethically. A deadline is a contract, and if one of the involved parties breaks that contract (notably, without seeking communication), it's up to the other party to decide how to deal with that.

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    Re "a deadline is a contract": in the past I've accepted a referee request without agreeing to any date, and then received an e-mail from an automated system telling me "The deadline is XXX and we will expect your review by then." It's not a contract if I never agreed to it. – Anonymous Nov 7 '16 at 13:30
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    A deadline is a contract seems to be overstating it. But if the reviewer has missed replying to several emails, then it’s completely reasonable for the editor to act on the assumption that they can’t expect the review any time soon. – PLL Nov 7 '16 at 14:29
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    -1 This cannot be further than the truth. The whole peer-reviewing business is voluntary. – adipro Nov 8 '16 at 6:44
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    Voluntary does not mean that there cannot be mandatory duties, once you agree to them. If you volunteer for a homeless food truck and agree to show up for a ride at 8 AM, then it's your duty to do so. – lighthouse keeper Nov 8 '16 at 8:11
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    A deadline is most definitely not a contract. Not even an implicit one. Since the reviewer receives no consideration, there can be no contract. – David Richerby Nov 8 '16 at 10:05
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Cancelling a solicited review is as much "unethical" as not keeping the deadline without noticing the editor.

However, I would say this more as a question of

good manners instead of ethics.

Keep in mind that in most cases the solicitation and handling of reviews is in fact communication between scientists. You do not really communicate "with a journal" or "with a company", but more with a colleague. While this is often obfuscated by software and automatically generated emails, there is usually a colleague sitting on the other side, asking you for a review within some time frame. Editors often strive (and sometimes get pressure) to drive the review time down and hence, try to insist on their time frame. Somehow loosely speaking: "If you don't bother to reply if you can't make the deadline, why should they bother to wait for your review?" In case you can't make the deadline, inform the editor and ask for extension. That is the way to go - it's polite and everybody knows what is going on.

For example, if you write "I can't meet the deadline, but I am halfway through to the paper and will have my report on…", the editor will most like extend the deadline. If you, however, write "I can't meet the deadline, and I haven't started to review yet." it may well be that the editor answers, that your report is not longer necessary (although, I do not expect this to happen too often).

To the edit: I think you have done the exact right thing. Also this shows that politeness and respect are central to the conversation between editor and reviewer. Both do an extremely valuable, important and time consuming job for the scientific community and know that of each other. A reasonable question asked a the right time usually gets a reasonable answer and one email spend to clear up an issue is usually worth it.

  • I am not sure if the editor is involved in my case. The editor didn't request the review, nor communicate with me at any time. Didn't this fact and their email replies raise any suspicion on your part? – adipro Nov 8 '16 at 6:50
  • I am not sure if the editor has been involved, either. However, I would guess that these are standard text fragments and that some editor just skimmed over the emails before they have been sent. Anyway, the communication bits you posted look totally normal to me. – Dirk Nov 8 '16 at 13:56
  • They asked me to review another article 5 days ago, although according to their website they would not ask the same reviewer to review if they have recently completed a review task. I have not accepted the request, but today they sent me an email containing the same text: We have now received sufficient peer-review reports from other referees and would like to cancel our request for you to review the following manuscript. – adipro Nov 8 '16 at 14:21
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    That seems unusual and occurs to me as bad handling of reviewer's time. I would say that you are free to not review for this journal anymore if you do not like their way of communication. To do so, just decline their requests and probably they will stop asking you soon. – Dirk Nov 8 '16 at 16:30
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    I disagree. Remember that referees only provide opinions. The decision is left to the editorial staff/action editor. While it isn't terribly nice to ask for ones time and then disregard it, I don't think there's any ethical issue. – HEITZ Nov 8 '16 at 22:41
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Actually, for this result to happen, it is not necessarily the case that the journal "solicited more reviewers than what is necessary".

I know that there are journals that request two referee reports, but as soon as one negative report arrives, the paper is rejected and the other referee report is cancelled.

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    Similarly, in virtually all journals, if one reviewer notifies the editor that large parts of the paper are plagiarized, the editor will no longer need the other review(s). – ff524 Nov 7 '16 at 17:23
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    I have added an update to the question. In this case, as I had suspected, the other two reviewers recommended minor revision. – adipro Nov 8 '16 at 6:46
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There are a lot of specific details in your question that obscure the general issues. Here are some general principles:

Situations where it is reasonable to inform reviewer that their review is no longer required:

  • If you do not meet a deadline for reviewing a manuscript and you have not negotiated an extension, then it is reasonable for the editor to make a decision without your review. This would typically involve relying on the input of the reviewers that have already submitted their reviews.

  • If the deadline for review has not been reached, yet it becomes clear to the editor that the manuscript should clearly be rejected, then it is reasonable for an editor to notify you that your review is no longer needed. This can occur because the editor has already received enough information from the other reviewers to know that the work has no chance of being published. In many respects, this is a courtesy to other reviewers. If they have not commenced their review, then this saves them the hassle of completing the review. It also speeds up the process of notifying the authors.

Situations where it is less reasonable to inform reviewer that their review is no longer required.

  • If the deadline for reviewing a manuscript has not passed and other reviewers have given a positive response, it would be unusual and slightly concerning to inform a reviewer that their review is no longer required. Even if the editor thinks that the article will be accepted, it is beneficial to have an additional reviewer look over an article and offer suggestions for improvement. This might be even more concerning if this was at an online pay-to-publish journal where there is a greater conflict of interest between maintaining quality and publishing more. It would also be particularly concerning if there were other signs that the editor was trying to rush the publication through peer review (e.g., close relationship between authors and editor, etc.).

General advice

If you are worried about your reviewing being in vain, try to complete your review in one sitting, or if you need time to absorb the content, do it over a day or two. If you make a start, and then don't return to the article until a few weeks later, you're more likely to have the issue of your partially completed review not being needed.

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No, there is nothing unethical about them cancelling their review request. The only thing it does is waste your time but you've already wasted the editor and authors' time by failing to submit your review on time.

1

I met several times a situation when deadline was not passed but the editor canceled the review request. At that time I already spent a lot of my time analyzing the work and preparing the review. I find such a situation totally unacceptable. This is just demonstrates complete disrespect of the editor to the reviewer. By the way, we as reviewer demonstrate just our favor agreeing to provide review and are not paid for this. In my case I just informed the editor that next time I am not available to review any article coming from his office.

  • This does not answer the question fully. This is just a share of the personal experience. – Coder Aug 18 '17 at 20:27
-3

I think this journal's behavior is indeed unethical. Mostly, in its complete disregard for the effort you and potentially other academics voluntarily put into critically assessing their submissions. It would have been courteous of you to let them know that your review would be a few days late, but I can't imagine the review to be such a pressing issue that it can't wait a few days.

The most likely reason for this haste in completing the review has its origin in the information you gave in the comments: the journal is pay-for-publish.

In such a setting where authors are the customers of the journal - as opposed to readers for a subscription journal - pay-for-publish (sometimes called "gold" open access) journals have two main selling arguments:

  • the impact factor.
  • the speed of review turnover.

Of course, a very strong tacit argument is a high acceptance rate but that is not the subject of this thread.

By gearing the publishing process towards satisfying authors in order to encourage them spending grant money on "article-processing charges", it's not a surprise that absurd situations like the one you describe start to appear.

On a similar topic, I have heard from the staff of a very fashionable gold OA publisher, that they had an automatic spamming system to urge authors to complete the additional work requested by the reviewers (sometimes including tedious experimental work) quicker. This, I imagine, in an attempt to keep the average review turnover marketable.

After having myself given a go at gold OA journals, I now refuse to have any kind of interaction with them. That includes reviewing.

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    I think you may be rushing to a harsh judgement. Adipro didn't turn in his review before the deadline, without notifying the editors. Perhaps the other two reviews were enough to reject the paper. – Davidmh Nov 7 '16 at 12:26
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    Yes, journals are often hellspawn children of whichever dark deity you may or may not believe in. That, however, doesn't excuse the complete lack of common courtesy shown by the OP or the tacit assumption that the authors of the submitted paper have nothing better to do than wait until the OP "can be bothered" to answer the journal's editors. – terdon Nov 7 '16 at 14:53
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    I'm not following your argument. How does the journal's business model (open vs closed) impact whether it needs article reviews returned in a timely manner? This question is equally applicable to both types of journals. – eykanal Nov 7 '16 at 19:23
  • @eykanal fast review is only relevant to authors. Readers couldn't care less. When the authors are the ones paying, it's their needs you need to cater for to be economically successful: fast review, high IF, low rejection rate. – Cape Code Nov 7 '16 at 19:38
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    @CapeCode - I disagree, for a number of reasons. (1) Journals publish on a periodic basis, not just whenever they have enough articles. Delayed reviews can disrupt the publishing process. (2) Researchers don't want to wait to hear about advances in the field, and delays in the review process lengthen time to publish. (3) Authors want to hear from the field on their research. Delays mean they have to wait and/or follow a flawed line of research. – eykanal Nov 8 '16 at 14:58

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