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I have once, some time ago, received a rejection notice in which the journal editor made what I thought was a peculiar comment. The reviewers all found that the work was good, but one emitted a doubt that I had chosen the right journal for it, saying the paper might not appeal to the broad readership of the journal (it was a general physics journal). So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

However, the editor indicated that his judgment to reject the paper was based on the fact that very few of the citations in the manuscript actually referred to the journal I had submitted it to. (Like, 2 citations out of 35. Some of the other citations were to other general physics journals, some to more specific journals.)

Back then, this looked very weird to me. To some extent, it could be interpreted as a push by the editor to increase self-citation of his journal. It has never occurred to me since.

Is it common practice? When does it become ethically wrong?

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Answering as editor of a journal (albeit not in Physics) I have never heard of such comments. It seems misdirected. The one possible and reasonable (in some sense of the word) reason for it might be that the editor considers the journal so specialized that most relevant literature in the field would be published in the same journal. As a result, one could conclude that if the manuscript lacks references to papers in the same journal it is peripheral to the field. I am by no means suggesting that this would be a good way to make such assertions.

Sometimes, and I am now speaking in my experience as an author, I have felt that such comments are excuses for other reasons to reject the paper. Without seeming too paranoid, I think this can be the result of a rash decision by the editor based on confidential comments by a reviewer but which cannot easily be conveyed. As an editor, I see different comments from reviewers which almost say that I (as an editor) would essentially be stupid if I did not reject the paper and where it seems clear some personal reason rather than scientific arguments are the basis for the judgement. What I am trying to say is that there may be reasons that are far from clear as to why you receive such comments. Unfortunately there is not much one can do about it unless you feel comfortable asking the editor to provide some background for why? I think such a question is reasonable, if for no other reason than to avoid "burdening" the journal with "off topic" questions in the future (quotations meant from journal/editor perspective).

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It is not unheard of. For a journal that I submit regularly to the instructions for authors state

Given that the Journal has been in existence for over 80 years and has published of the order of 35,000 papers on a wide variety of acoustical topics over its lifetime, the absence of any references to previously published papers in the Journal raises a flag signaling the possibility that the paper lies outside the de facto scope of the Journal

I think it really is a scope question and not a self citation question. That said, the handling editors of this journal often alert authors during the later stages of review of potentially relevant in press publications within the journal. Most have been relevant and I am happy to add the sentence or two to the background, but I also think of it as a clear attempt at increasing self citation counts.

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    I don't know why but when I read that quote I heard it in Prof. Snape's voice.
    – DQdlM
    Apr 25 '13 at 17:53

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