Monday, July 20, 2009

Editor to Author: Drop Dead

The title is a lame attempt at referring to the famous 1975 New York Daily News headline (Ford to City: etc.) and is my way of introducing the topic of Manuscripts That Are Returned Without Review.

Some (high impact) journals do this more than others, but any journal editor can decide that a particular manuscript should not be reviewed. Typical reasons for the non-review include:
  • The (high impact) journal gets so many submissions that it isn't possible to review them all, even some that are actually quite excellent papers.
  • The manuscript is really bad.
  • The manuscript is not bad at all but some editors lack good judgment and/or are not objective.
  • The manuscript is inappropriate for the general focus area of a journal or a thematic collection within a journal.
It is disappointing when a manuscript is returned without review, but if the decision to return is rapid, the authors can regroup and make a new plan about the best publication venue for the paper. This is much better than a situation in which it takes a long time for an editor to decide that a manuscript won't even be sent out for review.

I was recently thinking about an incident involving an author who was extraordinarily irate that his manuscript was not reviewed. The editors had decided not to send the manuscript for review primarily because the manuscript was quite far outside the focus area of the journal to which it was submitted. An additional consideration was that the manuscript was a long, rambling, poorly written document that wasn't particular interesting.

Within a week of submission of the manuscript, the editors returned it without review, explained that it did not fit the general theme of the journal, and added some polite and constructive suggestions about the manuscript content and organization.

The author was extremely angry and sent a very unpleasant email. The focus of his ire was that the manuscript had not even been reviewed. This to him was a grave insult.

Would he really have been happier if the manuscript had gone through review, adding time (probably months) to the process? I suppose the author believed that reviewers would like the manuscript and therefore he felt deprived of a fair trial. The editors, however, were convinced that the manuscript would be eviscerated in review and it would be a waste of everyone's time to send it for review. And even if reviewers thought the manuscript had some intellectual merit, the manuscript still wasn't suitable for the journal to which it was submitted.

This all happened a year or more ago, but recently the editors got another long, irate email from the Angry Author, informing them that another journal had accepted his paper and, for their information, this other journal, of which he is an editor, has a higher impact factor in its category than the crummy journal that didn't even review his manuscript has in its (different) category. He mentioned again his anger that his manuscript was not even reviewed.

There are several conclusions one can make from the angry author's latest email:

- He has Issues. He has not moved on emotionally. He is bitter about the fact that his paper was not reviewed. Of course, he would also have been upset if the paper had gone out to review and been rejected, but perhaps then his anger would have been more diffuse.

- For some reason, he thought it would impress the editors to tell them that he is an editor of the journal that accepted his paper. I think it is strange that he would call attention to this fact, as it made some people wonder if his role as editor was a factor in the decision of this journal to publish his paper. I hope this was not the case.

- Impact factors are interesting, but perhaps not a good way to compare journals across categories. The journal that published his paper is not particularly prestigious and is not one I read, whereas the one that rejected his paper without review is central to my field. Perhaps this is an indication of the inappropriateness of his paper's topic for the journal to which he first sent it.

The editors decided not to reply to the angry email, but if they did, perhaps they would have written something like this:

Dear Angry Author,

Congratulations on your upcoming article to be published in The Third-Tier Journal. We are glad that you and your fellow editors found a suitable place for your contribution, and are pleased that we at First-Rate Journal were able to assist you in your efforts by our timely handling of your manuscript. How fortunate for you that our decision allowed you to publish in a journal with an impact factor you apparently find impressive.

We wish you the best of luck with your scientific endeavors, as well as your anger management, maturity, and ethics issues.


The Editors

Memo to anyone feeling bitter about a non-review or even a rejection: If you send a hostile email to the editors of the journal that rejected your manuscript, including detailed descriptions of how stupid and short-sighted the editors were and information about the wonderful journal that ultimately published your paper, it is possible that they will not be impressed and will not feel even a speck of regret at their decision to reject your manuscript. I certainly can't speak for all editors, but I'm guessing that this might be a likely response.


Unknown said...

WOW I real fear those intellectual editors and professors.
In India we normal souls hear that it is the scratch each others back syndrome which helps in publication of research papers in foreign journals . One must INVITE a NRI professor to Indian Universities when the child in USA has vacation so that they have all paid holdiay for entire family. LO the paper is published in reputed journals.

John Vidale said...

An excellent description of a common irrational gesture.

I'd like to hear you similarly explain another phenomenon I've only seen a few times and don't understand - volunteering very negative reviews of manuscripts to journals without being asked. Both techniques should never cross one's mind, yet apparently sometimes do.

Anonymous said...

I was once quite angry (not enough to write an angry letter, though that would not have been unjustified) not because a journal did not review my paper, but because they took 13 months to not review my paper. We sent the paper in Feb. 2006, and in Mar. 2007, inquired as to its status and we informed that they had not found a suitable reviewer and were therefore rejecting the paper without review. We subsequently had it accepted at a journal of similar quality (after a review period of 4 months, a perfectly acceptable time frame), but since two authors on the paper were graduate students, our advisor (the other author) felt it unconscionable that an editor would let his laziness about bugging reviewers effectively put a halt on the careers of two graduate students.

Candid Engineer said...

I *wish* more editors would return manuscripts to authors without review. Then I, the reviewer, would not have to slug through a manuscript with poor English, poor science, and a word count that is 3x over the journal's limit. Shoot me now.

It really just improves efficiency all around, and I bet the returns are just in >90% of the cases.

EliRabett said...

Unfortunately this has become the practice with climate change deniers. There are several amusing examples, but none better than George Chilingar, a rather eminent and emeritus petroleum geology type who has decided that the greenhouse effect is bunk. The upshot of the latest strangeness that he has published, again, in a journal that he is an editor of, is that another climate change denier, Fred Singer, has resigned from the editorial board in shame. You can publish any nonsense in a journal you are editor of.

Anonymous said...

I would note that at least one top journal in my field (one edited by scientists, not "professional editors") does have a form of review for most papers that are editorially rejected. They are examined by a member of the editorial board who determines whether they should go out for review, and if not, this person provides a paragraph with the reasoning behind the decision (as it sounds like may have happened in the case you cite). While this review is not as detailed as would be the case if it went out for review, it is not simply rejected on the whim of the editor based on the title and authors name. I imagine some papers are rejected by a less complex route, but they probably tend to be ones entitled "My theory of..." or in which the data is provided in crayon.

Mark P

mixlamalice said...

I was once also quite angry, even though I know these sorts of things can happen. We waited 4 months for the reviews of my last PhD paper, and when they came, the reviews were two lines long: one reviewer even said that he was not able to judge the scientific quality of the paper (why did he accept to review it then?), but what they basically said was "the manuscript is not well written". Actually it was true, but:
- this was not really helpful to improve it.
- if this was the only comment, the reviewers could have made it in less than 4 months (because obviously they didn't even read the article fully).

I was lucky enough that a good friend of my advisor spent a lot of time proof reading the manuscript and really helped us to rewrite it and advertise a bit more efficiently the results (which were clearly not revolutionnary, but still interesting). With his help, we re-submitted the manuscript to another journal (slightly lower impact factor though, because I needed the paper for my CV and my advisor feared that resubmitted it to the same journal would take 4 months again and that the Editor still would reject it) and it was immediately accepted.

My point is: if you are not willing to do your reviewer job properly, you should refuse to review the paper, or at least be quick at doing a bad job.

Kate said...

FSP, I seem to remember an earlier post you wrote regarding unfair reviews. I apologize for not remembering exactly, but either you or commenters (and of course this isn't the same thing) recommended writing to the editors regarding their decision. It was on the basis of that post that I did in fact write back to a publication that rejected me, though I had already been accepted elsewhere, because I wanted to address some rather bogus claims they made about the novelty of my paper (or lack thereof).

In this case, you seem to have information about the author's crappy manuscript, and the follow-up certainly shows that the author has Issues. But I'm wondering how you expect/foresee/recommend authors and editors to work together. Authors are invariably going to think their manuscript was worthy of review, editors are invariably going to think very few manuscripts they receive are worthy of review. How do they function in a less adversarial way?

scicurious said...

Ok, this angry author needs some therapy. Before one submits a manuscript, one checks carefully to be sure that your paper is in the area of the journal to which you are submitting. Otherwise, few in your area will see your paper. And then getting irate and writing a nasty letter? Burning bridges, indeed.

Michael Pyshnov said...

The troubles with editors are enormous. But, the troubles with those who must oversee the editorial standards are greater; please, see:
Michael Pyshnov

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This irate author dude is a whiny-ass titty-baby nutter. Hilarious!

anon said...

Great. So now I know what all those big-shot, screamy, slave-driving, thingy-against the wall in anger throwing professors who made their grad students' lives a living hell full of depression and fear are like to their colleagues.

Somehow I always guessed it would be this way. Nowadays though, I observe it with a tinge of amusement to go along with the more usual horror and disbelief.

I can just imagine how 'wonderful' it would be to work for that person. Although I could be wrong and the letter was only sent due to a strong and innate sense of justice that was misplaced in this case. But based on some professors I know personally, I prefer my version.

Anonymous said...

Mark P - what's up with the quotes? I am currently a "professional editor", after spending more than 10 years as a "practicing scientist". At my journal, we read all of the submitted papers in full, and do provide reasons for rejections, and do talk to authors if they feel their work was unjustly dismissed (in fact, I have a call arranged for this afternoon). While I'm sure that not all editors/journals follow the same practices, there are many of us genuinely trying to facilitate the publication of good science while sparing referees from reviewing every possible paper that comes across our desks, no matter how inappropriate.

Kevin said...

"I'd like to hear you similarly explain another phenomenon I've only seen a few times and don't understand - volunteering very negative reviews of manuscripts to journals without being asked."

I've done something like that once.
A grad student pointed out a published paper that claimed a much better computational method for one of the standard algorithms in our field. I was interested and read the paper---it was completely wrong from beginning to end. The basic assumption was provably wrong by very simple calculus, and the demonstration that it was better than the standard algorithm required a mis-implementation of the standard algorithm to produce a pessimal solution rather than an optimal solution.

I demanded that the editors retract the paper and apologize to their readers for the failure of the referee process. They wanted me to work with the author to "fix" the paper (though there was absolutely nothing salvageable in the paper). Eventually they did get the author to retract the paper, but there was never any admission by the journal that their review process had failed big time.

Digger said...

Burning bridges, indeed. If I were the editors of Journal #1, I'd be very happy I hadn't accepted the paper. If this is the author's behavior when the paper is rejected, imagine the ongoing grief during the editing/proofing process. I'd also very likely quickly turn-around any subsequent papers of the author, without review.

There's a big difference in inquiring why a paper was rejected, and being sh!tty about it.

Anonymous said...

does your Angry Author do the same thing to grant reviewers who don't fund his brilliant proposals? Or does he then get on the grant review committee to get it funded in the end?

Anonymous said...

Ha... I have a paper that's been in submission for 2.5+ years and counting!

Mr. Eccles said...

I have done this before. I once submitted a paper to a journal describing a study testing a particular hypothesis. The editor returned the paper without review for no other reason than because we reported a null result. Direct quote: "Since the authors did not find an effect of [x], they should probably have measured something else".

Never mind that we had perfectly good reasons for testing x in this particular case, or that the editor had no problems with the methods or writing. The paper was not sent for review simply because of the null result.

This made me unhappy.

Anonymous said...

The most ridiculous angry-author behavior I have seen personally is when some professor decided he had gotten one too many negative reviews from a certain leader in his field. So he responded by writing up his own scathing reviews of a few of this professor's recent papers, and then posted it on the preprint archive that everyone sees.

Female Science Professor said...

I hope it is clear that there is a huge difference between writing a well reasoned, calm letter to an editor pointing out the scholarly and cosmic reasons why an editorial decision might have been in error (and the editor(s) can then reconsider or not) and writing an immature, angry, and hostile letter to editors (who in this case felt -- and still feel -- that they made the right decision).

John Vidale said...


Publishing highly critical comments about published work is the routine way to complain. Asking for a retraction is more severe, but still somewhat in the realm of established practice. Still more dubious, in my view, are the people who try to kill a paper while it is still in the review process with uninvited insults.

Even so, of the three cases of uninvited comments sent to editors that come to mind, two were absolutely right in their critiques, so maybe polite intercourse is not always the best path.

Anonymous said...

I want to expand upon my comments about professional editors, and apologize for characterizing people much too broadly. My experience with different journals edited in this way vary widely. Some of these editors have long experience in their field, and are, due to their job, more widely read and broadly knowledgeable than many scientists (including me), and thus do an excellent job of selecting interesting work, choosing reviewers, and making editorial decisions. When one of my papers is rejected by an editor like that, while I am disappointed I can respect the decision. Others do not fit this profile, and I have a harder time accepting their decisions as well founded.

My major point should have been that it is good to have a manuscript undergo some kind of review before editorial rejection, and that this should ideally include feedback about the deficits that led to this rejection. If this occurs, the occupational status of the editors is not an issue

Mark P

Anonymous said...


I can imagine fantasizing about writing an irate (and surprisingly effective) letter and fantasizing about sending it.

I can even imagine writing an irate (but probably not too effective) letter and fantasizing about sending it.

But I really hope I would never actually write an irate letter and actually send it.

I mean, sure, I'm an arrogant, condescending jerk inside my head, but I do my level best not to let anyone else find out about it. It wouldn't be nice (I know, I know, it doesn't make any sense that I would worry about that, but I do), and it wouldn't advance my interests one bit.

Tony said...

There is a journal I've made the mistake of submitting to twice (the second time being the mistake) who both times rejected my paper after review based on incorrect scientific criticisms from single reviewers.

Usually this is fine, of course. Annoying, but fine. We appeal with appropriate comments and the paper is re-reviewed. But this journal has no appeals process!

I don't understand how journals can treat a single reviewer as a higher authority than the authors by default.

In any case, I've fantasised for years about how to write an appropriate letter urging the editors to change this policy. I still haven't come up with a solution.

Perhaps a lot of journals have this policy, I don't know. In my field I only ever submit to about four journals and every one of them has an appeals process by default.