A handling editor rejected a paper without review, after consulting with a senior editor. The corresponding author sent an appeal about 2 weeks later where he requested that the paper be given a second chance and be sent for peer review. He added that, in case of a new decision to reject without review, the editor should provide a detailed response to a number of questions and comments raised in the appeal letter. He also mentioned that, in order to illustrate the importance of the study, he had done a social media poll asking whether the paper in question was more relevant to the journal’s readership than another paper whose link he provided in the poll and that had recently been published in the journal. The appeal was also read by another senior editor and it was agreed to reject the paper again without providing any detailed explanations as the behaviour was considered borderline bullying.
Three weeks after the second rejection, the corresponding author contacted the journal expressing his disappointment with the decision and threatened a freedom of information request to access the correspondence between the editors that led to the editorial decision. Moreover, he suggested he would be writing about his negative experience with the journal.
The handling editor perceived this as aggressive and litigious behaviour and shared the correspondence with the head of the research section of the journal, who responded to the author and copied the senior author in the correspondence. The senior author responded by acknowledging the inappropriate behaviour of the author and promising to take action internally.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- Did the journal handle the case appropriately?
- Could something else or something different have been done?
- How can this type of situation be prevented?
The Forum agreed that the journal behaved appropriately and handled the case correctly.
In terms of what the journal could do for future situations, the COPE Audit stresses the need for an appeals process, and that the process is clearly described in the author guidelines or on the journal's website. The journal might wish to look again at their instructions to authors and include a statement about the editorial decision making process in the appeals process, stating that the associate editors make recommendations to the editor, if appropriate, and that the final decision rests with the editor. The journal might also wish to add prominently to the author guidelines that the deliberations and decisions are, in general, confidential, and that any specific enquiries would have to requested formally by a lawyer.
The Forum suggested that in retrospect, perhaps the journal should have involved the other co-authors, given that it was the corresponding author who made the threats. It is possible the co-authors may not have been aware of the corresponding author’s threats.
Also, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible that after the author had done the social media poll, and was asking for more detail, it might have been possible to de-escalate the situation by giving more detail on why the appeal was declined.
Another suggested approach was to look at this from the point of view of a difficult personality with misdirected enthusiasm, someone who does not understand the process well, but is engaged and enthusiastic, who might respond to direction and education from the journal.