This case was posted on the WAME (World Association of Medical Editors) list-serv and the editor (from India) asked whether COPE could provide guidance.
An author (who happens to also be a journal editor) submitted a manuscript to a journal listed in one of the major medical databases. Having heard nothing for several months he tried to contact the editor to discover what was happening. At one stage he also stated that he would withdraw his manuscript from the journal – but none of his communications were acknowledged or answered. Finally, 18 months after submission, he received an apologetic letter from the editor stating that his manuscript was rejected because the journal had been unable to find any suitable reviewers. Is this acceptable?
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors should ensure ‘timely’ peer review but we have never attempted to define ‘timely’ – should we do this?
All agreed that waiting 18 months for a decision on a manuscript was wholly unacceptable, especially as no acknowledgement was sent.
The Forum acknowledged that finding suitable reviewers can be a problem, particularly in specialist areas. But even in these situations, the author should be contacted within 2–3 months and kept updated on the situation. If it is a very specialist area, editors should perhaps ask the author to suggest 5 reviewers and reject the paper if he can’t. If a journal gives an average time to acceptance, then the author has a right to pursue the issue after this time. COPE’s advice would be if no progress is being made within 3-4 months, contact the author and keep them updated.