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Editorial Responsibility for Rejection 

Editorial Responsibility for Rejection
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Editorial Responsibility for Rejection

Rejecting manuscripts may be one of the most important responsibilities of an editor. By rejecting papers appropriately, an editor sets standards and defines the editorial content for the journal.11 Decisions to reject a manuscript may be based on a wide range of factors, such as lack of originality, lack of importance or relevance to the journal’s readers, poor writing, flawed methods, scientific weakness, invalid data, biased interpretations and/or conclusions, timeliness, or the specific publishing priorities of the journal.4 A rejection letter must be carefully worded to avoid offending the author and should express regret for the outcome, but also must not raise false hopes about the merits of an unsuitable paper. Many editors avoid use of the word rejection in any letters, opting instead for phrases such as “we are unable to accept” or “your paper is not acceptable for publication.” However, editors should be certain that the intent of a letter of rejection is clear. If the letter sounds too much like a request for revision, the author may subsequently resubmit an irrevocably flawed manuscript; or worse, the author may resubmit a rejected manuscript, essentially unchanged, with the hope that the editor will not notice.11

An editor should determine on a case-by-case basis whether a standard rejection letter (form letter) or an individualized letter explaining the specific deficiencies of the manuscript should be sent to the author. Some editors argue that for a paper rejected for “reasons of editorial choice (usually without outside editorial peer review), the editor has no obligation to give the author any explanation beyond the statement that the manuscript was not considered appropriate.”8 Other editors suggest that all authors be provided a specific reason for rejection of their manuscript.4 However, a standardized (form) rejection letter that includes an explanation for rejection based on editorial priority (especially for large journals that receive large numbers of submissions and/or that have very low acceptance rates) or that is accompanied by copies of detailed reviewer comments is sufficient for many papers that are rejected.

Editors should develop specific policies for the rejection process, including how to handle previously rejected manuscripts resubmitted with an appeal for reconsideration (see also the “Appeals” section under “Fairness” in 5.11.1, The Editor’s Responsibilities).2,4 If the author’s appeal provides reasonable justification, the editor should carefully consider the appeal (see also 6.1.8, Editorial Assessment and Processing, Editorial Assessment, Appealing a Rejection).

Once a common act of courtesy, the practice of returning all copies of rejected manuscripts has become obsolete. However, original illustrations, photographs, slides, and other artwork should be returned if requested by the author, as should any manuscripts an author specifically requests be returned. Because journals do not own unpublished works (ie, copyright is typically transferred in the event of publication), journal offices should not keep print or electronic copies of rejected manuscripts for any period longer than that required to deal with appeals of decisions; they should be destroyed or deleted. See also “Record Retention Policies for Journals” in 5.6.1, Ownership and Control of Data, and 5.6.5, Copyright Assignment or License, both in 5.6, Intellectual Property: Ownership, Access, Rights, and Management.

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