Q: Is it justified to reject a manuscript because the editor was unable to obtain referees?

Detailed Question -

Dear all, I would like to describe my situation about manuscript submission. I submitted my manuscript to a journal on 27th June and received a decision letter on 12th July with major revisions. When I read the decision letter I found out that only the editor's comments were included and no comments from reviewers. Because I wanted to be sure that I didn't miss anything and I had a couple of questions about the editor's comments, I wrote back to the journal. Two days later I've received an email that I should wait with my revision and that editor had been contacted about my questions. On Monday, 24th July I received an email stating that my manuscript was rejected. Here is part of the decision letter:

"I am sorry to inform you that despite much effort we have been unable to obtain appropriate referees for your manuscript in a timely manner. Because we believe it is unfair to hold on to the manuscript for too long we hand it back to you and we are closing your file, so that you may submit it elsewhere. We wish you all the best in finding an alternative venue for your research. We did obtain one reviewer report on your manuscript. While we do not feel able to make a decision on whether your manuscript is publishable based on this single report, we do paste the referee’s comments below in the hope that they will be of use when submitting your manuscript elsewhere. I am aware we issued a decision for major revisions earlier. As you have noticed, that decision email did not contain a reviewer report which was an oversight on our part and we would like to sincerely apologize for that. After we issued the wrong decision to you, we have invited additional reviewers in the hope we would be able to provide you with a report. Unfortunately, our efforts were unsuccessful and we have exhausted our reviewer pool. At this point, we can only hand the manuscript back to you and I sincerely hope you will quickly find another journal for your manuscript."

My question: Is it justified to reject a manuscript if editor thinks "Overall, the data in this manuscript are useful and interesting, but major revisions will be needed before it should be considered for publication." and it was their fault that they didn't provide reviewers and their comments? I have a feeling that if I kept my mouth shut and revise my manuscript accordingly, my manuscript would be accepted. Was anyone in the same position? What should I do about this? Thank you!

1 Answer to this question

As the editor has mentioned, this was clearly a mistake on their part, and the decision given earlier was incorrect. It's difficult to say whether it would have been published if you had not written to them. But since it is clearly an error, if detected, your manuscript would definitely have been rejected. In fact, I would say it is good that you clarified the situation: had it ben discovered at a later stage, it would have been even more disappointing for you.

At this point, you can either follow the journal's advice and withdraw the paper or appeal against the decision. However, since they have exhausted their pool of reviewers, the appeal might not be effective unless you can provide a list of suggested reviewers. If you can provide the names of a few reviewers, and if one of them accepts the review invitation, you might get a second chance. The other option would be to follow the journal's suggestion and withdraw the paper.

Recommended reading:

Should I withdraw my manuscript if the Editor cannot find reviewers?