Q: My paper was rejected even though the reviews were favorable. What are my options?
It is very surprising that we had a manuscript rejected based on priority issues despite the fact that reviewers' comments are very positive with one of them declaring no specific issues about the paper! If the issue of priority was the cause of rejection, why did the editor not reject it at the beginning instead of sending it for peer review for nearly 2 months and then rejecting it? This is a waste of valuable authors' time and threatens the reputation of the journal in the scientific community. It is well known to all in the field that if there are any priority issues, the paper is rejected from the editorial office before peer review. If the paper is sent for peer review, this means that the editorial office sees that it's plausible for publication and the editor in this case should simply comply with the comments of reviewers. Opinions about what to do?
I agree with you that rejection due to issues with publication priority should ideally be done at the initial editorial screening stage so that the valuable time of both authors and reviewers is not wasted. However, I'm sure the editor also understands that and it's highly unlikely that he/she would want to waste the reviewers' time on a paper that he/she was certain would not be published due to priority issues.
I can think of three possible explanations for this situation:
1. According to you, the manuscript has received very positive reviews. However, in the peer review report, critique is often provided in a positive manner which may be misleading to the authors. Additionally, the peer review template of most journals has a separate section titled "Comments to the Editor." These comments are usually not passed on to the author, so it is possible that the reviewers raised some novelty/priority issues to the Editor although they were generally positive in their comments to the author.
2. Also, “priority” can be interpreted in many different ways. For instance, it is possible that another study with similar results has been published in a different journal after your paper was sent for review.
3. Some journals do not have an editorial screening step. The papers go through an admin check usually conducted by editorial assistants before being sent for peer review. You would perhaps want to check if that's the case with your journal?
Last, but not the least, it is an editorial decision after all, and editors do not have to comply with reviewer comments. You can choose to appeal against the editorial decision. Since reviewer comments are in your favor, you might be able to build a compelling case.
However, be aware that most of the time, appeals are not successful and might lead to further waste of time. So, if you are running short of time, it might be better to submit your paper to another journal. To avoid rejection due to priority or novelty issues, you can consider sending pre-submission inquiries to a few target journals and then go ahead with the one that shows maximum interest. Good luck!