What is article withdrawal in academic publishing?
Withdrawing an academic article means asking a journal to stop considering the article for publication at any point prior to its actual publication. This means that the article will no longer proceed through the peer review process, will not be published, and becomes the authors’ “property” once again, to revise and/or resubmit elsewhere if desired. An article can be withdrawn at any point before publication: before it has been sent out for review, while it is under review, after the peer reviewers’ comments have been received, and even once it has been provisionally accepted. That being said, withdrawal is relatively uncommon in academic publishing, and is generally not recommended, except for in specific circumstances that we will discuss in more detail below.
What are good reasons for withdrawing a paper?
There are a variety of reasons why you may wish to withdraw a paper prior to publication. Sometimes the reason for withdrawal is related to the journal itself; for example, if the journal is taking an unreasonably long time to send the paper out for review, you may wish to withdraw the paper and resubmit to another journal that will handle it more efficiently, to avoid any unnecessary delay in time to publication.
In other cases, you may become aware of problems that were unintentionally introduced to the manuscript. For example, if you notice during the peer review process that some of the data included in the paper were reported incorrectly or analysed in a way that could be misleading, then you may wish to withdraw the paper to give your group time to recollect and reanalyse the data appropriately.
A similar situation would be if you discover that the paper has accidentally been submitted to more than one journal at the same time; perhaps there was a miscommunication between the authors, and two of them submitted the paper simultaneously to two different journals. This would be considered an accidental duplicate submission, and the paper would need to be withdrawn from one of the two journals (while of course notifying the second journal of the error).
Finally, you may need to withdraw a paper due to ethical misconduct discovered after submission. This type of withdrawal occurs when, for example, a senior author on the paper discovers that one of the junior authors has engaged in data fraud by fabricating data that were subsequently included in the paper, or has plagiarised part of the text that they were responsible for writing. Another example would be unethical authorship practices, such as if the senior author listed his or her department head as an author on the paper in the hopes of increasing their chances of being promoted, even though the department head was not involved in any way with the study.
What are bad reasons for withdrawing a paper?
While there are many legitimate reasons for withdrawing a paper, as discussed above, there are some situations in which withdrawal is considered an unethical option. Perhaps the most common example of this is a case in which a paper was intentionally submitted to more than one journal at the same time in an attempt to get the paper accepted at a journal with as high an impact factor as possible; and once the peer review reports have been received, the authors withdraw their paper from the lower impact factor journals and only proceed with submission at the most prestigious journal that reviewed the paper favourably. In this situation, of course, the authors have clearly engaged in an unethical publication practice by intentionally submitting to more than one journal at a time, and withdrawal does not erase this fact. If discovered, the paper is likely to be rejected from all of the journals that it was submitted to, so this is not an ethically acceptable practice or one that is likely to result in publication of the paper anywhere.
Another situation in which it could be considered ethically dubious to withdraw a paper would be after having received negative reviews from the peer reviewers but being allowed to revise by the journal (this would be a “revise and resubmit” decision). Sometimes negative comments from the reviewers can feel extensive and even unreasonable, and you may feel unable to revise the paper adequately to satisfy the reviewers. However, if the journal editor(s) agreed that this was the case, they would have rejected the paper outright instead of offering a chance to revise. In this case, withdrawing your paper is not recommended because it essentially wastes the time of the editors and peer reviewers by benefitting from their comments but not pursuing the publication. In this situation, it is generally a good idea to revise as best as possible and explain clearly in your point-by-point response letter why you feel that some of the reviewers’ requests or suggestions are infeasible or inappropriate.
How do I withdraw a paper?
Most journals do not have a formal system set up for withdrawal, as it is a relatively uncommon and discouraged practice, so if you have decided that withdrawal is the appropriate step for your paper, the best way to do this will typically be to email the editor-in-chief or the editor who is handling your paper. In this email, you should clearly state that you wish to withdraw your submission (citing the title and any manuscript identification number, if applicable, to avoid unnecessary confusion), and then explain the reason for this request carefully and in detail. It is important to clearly describe the problem and the consequences of the problem to help ensure that the journal fully understands the situation. For example, if this was a case of unintentional duplicate submission, you must explain why the duplicate submission occurred and how it was discovered, and whether the other journal has also been notified. If you discovered that one of your co-authors engaged in text plagiarism, then you should explain how this was discovered and whether the incident has been reported to the co-author’s department or institution, to let the journal know that the situation is being followed up on.
It is important to note that withdrawal is not complete unless and until you receive formal acknowledgement from the journal that the paper has been withdrawn. For example, if you decide to request withdrawal because a journal has still not sent your paper out for review three months after submission, you must wait until you receive confirmation of withdrawal from the journal before submitting elsewhere. This can be frustrating and feel like an additional delay, but is important in order to avoid ethical misconduct (in this case, by engaging in duplicate submission).
Withdrawing a paper can be a difficult aspect of scientific publication to navigate, and hopefully not one that you will need to face in your career. If you find that you need to withdraw a paper, whether due to an honest error or the discovery of ethical misconduct, then it is important to prioritise honesty and clarity with the journal in question, respect the editor’s, the peer reviewers’, and your colleagues’ time and effort, and commit to avoiding similar situations in the future.
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