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I have submitted a paper to a journal on June 2017. The corresponding author is my coauthor. The first response of the editor was after a year, June 2018:

Your paper has been sent, consecutively, to four referees.
Of the preceding three, one declined to review it and two never responded to the invitation or to multiple reminders. The fourth one accepted; a report is expected in September [2018].

Since then, the editor disappeared. No notice at all, neither in the positive, nor in the negative. Obviously we tried to contact him again multiple times (approximately every two-three months) through the journal's platform. No response at all. We sent countless emails to the editor, either via the platform or through his personal email (my coauthor knows him in person). No response at all. We tried to contact the chief editor. No response at all.

In a few days, it will be exactly two years since the submission: this is an incredible amount of time, especially since we absolutely don't know what is the motivation for this delay.

What shall we do?

[I'm not posting this on academia, since this is a paper in Mathematics; but feel free to migrate the discussion elsewhere if you feel like so]

Unfortunately I am unable to comment as I lack sufficient reputation.

  1. Yes, "consecutively" means exactly that 3 people in a row refused to referee the paper; the fourth accepted and then disappeared since June 2018.
  2. The editor-in-chief should be aware of what's going on, more so because we wrote him an email two weeks ago or so. No answer.
  3. The journal is a pretty good and reputable one. At least until I spread this voice.
  4. My coauthor has nothing against me if I reveal the name of the journal: it's JoA https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-algebra
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    $\begingroup$ better to migrate this, I think. $\endgroup$ – user138661 May 11 '19 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ And yet I believe that the right answer comes from a mathematician: the situation shows some of the typical idiosyncrasies of mathematics' publishing world. Plus, withdrawing papers that are not evaluated quickly is much less common a practice in mathematics (this would be a viable choice elsewhere, I guess; but I don't want to do it). $\endgroup$ – caulacau May 11 '19 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ I would just file all the correspondence, including the sent but unanswered messages, send one more formal message telling the editors that you withdraw the paper, add the journal to my black list, and submit the paper elsewhere. If someone sees some legal or ethical flaw with this idea, please comment, but it is what my common sense dictates. $\endgroup$ – fedja May 11 '19 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ You'd be able to comment on your own question if you log in with the same account you originally used to ask the question. However, it appears that you have made a second account with the same name, which thus doesn't have comment privileges. You might want to merge them. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge May 11 '19 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry for stating the obvious, but there are other means of communication besides email. You could try to phone the editor (or the editor-in-chief) to inquire whether your emails have not been lost due to a technical problem, or mail them a letter (I mean, printed on paper: amazingly, this still exists), which, because it is more unusual, might get more attention (and is less likely to get lost en route or buried in mountains of spam). $\endgroup$ – Gro-Tsen May 12 '19 at 18:22
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Here are some additional things to consider:

  1. Sometimes email addresses are blocked, for one reason or another. One of my coauthors had his institution block all hotmail addresses, which led to some trouble in our communications. In your post you mention "countless" emails; this can cause certain servers to start blocking emails. Conversely, their emails to you might be blocked. In your correspondence you can mention that you haven't heard anything, and perhaps give them your phone number.

  2. Sometimes people are away from computers for multiple weeks. Then it takes a while to contact the referee. My personal rule of thumb is to contact an editor and if I receive no reply then I follow up a week later. I repeat this one more time. After 3 emails (and 3 weeks of waiting), I believe it is then time to contact the editor-in-chief. During this process you might try to use alternate email addresses which haven't been potentially blocked. You do not want to pester an editor with "countless" emails.

  3. Some of the issues above can be avoided if the journal in question has its own way to contact editors, which it appears you already tried to use.

  4. Nobody should wait multiple months between trying to contact an editor, if they are receiving no responses. That is unreasonably long. This noncommunication issue should have been dealt with near the date the editor gave for the report to be done.

Given the time-frame, if you can't get a response from the editor-in-chief through the methods people gave in the comments, I would send one final (kindly worded!) email saying that if you don't hear from them within two weeks, then your paper should be considered as withdrawn.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't like the withdrawn option for two reasons: 1. the author is punished in this option much more than the journal; 2. the system is supposed to serve everyone, so if something is broken it is very important to fix it (this is particularly true for the Journal of Algebra which is very important to the community). However, I am not sure I have a good solution, except making this public which might not be the best thing to do for a young mathematician. $\endgroup$ – Yiftach Barnea May 13 '19 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't support public shaming, but I agree that we (as a community) should have the discussion of what behaviors are inappropriate, and discuss ways to handle them--perhaps expanding the AMS statement? To give a personal example: A referee report was supposed to occur at 6 months. At 9 months I followed up, asking where we were. The editor said he was giving the referee another 3 months (even though the referee had stopped responding to emails). At 12 months I followed up again, and the editor finally decided to get a new referee, giving them another 7 months to write the report! $\endgroup$ – Pace Nielsen May 13 '19 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ The AMS statement I refer to is: ams.org/about-us/governance/policy-statements/sec-ethics I like how they make clear that it is the duty of the editors to get the paper refereed in a timely manner. This could perhaps be expanded a bit to clarify what timely does and does not mean. $\endgroup$ – Pace Nielsen May 13 '19 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with time expectations from the editors and the referees is that they are not realistic. The whole system is broken, editors struggle to find referees, referees struggle to find time, and authors don't help much as many do not put enough effort to make their papers accessible (often they are not even correct). The only long time solution I can think of is paying the referees (and editors). Then you can demand that the work should be done on time and with high quality. $\endgroup$ – Yiftach Barnea May 13 '19 at 18:03

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