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One of my friends submitted a paper to a reputable communications journal and received some reviews a week back. The paper was rejected, but the review comments were abysmal:

  • The language was so bad in one of them that it was difficult to understand what the reviewer was hinting at. Besides, the comments pertained to trivial things like naming of axes and there was no comment on (or understanding of) the overall work.
  • The second of the three reviewers rejected the paper in one line saying it was impossible for him/her to understand what the paper aimed at.
  • The third reviewer appreciated the paper and its results and made good suggestions for improving the results.

The editor-in-charge has rejected the paper since the vote was 2/3 in favour of that, but my friend feels hard done as he feels the two reviewers did not merit to review the work.

What recourse does an author have if his paper is rejected by a reputable journal, but the review comments indicate a serious lack of understanding of the paper's work? Should the author write his/her grievance to an editor higher in the hierarchy (an associate editor, for example)? Or is ditching the journal and submitting it to somewhere else the only solution?

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Normally an editor should do more than "majority vote". My paper got accepted with minor revision despite 1 out of 2 reviewers suggesting a rejection. Instead I just adapted the introduction slightly — the reviewer had not understood the main point. –  gerrit Dec 19 '12 at 12:14
@gerrit indeed, in theory the reviewers only advise the editor, and the decision is hers alone. This can also have its downsides: I once had a paper rejected with 3 reviewers in favor, 1 who advised rejection. –  F'x Dec 19 '12 at 12:31
If they were not able to suggest improvements then definitely it is a plus for you and for your paper not publishing in this journal. look for other better venues. I believe reviewers (i.e. the final outcome of reviewing your submission) reflects the journal reputation. –  seteropere Dec 19 '12 at 18:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 35 down vote accepted

F'x has ably covered one possible reason: that it's not you, it's them.

I'm going to cover the other side of things. That is, starting from the assumption that the editor has made a good decision.

The authors should consider rewriting the abstract and introduction. If two peer reviewers didn't understand the paper, the paper may just need a savage reworking.

The authors may also wish to try working with a freelance development editor.

Finally, the authors might want to bring on board a co-author who's been frequently published: I expect that many decent-sized, decent-quality departments have at least one person whose quality of writing leads to get manuscripts getting accepted first time, pretty much every time.

And then submit to a different journal. I don't know the field, but I'm willing to speculate that there are a few reputable journals where the article could be published.

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I take a more extreme view of this position: Without evidence to the contrary, I assume both the editor and the reviewers acted in good faith. With that assumption, if the reviewers don't understand my paper, it's my fault. No matter how frustrating I may find the reviewers' lack of understanding, it's my responsibility to educate them. If I've failed to do that, the paper isn't ready to publish. (And if the editor or referees didn't act in good faith, I don't want to publish in that journal anyway.) –  JeffE Dec 19 '12 at 19:04
To "bring on board a co-author" looks like a serious misconduct to me. Author are supposed to have participated to the research, not to be names to get a given research output accepted. –  Benoît Kloeckner Dec 26 '12 at 16:09
@BenoîtKloeckner maybe that varies with field: it's really very common to have authorial help during writing up. Development editors have been doing a chunk of that job for many years, uncredited on the many papers they improve. The state of scientific publishing would be much worse without such procedures, and I can't see that anyone would gain by doing away with it. –  EnergyNumbers Dec 26 '12 at 18:12

There is an extremely simple rule for dealing with reviews that make you unhappy. Here is the rule: it's not them, it's you. This rule of thumb implies, it is never the reviewers' fault. Rather, it is always your responsibility.

Oh, you say the reviewers didn't seem to understand the paper? Well, that's your fault. It is your responsibility to make sure the paper is comprehensible to its intended audience. If the reviewers didn't understand the paper, odds are that the rest of the readers of that journal/conference won't either. Maybe you need to do a drastic rewrite to make the paper more understandable. Or, maybe you submitted the paper to the wrong place.

The reviewers didn't seem too excited about the paper, and they gave you a short one-line review, or they focused on nitpicky comments about grammar and didn't say much else? Well, that's on you. It's your responsibility to convince readers that your results are significant. Maybe your paper's results just aren't up to the level of significance expected at that journal/conference, and you should be submitted somewhere else. Or maybe the paper didn't adequately make the case for why people should care about your results.

Why this rule? Because authors are notoriously poor at seeing the shortcomings in their own work. No parent thinks their own baby is ugly. When you get negative reviews, it is natural and human to assume the reviewers are idiots and too blind to see the brilliance of the work sitting before them. Well, that's fine. Take a moment to curse the reviewers, and get it out of your system. Then calm down, and think more rationally. It is rare to find cases where reviewers are stupid or lax in their duties; it is much more common to find that there is something valid behind their reviews.

Realistically, if the reviews are negative, the most constructive thing you can do is improve the paper and re-submit (possibly to somewhere more suitable). There is almost always some way that you can improve the paper and that you can learn from the reviews you got back.

I realize my rule might seem like an oversimplification. Well, technically, I suppose it is, but it's a lot more accurate than most folks who are new to the field realize.

In my experience, complaining to the editor rarely leads to any positive result. I suppose that in the most extreme of cases, it could be warranted, but I would have a heavy presumption against that. And, you probably don't have enough experience to form a judgement on that. Before complaining to an editor or appealing the decision, sit down with someone much more senior and more experienced and ask for their advice. If they are skeptical or neutral, don't bother complaining; just improve the paper and submit it elsewhere. Only if they tell you that complaining is the right thing to do should you consider complaining to the editor.

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In a general case, I back everything you wrote. But, I was hoping you'll make a comment on the first bullet from the question, and you didn't: the part which said "the grammar of the first review was so bad, it was difficult to even understand the review". Also, if you have some useful insight on the fact that two out of three reviewers didn't provide any comments useful for improving the work, it would be very interesting to read. Also, Merry Christmas :) –  penelope Dec 25 '12 at 15:58
@penelope, I don't have anything much to add. It sounds like the original poster wants me to say that the reviewers were bad, wrong, evil people, but I'm not gonna. Regarding the grammar in the first review, perhaps the first reviewer doesn't speak English as a first language and still struggles with the language; if so, I can certainly sympathize. As far as comments to improve the paper, the reviewers are under no obligation to provide suggestions for improvement, particularly if the paper is very poorly suited for the publication venue. –  D.W. Dec 26 '12 at 1:33
... (but that said, I do count two reviewers who provided useful suggestions: the third reviewer, who commented on the work itself, and the first reviewer apparently also provided comments on the presentation, such as the naming of the axes.) Finally, I just want to repeat the golden rule: it's not them, it's you. If the paper didn't get the response the author was hoping for, the most effective answer is not to rage at the injustice of it all, but to look at how to improve the paper, work on making it better, and then try again. There's always room for improvement. –  D.W. Dec 26 '12 at 1:34
I'm not trying to say anything is wrong with your answer; I concur with it's you, not them. I'm not saying that you should say what OP wants you to, or that the reviewers are evil. I'm just saying, since the answers are supposed to have lasting value, and you seem to be saying interesting and insightful things, that there are some more points to the question and I for one am interested in what you have to say concerning those things ;) –  penelope Dec 26 '12 at 17:28

The first course of action is to reply to the editor who made the decision. Write to them, say that you are willing to improve the manuscript for publication given some guidance from the referees, but the judgement by referee #2 seems a bit rash and not thoroughly justified. Possibly, send to them a revised version of the manuscript, taking into account comments made so far, and ask them to reconsider their decision. You can also hint that you would like them to send the (revised) manuscript to yet another reviewer (some editors have the concept of an “adjudicating” reviewer, even though the editor should actually ne the adjudicator).

The second avenue to try, if the first one does not succeed, is to ask the matter to be escalated to the associate editor (or senior editor, or arbitration committee…). The exact procedure will be indicated in the journal’s instruction to authors, but usually one way is simply to ask the corresponding editor to forward it. For example, at the end of your email from step #1 asking for him to reconsider his decision, you could say:

We strongly believe that you might find our revisions and this justification sufficient to consider our paper for publication in XXXX. If that is not the case, we would like this matter to be escalated to an Associate Editor.

Be aware that it's somewhat of a strong option, because people usually don't change their mind very easily, and they don't like to prove their colleagues wrong. So, one option you really have to consider is simply publishing your paper in another journal. At least, sketch something like a risk/benefit analysis before appealing the editor’s decision.

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