I have submitted a mathematical investment article to a new journal (maybe two years old), based on the suggestion of the editor-in-chief, whom I had sent it to earlier, and who claimed he liked our article very much. A version of the article had been sent to a number of individuals, one or two senior mathematicians who are very capable, and a number of these people had good suggestions and helped us find appropriate extensions. Basically, it has been read a good many times and many people seem to think it important and well-substantiated.

So, we formally submitted the article to this new journal, partly because we cited an article that appeared in the journal last year, and partly because we thought it appropriate given that our article was at the junction between mathematics (probability), theoretical statistics, and algorithmic investment.

The referee report came back and it was clear that he understood the importance of our goal, but it is also clear he had no idea about the underlying mathematics. It was accepted (rejected?) conditionally. Conditionally on redoing the entire paper (i.e., even the report recommendation was wishy-washy).

Basically, he said that the basic premise of the paper was incorrect, and if we revised it, he would accept it. It was also clear, the referee was not capable of understanding the math in the paper or hadn't bothered to do so. The error in his review was so basic, that any grad student in math should know it--the sum of two (or any finite number of) Guassian random variables is a Gaussian random variable.

I have two basic solutions:

  1. Write a nice letter to the referee, spelling out exactly why we have already addressed his concerns in the paper and that perhaps we could spell this out more explicitly, showing him how.
  2. Submit to another journal, and write to this first journal's editor-in-chief, questioning the quality of his referees (who may be capable in terms of 'investments' but no in terms of 'mathematics'). Perhaps it was not a mathematical enough journal, anyway and is not the most appropriate for our submission. Then again, it could be that this new journal has growing pains.

My tendency is not just option 2, but to be somewhat more ballistic.

Edited question: I am asking, given the combined experiences of academics in this forum, there must be creative means of dealing with this problem which are deemed to be more successful. I'm sure going balistic feels immediately rewarding but doesn't help one bit in achieving our goal of getting published quickly.

Is there a way to both educate without belittling someone who seems really lacking in basics in the topics we cover in our paper? Is there a subtle way to suggest that the referee may be ok for non-mathematical papers but not appropriate for any paper with more serious math?

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    Is there a question here or is this just a rant? – Morgan Rodgers Aug 19 '18 at 5:41
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    The sum of finitely many independent Gaussian random variables is a Gaussian random variable. If they're not independent, it will generally not be Gaussian. – Daniel Fischer Aug 19 '18 at 9:07
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    Possible duplicate of Referee says the proof is wrong, but it is not, what to do? – jakebeal Aug 19 '18 at 10:47
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    That is a special situation, @NickFiroozye. The dead-simple example is X standard normal and Y = -X. Also note this and this comment there. – Daniel Fischer Aug 19 '18 at 11:43
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    @NickFiroozye your paper might be correct, but it's not the reviewers job to look for arguments for the correctness. Did you accurately represent why your assumption holds in the paper or did you just assume everyone should know it does in this (special) case? – DonQuiKong Aug 19 '18 at 12:05

I understand how you feel, but what you propose in solution 2 does not sound productive. I try to see (after the initial phase of being dissapointed and annoyed) the reviewer as a potential reader of that journal who is gracious enough to spent more time on your article than most readers will. Apparently, my article wasn't clear enough at a point, and that is something that needs to be fixed. It is easy to think something is too basic it needs no explaining, but there are a great many such basic facts; many more than anyone can remember... I suggest you take the same approach.


I fully understand your situation. Personally, I start to believe referees are more often than not incompetent and it is becoming a threat to the peer-review system on which science is built.

An editor once told me: it is the authors’ right and duty(!) to reveal bad arguments of reviewers. This however, was an experienced editor.

You can’t revise good arguments/mathematical modelling into bad arguments/mathematical modelling, as the reviewer requests, just to get your work accepted. That would violate scientific integrity.

The success of your options depends on the capabilities of reflective learning of the reviewer, editor and editor in chief.

If you write a nice rebuttal, you will need a reviewer capable of stepping over his/her own shadow or an editor who dares to take responsibility and doesn’t hide behind reviewers.

If you submit to another journal, there is a probability that you will meet that same reviewer again.

I think it is great that you express your intention to write to the editor in chief of the first journal. Unlike other organisations, journals do not have a proper feedback system in place. The journal may even learn something from it.

I have tried all your options. Sometimes with success, sometimes without success. Getting papers published is a lottery, at least in my field. It undermines my credibility in science.

Reviewers are treated like gods, I as author felt too often treated as scum. Journals forget that current authors are also future authors and future reviewers. If a journal cannot protect good authors against bad reviewers, then a journal will end up with having bad authors and bad reviewers because the good ones withdraw their support. It is a downward spiral

You could also review this journal as scirev.org

Finally, try not to become such a reviewer when you progress in your scientific career. It is the easiest way and probably the reason why we have so many bad reviewers. It pays forward.

I wish you good luck. It is not you, it is the system.

  • Thank you, Alice. I did review papers back when I was a junior faculty member, doing PDE, pre-Wall St. I was very earnest, especially since I even reviewed articles of senior professors I knew, respected and cited. (no earth-shattering papers, but did what was asked of them). After 20 years hiatus, I am now back to academic publishing, in a slightly different field--at the nexus of math and trading, I realize that it may be hard to find reviewers who are truly skilled in both. (in algo trading, more likely one can find CS guys who aren't necessarily great probabilists). Too cutting edge? – NBF Aug 19 '18 at 9:36
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    "reviewers are treated like gods, authors like scum" --- that's pretty strong invective, and doesn't match my own experiences at all. – jakebeal Aug 19 '18 at 12:37
  • @jakebeal Thank you for pointing this out. I personalized this statement as I do not intend to offend anyone. Unfortunately, it is how I feel, right now. I even consider quitting my PhD in my third year after having three papers published. I have seen myself change from a spontaneous happy qualified professional into a sarcastic angry academic and only because of the review process. I love my research and I have excellent supporting supervisors. It is great to read that your experience is different. – user93911 Aug 19 '18 at 16:04
  • @Nick Firoozye. Thank you. You could be right. I also entered academia in my mid career and work cross-disciplinary with strong ties to my professional environment. – user93911 Aug 19 '18 at 16:12
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    Two counter-intuitive rules for dealing with comments on something you have written: Rule 1 any comment, however stupid, has to be taken seriously -because something you wrote created the misunderstanding; Rule 2 any specific suggested rewrite, however well-intentioned and appealing at first sight, should be viewed with the gravest suspicion - only you know in detail how your paper is constructed and therefore how to deal with the thought behind the suggested change. – JeremyC Aug 19 '18 at 21:35

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