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I have recently had a paper rejected with 2 Accepts and 1 Reject from a CORE A* conference. I did understand the risks of being rejected when I made the submission, the problem is that I got back some set of reviews that are not applicable (let alone constructive) to my work. The 2 Accepts qualified the work as being solid and that it exhibits a high novelty degree, while the rejection was based on some misunderstandings on the reviewer's behalf, which led to "Syntactically complete work but with limited contribution" and "Novelty unclear" rank. Unfortunately, the 2 accept reviewers did not argue enough to support the paper, and the PC chairs considered that one reject outweighs the two accepts, so the outcome was a negative one.

Now, my question is: how likely is it to send back an email to the PC chairs and explain why we think the rejection feedback is not applicable to our work as it is based on some claims that we don't make in the paper (and that the reviewer thought we made) and get an answer back? Could submission outcomes change if they notice the reviews are based on incorrect claims? Or is it more likely to be ignored?

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    You can use rebuttals in journals sometimes. But conferences do not have time and are unlikely to react to this. – Captain Emacs Feb 8 at 14:13
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    Some conferences in CS do actually have a formal rebuttal period - but if your conference doesn't have this concept, it would be pretty unusual to even consider contact from an author unless it was a flagrant error (as in the decision was accept but the system rejected you, suggesting an accident - etc). – BrianH Feb 8 at 14:25
  • I did use the rebuttal (as the format of the conference has 1 round of revision), however, the reviewer that rejected the paper almost contradicted one of their reviews in the revision feedback - hence one of the reasons we got rejected. And 2 other claims were misunderstood and we didn't get the misunderstanding from their first feedback so we did not put much emphasis on those ideas in the rebuttal. – Lara Feb 8 at 14:27
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    Sometimes misunderstandings truly are the error of the reviewer, but they can also be the error of the authors. Make sure your language is clear, even if 2/3 reviewers understood your work may be unclear to half of your audience. – Bryan Krause Feb 8 at 16:44
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In good conferences (and I would certainly assume this to be the case in an A* conference) decisions are not made solely and directly by the PC Chairs, and definitely not only by looking at the scores. What usually happens is that after each assigned PC member submits their reviews, a discussion phase among the reviewers is triggered. In some conferences this happens in a long face-to-face meeting of the majority of the PC, in other conferences this is done offline through the reviewing system. All controversial papers (and a paper that gets two +2's and one -2 would certainly qualify as controversial) will be discussed - usually the PC chairs will ensure that both sides of the argument are heard, and then the reviewers and the PC chairs jointly arrive at a common decision (other PC members are also free to chime in, but in practice this only happens in face-to-face meetings in my experience).

Typically, there is little trace of this discussion in the reviews or notification letter, so it is difficult for you as an author to say if the two +2's did not have good arguments to fight for your paper, did not feel like they wanted to "champion" the paper despite their positive reviews, or were ultimately ignored because the reasoning of the -2 was more convincing. However, for a CORE A* conference I would assume that this discussion happened, that the PC chairs are quite aware of the difference in opinion regarding this paper, and made a conscious decision to reject the paper despite the positive reviews.

Hence, writing them is highly unlikely to change anything. For a large conference, PC chairs typically get multiple such requests each year, and I am not aware of even a single case in my community where the decision was retroactively changed. The standard answer for all questions on this site that fall into the category of "What can I do about this (from my perspective) unfair reject?" applies: move on, and try another conference and journal. Fundamentally, academic reviewing is a stochastic process, and even the best submissions can be rejected unfairly.


However, there still is something to learn from this experience. It's a difficult thing to do, but you should try to figure out why the -2 misunderstood your paper (and why apparently your paper did not give the +2's sufficient ammunition to fight for it effectively in the discussion phase):

  • Was the contribution not clearly enough described? Note that "we had a strong contribution" isn't sufficient for an A* conference, it also needs to be very obvious that you have a strong contribution. A paper can, in fact, be rejected if the detractor makes a convincing case that your paper can easily be misunderstood (even if the champions manage to convince them that they indeed misunderstood).
  • Did the paper get the wrong reviewers? One common source of unfair rejects is if the paper at first glance (e.g., from title and abstract) appeals to the wrong group of PC members (e.g., a paper looking like it has a strong theoretical contribution will primarily be reviewed by theory-minded folks - if it then turns out that the actual work is very practical, it will end very unfortunate, with reviewers misunderstanding the paper or simply not being interested enough to actually fight for the work).
  • Was there some other issue that may have led to a normally tempered, sane, and competent person to vote for -2 (and, apparently, fight for a rejection - because the more normal case when +2 +2 -2 reviews come in is that the -2 gives in quickly and the paper is accepted)? Scan their review for this - maybe there is something that you would consider a minor threat that they consider backbreaking, or maybe you missed some related work that they consider crucial.

However, after all is said and done, your paper has in fact convinced two thirds of its reviewers - resubmitting a slightly improved version of the paper to a similar (or even the same) conference has in fact a very high chance of success.

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You can argue it, and might be successful. But you might also not be successful. The PC may believe the third reviewer has more weight to bear. For a conference, however, I think your chances are slim, just because of the time factor.

Ultimately, however, it is your responsibility to be clear enough in your writing that such misunderstandings don't occur. I'm not judging here, and don't know the details. It is possible, of course, that you know more than the reviewer in this case. I doubt that you would lose anything by arguing your case, but you would also do well to try to parse out exactly what the objection was. It may be that you will learn something from understanding it that will help you improve the work even if you fail at having the decision reversed.

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If it is a conference (not a journal), do not waste your time. Get over it ad think of another venue. Unfair judgements, misunderstandings, happens all the time. The only way to overcome it is to improve your apper and make clarification that does not allow this misunderstanding to happen again. Then submit it in another venue.

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