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As a reviewer, when would it be appropriate to reject a paper (rather than recommend "major revision") for publication? I am interested in views from seasoned reviewers/editors who served for journals with moderately high importance factor (IF > 4.0) - primarily in engineering/science fields. Thank you,

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    Hmmm. The journals in question should have fairly clear instructions to reviewers. – Buffy Apr 22 at 12:04
  • @Buffy How can they have clear instructions on this? It's mostly a matter of judgement. – Federico Poloni Apr 22 at 12:47
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    @FedericoPoloni, I guess I disagree. I think most of the time it is pretty clear. The "edge" cases call for revision. – Buffy Apr 22 at 12:50
  • I guess we just have a different idea of what "clear instructions" means. – Federico Poloni Apr 22 at 13:04
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    @Buffy Almost every single journal instructs me to "apply highest standards" (or other similar wording), irrespective of its position in the journal pecking order. I never saw a journal defining its "major revision vs. reject" policy. In reality, the threshold is completely arbitrary and depends on reviewer/editor and what they had for lunch. – Boris Bukh Apr 22 at 13:11
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First, I'll take the position that if a paper can be salvaged, then the author should have the opportunity to try to salvage it. However, some situations are beyond help.

Situations that call for rejection

The paper is out of scope for the journal/conference. But usually an editor will recognize this and send it back.

The results of the paper follow trivially from well known facts.

The result itself is trivial. That is, not worth the paper it is written on. Obvious. Sometimes the question, itself, is trivial.

The author seems unaware of recent work that impacts on the results. Here, it may be a judgement call about how much was missed. Naive author.

The methodology is unethical.

The methodology is inadequate to answer the question posed.

The results don't follow from the methodology.

The results can be shown to be wrong. Or dangerous.

If revision has been offered and the author is overly argumentative about revisions.

Plagiarism or other ethical lapses.

However

My personal view is that poor expression/writing should not be grounds for rejection as long as the author can find a way to make the presentation clear enough for a professional reader. However, writing can be so poor that the reader can't make a connection between the methodology and the result. If you can't understand the paper as a reviewer, you may not be able to make any helpful suggestions. Then, you may be forced to reject.

I might have missed a few cases, of course, and it depends on the field. But generally, leave it to the editor to make fine-grained decisions.


Note that I don't think the answer to this depends, really, on the level of the journal. I think the "scope" qualification covers that aspect pretty well.

I don't think that there are a lot of "questionable" cases here.

The implication is that one prefers to suggest revision unless one cannot.


Actually, I think a much harder situation is one in which a paper seems "obvious" for rejection but has some gem of insight in it that requires tweaking out. This might imply a truly huge revision and acceptance of something in the future. These are hard to recognize, of course, due to the limits of the review process.

  • Good answer, However, can you please give an example of a "dangerous result"? – Boris Bukh Apr 22 at 13:35
  • @BorisBukh, they might arise in medical research or in some educational research, for example. Some things that are "effective" have unexamined negative side effects that turn their use into ethical issues. – Buffy Apr 22 at 13:40
  • That is however fixable, by pointing out those dangers. The study has been done, even if retrospecively it shouldn't have. – Karl Apr 22 at 13:46
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    A handful of journals have formal policies on how to treat papers that have potential bioterrorism capability and these policies might include rejection; see Dual-Use Review Policies of Biomedical Research Journals for a probably outdated overview and Should all medical research be published? The moral responsibility of medical journal editors for more recent comments – iayork Apr 22 at 13:47
  • @Karl, I'm more interested, actually, in the possible danger of applying the results. If the study should not have been carried out it falls into the realm of unethical methodology, I'd think. – Buffy Apr 22 at 13:48
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As a referee of a scientific or engineering paper, you should recommend rejection if you do not believe that (1) the paper makes a contribution that is worthy of publication and/or (2) the paper is not a good fit with the quality or mission of the specific journal.

Sometimes referees want to be encouraging and therefore suggest major revisions for papers that may not be likely to ever meet the bar for publication. When a major revision recommendation is not focused on how the existing results are presented but instead on developing new results (or proposing significant new experiments, or new models, or new hypotheses, etc), then it would have likely been better to simply recommend rejection.

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In the end, the decision is made by the Editor and you can only give your opinion. Unlike the Editor, who has to chose at some point, you are allowed to be in doubt. In your review you can say "I am struggling to give a specific recommendation because on the one hand -positive comments about the paper-, but on the other hand -negative comments -". Just be careful because in most journals I have reviewed for, these specific recommendations are supposed to go to the Editor only, not to the authors.

The editor will average your comments with the ones from the other reviewers. For high impact factor journals, the difference between recommendations for rejection and major revision might not even make much of a difference: they receive so many articles that they can just reject anything beyond "minor revision".

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