I received a major revision decision. But it is a strange one:

  • Reviewer 1 loved my article, called it excellent and recommended publication with very, very minor comments against it.
  • Reviewer 2 believes that my article's scope is too narrow and wants me to take on much more research, which would yield a different article with the same structure but longer. R2 has no other major problems with the idea or content of the article, in fact I believe that R2 liked the idea and that what R2 wants me to do is enlarging the article to provide additional support for what it countenances.

To take on all the additional research and writing for a much longer article would take time away from my current PhD research. Should I tell the editor that my article's scope is what it is and that I think it does a good job whitin that scope?

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    You are aware that the rebuttal letter first goes to the editor anyway, right?
    – Karl
    Oct 20, 2019 at 16:22
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    @Karl I'm struggling to understand your answers: first you say that discussing what to tell the editor is a kindergarten approach, and then point out that any answer I give goes first to the editor, so that would be the reason for discussing what to tell the editor... Right? Oct 20, 2019 at 16:39
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    @Karl Ok... So as I understand it you are basically answering me that I should ask my supervisor instead of asking questions here. But this is a website for questions. And some of the answers that I've gotten have been really helpful for me in the past. Oct 20, 2019 at 16:56
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    In response to reviewer 2: publish houses of brick, not mansions of straw (ironic that this shows up in nature)
    – spacetyper
    Oct 21, 2019 at 0:28
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    @Karl please post this as an answer, don't post answers in comments no matter how short Oct 21, 2019 at 0:48

7 Answers 7


I've been R2 a few times: I consider the paper's quality clearly below the standards of the journal (because of lack of detail, for instance, to the point where I can't fully understand the paper's methodology; or lack of sufficient evaluation), so that in principle I should just reject the paper outright. On the other hand, there is something about the underlying idea that has promise, and I don't want the authors to get so discouraged that they bury it by resubmitting the paper to some third-tier venue.

So I use Major Revisions as a kind of contract with the authors, laying out exactly the changes the authors would need to make in order for the paper to become acceptable, even if these changes are very extensive. The ball is now in their court: they can either take the time to make the required changes, with a high chance that the paper is then accepted, or, if they really don't want to spend the time, they can resubmit to a lower-tier conference or journal.

And of course, Major Revisions is also an easier recommendation for the editor to ignore than Reject, in case my views are not aligned with those of the other reviewers. In your case, it sounds like you only have two reviewers, who drastically disagree. You could submit only minor revisions, and hope that the editor agrees with R1 that the paper is acceptable without a lot of extra work. Or R1 might look at the revisions, and R2's review, and say to themselves, "oh, R2 is raising a lot of good points. They're right, this paper does need more detail to be understandable/reproducible!" The only way to know for sure is to submit a revision and see what happens, though one potentially useful piece of information: if the editor really did agree with R1 much more strongly than R2, they would have required minor instead of major revisions.

(PS: Writing up your research to a sufficient level of quality that it passes peer review does not "take away from your PhD research." It is your PhD research.)

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    This answer is a good one, but that postscript almost earned it an upvote all by itself. Oct 21, 2019 at 15:43
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    Maybe I didn't explain myself well: the paper is not part of my PhD research, although it is on the same general subject. Oct 31, 2019 at 10:48

I interpret the totality of the response is that your article is probably just about right as is, but you have the opportunity for a follow up. I would make the changes you feel are warranted and send in the revised version with a note that you will consider another article to follow that will address R2.

If it gets done, fine. Otherwise, don't worry about it.

Of course, the editor may suggest more, but I doubt you need to ask first. In general, the reviewers don't take ownership of your paper. It is still yours to update with the suggestions. You should consider all suggestions, but don't need to explicitly change anything based on them. But the editor still gets to decide.

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    But you also can communicate with the editor about what you intend to do, and see whether they are agreeable towards publishing with the modifications you want to make. If they are not, then there's no point to doing anything at all. Oct 21, 2019 at 1:35
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    @WolfgangBangerth, yes there is a point of rewriting the paper unless you intend to completely abandon it. The author has some valuable advice to improve the paper. If one journal won't take it, another might. I don't say you should not ask the editor, but given all the reviews, I don't think it is necessary in this particular case. Perhaps I'm just a bit more willing to push the editor in the direction I'd rather go than you would be.
    – Buffy
    Oct 21, 2019 at 10:50
  • I'm all for pushing the editor, but I'm also for figuring out up front how far they are willing to be pushed :-) Oct 21, 2019 at 14:38

This is a very frustrating aspect about academic publishing. Reviewers are supposed to be referees who evaluate a paper's quality. But as acceptance rates for journals keep dropping, many reviewers seem to have branched out into becoming critics, program managers, or just the old guy at the bridge who demands you solve three riddles before you can cross.

However there are real reasons reviewers behave this way. Science fields today have widespread problems with reproducibility and publication bias. And the increase in submissions (which caused the acceptance rates to drop) also lead to pressuring people for reviews a lot more. So you very commonly get reviewers who clearly don't want to read your paper (making for a terrible test audience) and of course they are afraid to simply give you benefit of the doubt and recommend acceptance due to all the bad science going on out there.

Of course there are other reasons reviewers make their demands. But this is one you may be able to solve by addressing the above problems with the text. Assume they are not clear what you have done, so try to clarify it further; think of a better way to "market" the result in terms of a picture and description for a general audience. As they apparently do not think you have many (or really any) results, be very specific about emphasizing the results which are novel starting and emphasizing their value. Many authors tend to be overly-cautious about claiming novelty as you can never be sure what everyone else has done. You need to take the risk and claim what you think is there. Use "to our knowledge" as needed.

Don't just argue with the reviewer. Give a response that both clarifies to them what you have done and makes a case that you have plenty results and these results are important. And make significant changes to the text to communicate these same same clarifications for readers. Yes the manuscript already has text for this but rewrite it anyway, adding more if possible. Point out to the reviewer how you changed the text for them. I have done this and (somewhat to my surprise) reviewers have accepted it.

Another tactic is to hold back some results when you submit a manuscript. Then add these "new results" at revision time to placate demanding reviewers. It isn't what they asked for but hey here's more work just for them. Yes it's ridiculous.

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    “Another tactic is to hold back some results when you submit a manuscript. Then add these "new results" at revision time to placate demanding reviewers.” Shades of salami slicing, here? Not sure how ethical it is.
    – nick012000
    Oct 20, 2019 at 21:30
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    @nick012000 Well I already called it ridiculous, but thanks for the accusation. It certainly is a cynical tactic, which I'd describe as more related to sandbagging. Oct 21, 2019 at 0:00
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    I fundamentally dislike this answer because it is entirely opinion-based. If you think that acceptance rates are dropping, reviewers have become critics/program managers/old guys on the bridge, then please provide evidence that this is true. I could make similar complains about your second paragraph: You seem to have opinions about the "deep state" in academia, but I don't think any of this is founded on evidence or, in fact, the truth. Oct 21, 2019 at 1:33
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    @WolfgangBangerth Thanks for the rather ironic review, complete with demands for more research. By the way uncited facts are not the same thing as opinions. And given that all answers here contain opinions and lack citations, I suspect here is something more specific that triggered you. If it's the "deep state" in academia, then erm no, I have no opinions about any such conspiracy theory except that it sounds silly. Oct 21, 2019 at 2:10
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm -- I just don't share your bleak view about how pretentious and self-aggrandizing reviewers are. I've been a member of editorial boards for more than a decade, and an editor-in-chief for the past year. I read a lot of reviews -- probably more than one a day. I see reviewers who are lazy, but the vast majority of reviewers is doing its level best to provide a balanced assessment of papers. I don't see the ones who think that they are holier-than-though. I can say the same about the editors in charge of these reviews. Oct 22, 2019 at 13:35

Typically editors will want to see that you are being reasonably cooperative and that you gave due thought to each point the reviewers make. The strategy here will be to essentially argue the case you are making here in your supplemental letter. Obviously, diligently implement the minor points made by R1 and express your gratitude to R1 for these helpful points.

When it comes to R2: In your revisions, try to address any reasonably implementable points made by R2. Then, in your response letter, address each of the reviewer's points one by one. Wherever you have been able to make changes, point them out and be thankful to the reviewer for their excellent points. In all cases, acknowledge the reasonable kernel of truth in the reviewer's point. Then, in cases in which the reviewer is asking you to go way beyond the scope of the project, simply say so and explain briefly why you think so.

At that point, it's up to the editor to decide. If the editor rejects, move on to another journal and don't think twice about it.

EDIT: Also, I would reinforce from the comments that this is something you need to be getting advice from your PhD advisor on. It is absolutely part of their responsibilities to guide you through this process. I would forward the reviews in full to your advisor and strategize with them.


Just say no. It is normal to have to constrain research and even to write up "what was done so far" when funding runs out. As long as you are honest, then it is fine. IF not, then just move to another journal.

Note: I would be VERY resistant to doing extra experiments. It's one thing if there is a questionable interpretation or the like. But extra work? No. Be like Nancy Reagan. Just move on if needed. Don't even waste much time.

You need to dig in your heels on changing actual scope. Provided you don't oversell the interpretation, almost any reasonable set of experiments can be written up and reported on. I have literally (and not how the millenials use that word) reported, in the lit, good journal, and included comment that a sample was missing as it was dropped on the floor. If anything the ballsy honesty surprised them and my papers went through without revision. But if not...just boogie.

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    Just saying no is often not enough. In academic communication, it is important to explain and justify your position. Reasonable constraints are normal, but salami slicing publication is discouraged. If the result is really too small, the reviewers may have a good reason against recommending this work for publication. Oct 20, 2019 at 17:43
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    Just move on, then.
    – guest
    Oct 20, 2019 at 17:44
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    Moving on without a publication may be detrimental to the success of the PhD project. In some countries, successful publications are required to obtain a PhD. Oct 20, 2019 at 17:45
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    Sometimes a paper really requires more work—if they've bungled their statistics, or are missing error bars, the reviewer cannot let it be published as is. But it probably isn't the case here—the author should state their case and let the editor decide. Oct 21, 2019 at 1:07
  • Forgive me my ignorance and curiosity, but what does "Be like Nancy Reagan" mean and refer to?
    – Jim
    Oct 23, 2019 at 22:13

The answer of reviewer #2 as you describe it here doesn't make much sense. An article doesn't have to be long, and if your article would only become longer without different structure or arguments, this point rather to the fact that you didn't understand the reviewer or the reviewer has not much experience what is expected from him. In the latter case I would contact the editor to ask reviewer #2 to clarify to you.

In experimental fields, it can be necessary to do extra experimental work and measurements and without it likely no reviewer of any journal will accept your article (e.g. showing necessary but not sufficient results that you have produced a room temperature superconductor). Interpretation of data can be difficult and the reporter wants to see what he wants to report...

But either you or reviewer have not understood originality and significance of scientific research, if you both argue about the length or scope of the article. The scope fulfillment was partly made by the editor sending your paper to the reviewers. This varies among journals, for some the reviewers make a comment or even highlight the article in the journal, for some it is the job of the journal staff to decide if you article matches the scope of the journal. The reviewers have to testify the plausibility, the possible reproducibility of your results and the conclusions. If extra work is demanded they have to clearly state why and what, you are not submitting a book chapter or review where a gap of done work in community would be detrimental to the future reader. If you announced in abstract and introduction more answers to questions which are not appearing then in the manuscript, this could be a matter of missing content/scope


What is the scope of the journal? Your supervisor and/or the Editor will be able to tell you what's going on here.

It can be that R2's desires fall completely out of the journal's interest --- only short papers accepted, theoretical vs practical, etc --- or that they exactly describe it. It was the Editor's job to make this somewhat clear to you (maybe unless it's a very well-known journal where it can be seen as understood), so contact them for clarification:

It saves the Editor time (and reviewer-goodwill, that limited commodity!) having to re-review your expanded version just to reject, if you're headed the wrong way anyhow.

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