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Recently I received a rejection letter from a journal editor (including some comments). However, when I checked the reviewers comments (from two reviewers), I found that their comments do not seem to be sufficient to reject the paper. Given these comments, I would have expected the decision to be "minor revisions." Specifically, some of the comments are very simple like: I mentioned table 1 in text, while I used table 5.1 in table headings. I got total of ten comments, two of them are just related to formatting and acronym, two are repeated from both reviewers, ending up with only six significant comments. What can I do in this case?

Here are two related questions I found on this site:

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    Some new info from the comments has been edited into the post; answers-in-comments and other discussion has been moved to chat. – cag51 Sep 3 at 19:51
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You make the suggested changes, assuming you agree with them, and submit to another slightly less prestigious journal.

Most likely, the editors didn't think your paper was interesting enough for their journal, and the reviewers weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about the paper to convince them otherwise.

At the top journals, for a paper to be accepted, it's not enough for reviewers to recommend acceptance; if the reviewers don't explain in convincing and gushing detail about why the paper is the best thing since sliced bread, it's not likely to be accepted. (Of course there are the few exceptional cases where it's obvious that the paper is the best thing since sliced bread and there is no need to gush about it.)

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    This is jumping the gun IMO. Why not get into touch with the editor first for clarification? Make them justify their decision, don't just roll over when they make it. Sometimes it's made in error and sometimes it's made because they haven't even looked at the work or reviews in detail. – spacetyper Sep 2 at 1:26
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I need to disagree with @AlexanderWoo: in my experience, at high-ranking journals, "interesting enough for the journal" is something that the editor generally decides before sending it out to reviewers, which is why most papers at such journals are rejected without review. Enthusiasm is not needed from peer reviewers, just a scientific assessment of the results.

Thus, I suspect that you are instead dealing with one of two other cases:

  1. Those six comments actually included something the editor considered quite serious, even if you did not. If a paper is fatally flawed, it may not take many comments to state the flaw, and major issues sometimes become invisible to an author because they are too close to the problem.
  2. The editor is being lazy and sloppy somehow in their handling of the paper. Even if the reviewers hated your paper in hidden fields, the editor should normally have explained the decision in at least an abstract fashion (e.g., "not appropriate to this community", "not significant given the citation from reviewer 2").

Note that in both of these cases, a reviewer's assessment of significance (or lack thereof) may cause the editor to reassess their level of interest in the manuscript. Again, however, what is required to pass is not enthusiasm but merely finding that close examination of the paper does not invalidate its claimed significance or results. In both cases, however, such a reassessment should be clearly reflected in the comments of the reviewers and/or the editor.

You can distinguish between the two by writing to the editor for a more thorough explanation of the reasons for rejection, politely explaining that you are not understanding the reasons for rejection and wish to improve your paper. You will almost certainly be unable to change the editor's mind at this point, but you may learn what (if anything) needs to be changed to give your paper a better chance at the next place you submit.

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    This is the only right answer here. It disturbs me that the top answers basically say that you should passively give up. Paper reviews, like everything else in science, are subject to the whims of the very human and sometimes very wrong people in charge of the process. – spacetyper Sep 2 at 1:23
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    In terms of high ranking journals, deciding whether the paper is interesting enough before sending it off to review seems to vary by field. In my field one of the famous top journals (some in my field say it is the best journal) explicitly asks the reviewers to comment on whether the paper will be of sufficient interest to the broad readership of that journal. The comments from the reviewers on this matter are then given a lot of weight and there is thus a comparatively high rejection rate after the paper is sent to review. – 2ndQuantized Sep 2 at 2:57
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    @spacetyper - Why bother fight? Any paper I write, there are a three or four journals at roughly the same level I could submit to, and another dozen or so journals further down on the prestige ladder. It takes a lot less effort to send it somewhere else. A journal that keeps getting it wrong will just have worse papers and lose reputation. – Alexander Woo Sep 2 at 3:53
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    @spacetyper - In my field (mathematics), we do not reformat submissions. Usually journals reformat at the typesetting stage, and if they don't, we only reformat after acceptance. It's a much saner system - do reviewers really care about formatting? – Alexander Woo Sep 2 at 15:42
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    The top answer is right in mathematics. Perhaps this answer is right in other disciplines, but that doesn't make the top answer or its upvoters uninformed. – Noah Snyder Sep 3 at 2:16
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Generally an editor will give a summary of why they decided to reject your paper outright, rather than allowing you the opportunity to revise. I would look very carefully at this sentence.

You should be aware that it is common when reviewing to be given two boxes to fill in. One with comments that are visible to the authors, and one that are for the editors eyes only. I would usually only use that if I had concerns about ethics or integrity, but its possible the reviewers have put other things in there.

It is possible to appeal against such as decision, such appeals are very rarely successful, although I have managed to convince editors to allow a resubmission once before.

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Papers can be rejected even if there's nothing wrong with them

Often a publication venue will want to select a particular number of papers at most. If they intend to publish x papers, and after the reviews it turns out that there are more than x papers that have no serious objections, they can and will reject some papers simply because there are x other papers that are more suitable according to the editor's opinion and the reviews.

There's no such thing as "comments not sufficient to reject the paper". In competitive venues there are rejections of unquestionably good papers where all reviewers recommend to accept them, simply because there are many other papers which have even better reviews.

If there are no meaningful drawbacks mentioned, then there likely is nothing wrong with your paper, it's just not considered as important or impactful as the other candidates they got, so you'll have to submit and publish it somewhere else. Often papers are rejected without review because they seem not as important or impactful as the journal wants, however, in your case probably the editor expected that the paper had that potential, so it was sent out for review, but perhaps the reviews were not as enthusiastic as the editor expected, and perhaps the editor simply reconsidered - as is their right (and, in competitive venues, duty) to reject papers where's nothing wrong with them other than the fact that they do not seem not as much impactful and citeable as the journal would like.

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You don't get to decide what is sufficient or not sufficient reason to reject a paper. The editor does, and they've already decided it's sufficient.

There's not much more to do other than the standard - you can:

  • Make the suggested changes (if you agree with them) and submit to another journal, or
  • Send the editor an appeal (if you do this, make sure to include technical rebuttals of the reviewer's comments).

If you send an appeal, one thing you definitely don't want to do is say "the comments are correct but they're not sufficient to reject my paper", because the editor has already rejected that line of reasoning.

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    even more brazen: make the changes, indicate so in the cover letter, and resubmit to the same journal without suggesting this is an appeal. That would force the editor to clarify his or her position. – ZeroTheHero Sep 2 at 16:51
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    @ZeroTheHero Another way to phrase "That would force the editor to clarify his or her position" might be "That would be a passive-aggressive way to piss off the editor". If you want to press on for the same journal, follow the other suggestion to appeal (or similar suggestions in other answers). – Bryan Krause Sep 2 at 17:04
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    @BryanKrause my experience (in physics) is that in many cases “reject” is often the default option unless referees explicitly recommend publication, and that fixing the paper and resubmitting once is often enough to overcome the initial rejection. YMMV – ZeroTheHero Sep 2 at 17:07
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I think the truth lies somewhere in between the answers of Alexander Woo and jakebeal.

It is certainly true that editors reject a lot of papers without even sending them out to reviewers, if they clearly aren't interesting enough. And the top journals will normally contact a suitable expert for a quick opinion on whether it is worth sending out to reviewers.

However, this still leaves a lot of papers where it is not obvious whether they are interesting enough. Certainly whenever I review a paper I am always asked for an opinion on whether it is good enough for the journal. I don't think this has to be "gushing"; in my experience a statement that it is with some sort of justification will normally be enough, unless another reviewer disagrees. This is different for conferences where there is a hard limit on the number of papers accepted. Conversely, when I've had a paper rejected after review, which certainly does happen, it has been because a reviewer has explicitly said that they don't think the paper is suitable for the journal.

While you haven't seen anything that explicit in this case, often there are checkboxes to fill in about interest level, etc. In my experience these tend not to be sent to the authors, so quite possibly one of your reviewers checked a box rating your paper as not interesting enough, and that is why the paper got rejected. The comments you saw aren't the reason for rejection, but just some comments the reviewers thought would be helpful.

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  • Sounds like you're saying you think it's option #2 in my answer. – jakebeal Sep 3 at 1:23
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    @jakebeal Well not really, since you seem to preclude this reason for rejection in your first paragraph. I think it is overwhelmingly likely that the paper was rejected simply because the reviewers weren't convinced (or convincing) that it was interesting enough for the journal, which is closer to Alexander Woo's answer than yours. – Especially Lime Sep 3 at 7:10
  • Ah; I see I needed to be clearer in presenting the distinction between "potentially interesting" and "actually significant". I'll tweak my answer to clarify. – jakebeal Sep 3 at 11:02

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