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I am peer-reviewing a postgraduate paper. I reviewed the paper and sent off my recommendations for major corrections. Now the paper has come back and the author has only implemented around half of my suggestions.

They restructured the paper as requested, but failed to add some detail when requested in a couple of places, neither did they change the referencing to fall in line with the house style. The paper also has some spelling and grammar errors.

Should I recommend acceptance to the editor anyway? I am rather disappointed at the fact that some specific detail, as requested, was not included, but at the same time I do not want to deter this author and the paper is quite good in its current format. I feel that the parts left out, though not detrimental, should have been included at least for good practice. I am thinking of recommending acceptance with a note along the lines of what I have written above. Or should I be stricter?

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    If you point out spelling and grammar errors, and they’re still in upon return, that’s a total no-no to me. It takes a few minutes to take care of that. If the authors don’t care, why should you? – gnometorule Oct 10 '20 at 20:52
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    I sort of surprised it didn't just get desk rejected for failing to follow the journal's style guide. – nick012000 Oct 11 '20 at 5:57
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    What is "a postgraduate paper"? – Federico Poloni Oct 11 '20 at 12:00
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    @nick012000 Such rejections seem an unnecessary waste of time: Authors are made to jump through hoops for every submission, without much benefit to anyone. Sure, you can check the page count, but what else? Reformatting a paper surely be done at the end. – user2768 Oct 11 '20 at 12:21
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    @nick012000 Must be field dependent. In math, nobody bothers to follow or read the journal's style guide. Usually, reformatting is done after acceptance by the publisher. I mean, if they're going to charge $5000/year, they may as well do something, right? – academic Oct 11 '20 at 13:09
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The author owns the paper. They should consider any suggestions you make but need not implement any specific recommendation. Give up your "personal" feelings. That isn't your job. Re evaluate the paper on its merits and give it a fair assessment.

You are, of course, allowed to repeat your old suggestions, but it is a mistake to judge it solely on whether all of your suggestions were followed.

Some, but not all, authors will state in a "rebuttal" their reasons for ignoring suggestions. It isn't normally required. Judge the paper as it appears before you. Complain to the editor if you must.

Also consider that some really good suggestions are saved for future work by authors rather than included in the present paper. The work may already be in progress.

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    Excellent answer on content matters, +1 for that. Although the failure to fix grammar errors and typos is not negotiable (unless these refer to disputed grammatical rules). – Captain Emacs Oct 11 '20 at 2:23
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    It seems to me like a "response to reviewers" is field-dependent, like so many other things. In the fields I am active in (forecasting and psychology), it's very common - not required per se, but as a reviewer I'm usually surprised if such a cover letter is not included. And sometimes we have spent a lot of time in crafting such a letter and explaining in detail why we do not follow a reviewer's suggestion. I would at least expect some such explanation in the present case, instead of the silent treatment. – Stephan Kolassa Oct 11 '20 at 5:30
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    I agree with Stephen, a rebuttal is certainly required i my fields. – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 11 '20 at 19:47
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    @CaptainEmacs: At the same time, I’ve had reviewers who were certain that some variable point of punctuation was an unbreakable rule of English grammar. (Fortunately, the editors didn’t seem so worried about it.) As a reviewer, if the authors disagree with me on a point of grammar, however wrong I may think they are, it doesn’t seem worth a dealbreaker — the scientific content is what really matters. – PLL Oct 13 '20 at 9:58
  • @PLL Agreed, that's why I talked about "disputed grammatical rules" as an exception. If someone is just sloppy (and yes, that exists; e.g. fixing one typo, introducing another, or just inconsistent punctuation), I'll flag that. If they, however, have other conventions (e.g. US vs. UK or mixed standards), that's not a hill I would open a battle for, plus I accept that I might be wrong. If that's an issue at all, that's for the production editors to address. – Captain Emacs Oct 13 '20 at 13:51
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It is not your job to "let it through" or not - that is the job of the editor. Write a review that points out that the things you asked for have been changed or not, and say how important you believe these things to be. Certainly for referencing style and spelling/grammar, I would just point this out rather than making a judgement on it. Then let the editor make the decision.

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  • Right, but most reports require a recommendation from the reviewer e.g., accept, minor revisions, major revisions, reject etc. – innisfree Oct 12 '20 at 1:21
  • Yeah, but hopefully the editor pays more attention to what you write that what box you tick. Just don't tick "accept without further revisions" if you still have any qualms. – Ian Sudbery Oct 12 '20 at 8:58
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    Right but the fact that you must make that recommendation means you cannot just state what was changed and how important it was. You have to weigh it all up yourself and make a recommendation – innisfree Oct 12 '20 at 9:29
  • In this sort of situation I don't pay much attention to what I recommend, generally what ever the weakest form of "its not ready yet" is of the options. – Ian Sudbery Oct 12 '20 at 21:40
  • Well, I think the answer is incomplete and could be competed by the information in your comment. – innisfree Oct 13 '20 at 5:30
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I agree by and large with the two answers already given by Buffy and Ian Sudbery. However I'd like to say something more on who should do what.

It is true that ultimately it is the author who decides what they want to have in the paper, and you cannot enforce them to do anything. It is also true that as a reviewer you do not have the ultimate responsibility to make a decision, this is up to the editor. In particular, although it is nice and helpful to point out formatting, spelling and grammar mistakes, ultimately the job of enforcing correctness in this respect is up to the editor.

It is your job however to decide whether you think that the paper should be published as is, or with further correction, so on the scientific side you have to assess how serious you think the omissions of the author actually are. If you think that the paper should in principle be published because it has something good and original and is by and large correct, however you think that your ignored suggestions are quite important to improve the paper, obviously if the journal has the possibility to run through another cycle, you can state your objections again and say that in your opinion the authors at the very least should reply to them.

As editor I have been in in such situations, I have to make up my mind about this, and it has happened both that I told authors that I think this is really important and they need to address the issues next time, or I occasionally decided that these are side issues in my view or maybe not even justified, and then I wrote to the authors that this is what the reviewer still wants to see and it would be nice if it could be addressed (unless I think it should not), but I wouldn't insist on it.

If of course at this point a final decision of "yes" or "no" is required, you ultimately have to make your mind up about whether you think that this is valuable and should be published in the first place, or whether you think your remaining points are really essential and you recommend to reject if they are not addressed. This may also depend on the level of the journal, you could also think that a paper with these omissions shouldn't be published in a high impact journal, but it could be acceptable elsewhere.

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I do second the other answers given in this post. I wish to make a point about the communication channels in the peer-reviewing process:

  • the authors always address the editor;
  • the reviewers always address the editor;
  • the authors and reviewers never address each other

regardless of whether matters of contention arise on the manuscript ("the authors are idiots") or on the commentaries ("the reviewers are idiots"). 'Idiot' is here a one-size-fits-all placeholder for any attitude of confrontation.
In this game the only one who may start a piece of correspondence with 'Dear Author' or 'Dear Reviewer' is the editor.

This editor-in-the-middle arrangement is a great opportunity for authors and reviewers to let go of their behavioural biases, whether emotions or unconscious expectations. So, for anything you disliked in the authors' response, please bring a sound argument to the editor on why this weakens the case for publication. You may well be right, but it is the editor's responsibility to guarantee a publication standard for the journal. See other posts indeed.

My two cents.

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