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Here is a letter of rejection sent by Quarter Journal of Economics, to a big name professor. This letter is publicly available online.

Many thanks for your interesting and provocative paper. I have received a referee report on your piece, and I have read it myself. There are certainly many smart things in the piece, but ultimately, I think it is more appropriate for a more specialized journal. Your points are often well-taken, but really didn't convince me, or the referee, to question the standard interpretation of the data. I could imagine a paper on similarity relations which convincingly made the case for this approach being acceptable to us, but this side of the current paper is not really worked out.

Ultimately, this seems like a critique of the current approach which is right in many ways, but criticisms and extensions of existing research are best sent to more specialized outlets.

The editor says the submitted paper is "provocative", a word that seems "provocative" and "intentionally insulting" by itself. The dictionary definition of "provocative" is:

Causing annoyance, anger, or another strong reaction, especially deliberately.

Did I misinterpret that meaning?

Google says,

provocative /prəˈvɒkətɪv/

adjective

  • causing anger or another strong reaction, especially deliberately.

    "a provocative article"

    Similar:

    annoying irritating exasperating infuriating provoking maddening
    goading vexing galling affronting insulting offensive inflaming
    rousing arousing agitational inflammatory incendiary controversial
    aggravating in-your-face
    
  • intended or intending to arouse sexual desire or interest.

    "a provocative sidelong glance"

    Similar:

    sexy sexually arousing sexually exciting alluring seductive tempting
    suggestive inviting tantalizing titillating indecent pornographic
    indelicate immodest shameless erotic sensuous slinky passionate sexual
    piquant racy juicy risqué raunchy steamy coquettish amorous
    flirtatious come-hither kinky tarty
    

I checked "provocative" in other dictionaries. Some include another meaning like "thought-provoking", but some do not. So I am looking for the true definition of "provocative". Here, does "provocative" mean "though-provoking" by "causing anger"?

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    Perhaps you could link to where this letter is shared online for more. Also please spell QJE for those of us who don't follow the economics literature. May 10 at 18:37
  • Please do not write answers in the comments. This conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    May 12 at 18:30
  • Maybe the editor is not english mother-tongue, so the wording is almost correct, but he meant "thought-provoking".
    – EarlGrey
    May 13 at 9:03

5 Answers 5

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I do not think "provocative" in this context is 'provocative' ;).

I read the rejection letter to mean: You are attacking the current consensus, and this causes me (the editor and the putative reader) to think. But you did not convince me in your approach, so, I am not willing to give you a platform. The paper has merits and should be published, but elsewhere.

Provocative in this circumstances means something like "rocking the boat". As strong claims demand strong evidence, a rejection for this type of paper is more likely. The editor seems to think that the validation is too thin. Some rocking the boat is necessary for progress, but its value should be determined by specialists, who will be able to reassess what the general public in the field is not apt to do.

I do not know the case nor the field, nor the type of journal, but this is not a bad rejection letter. It gives a clear path forward: Make your case to the specialists first or support strong claims with strong evidence.

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    If you are having doubts regarding the interpretations here, you should drop a question at the English Language and Usage SE. FWIW, Webster's dictionary, an authoritative source, defines it this way: tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate. As you can see, the connotation of the term, in isolation, is ambiguous; the context is the determining factor. The overall tenor of the message you posted is positive. Morevoer, in the first sentence, the editor implicitly equates "provocative" with "interesting". Based on these things, I think it is safe to reach the conclusion @tschwartz has reached.
    – Ender
    May 9 at 6:51
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    @dodo more broadly, it means "eliciting a reaction/response".
    – henning
    May 9 at 7:59
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    @dodo Merriam webster has the following definition: "serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate". The word doesn't have a negative connotation (of anger or anything else) in this context.
    – Voo
    May 10 at 10:59
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    @dodo There isn't a thing like "true meaning" in linguistics; meaning is negotiated between speakers, and dictionaries always record this negotiated status quo imperfectly. tschwarz's answer is spot on, this is clearly the meaning based on context (i.e. people seldom express gratitude for bad papers, and in such formal situation sarcasm is unlikely). May 10 at 16:24
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    @dodo what are you trying to achieve? Do you want to understand what was written? Well this answer explains it very well. Do you want to construe a case that the editor insulted you? Why would you want to do that? Or does the answer provoke you to work harder and write more convincingly? Then go ahead.
    – lalala
    May 10 at 17:58
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No, the editor is not implying that the article angered them. In academia, provocative is usually used with a positive connotation (as in: thought-provoking, something that any academic article strives to be). Read the context of the email carefully - the editor found your article to be "interesting and provocative".

Unfortunately, the editor goes on to say that "criticism of existing approaches are best sent to more specialised outlets". This is a bit dubious by itself, but should probably be understood in combination with "really didn't convince me, or the reviewer" - as in, the editor felt that your paper made some good arguments, but not sufficiently convincing to warrant acceptance at this (presumably fairly widely read?) general journal.

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  • Agreed completely with the first paragraph; that's a rather common usage of 'provocative.' Regarding the second paragraph, perhaps the thought was that a more specialized journal would be more likely to have reviewers more qualified in the particular subject area and, thus, more qualified to review the paper for the substance of its content vs. just for more general aspects (correct use of statistics, seemingly-reasonable experiment design, sound arguments, etc.) that the more general journal's reviewers from outside the subject matter area could evaluate.
    – reirab
    May 11 at 14:47
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As @tschwartz points out, the term "provocative" in this context is not meant to be taken negatively. The editor finds the arguments in the paper to be thought-provoking, intriguing, meritorious, interesting etc. but not substantive enough to warrant publication in a journal with a general scope since they only point out some flaws in existing methods without proposing a different framework. In general, it would be surprising to me to hear of an editor using the term in to express disapproval of a paper in a discussion with the author.

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    I personally think it would be odd to use the term "provocative" in an academic context in a negative way unless there is something really brazen going on (e.g. a paper written to deliberately antagonize a rival group from another school of thought). This does not seem to be the case here. The editor is complimenting the author of this paper in this message and kindly informing them of the unsuitability of their work for the journal.
    – Ender
    May 9 at 6:41
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    I really doubt this is the case unless the editor himself has deep emotional ties with the ideas being brought into question by the author, but, again, this is exceedingly unlikely. He comes across as being impartial and even suggests possible ways to improve the work. In general, it is best to assume good intentions especially when there is little apparent evidence of malice.
    – Ender
    May 9 at 7:01
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    Well, the evidence is that the editor rejected the paper. From my experience, if the editor is super positive, then he will give a conditional acceptance; if he is highly positive, then he will give a chance of revision; if he is slightly positive, he will reject but encourage the author to revise and submit again. If he is positive, but the journal does not really fit, he will actively arrange a transfer. If he is slightly positive, but the journal does not fit, he will suggest some other journals to submit the paper.
    – dodo
    May 9 at 7:08
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    Even if the editor is slightly negative, he will usually reject but encourage the author to submit future pieces. Only if he is negative about the work, he will reject without encouraging resubmit or recommending alternative journals. Well, in our case, if the editor is 100% positive, why would he use a word with somewhat ambiguous meaning?
    – dodo
    May 9 at 7:10
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    @dodo The editor isn't 100% positive. They think your ideas potentially could have merit, but don't think you've proven them conclusively. They also think that you're not going to be able to resolve that in a back-and-forth with the current set of reviewers for this particular journal. I take the use of "provocative" as a subtle reminder that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. There's ambiguity because your claims are still unproven.
    – R.M.
    May 9 at 19:18
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Taking the totality of their comments, the editor would like to communicate that the paper isn't interesting/impactful enough for this journal.

Many thanks for your interesting and provocative paper

This is standard "praise before you criticize" politeness. As others have said, "provocative" is a positive in this academic context, especially paired with "interesting". You could rewrite this sentence "your paper is interesting and made me think". However, this is just standard praise. It's meant to prepare to let someone down lightly. Do not worry more about the use of this word "provocative", it has nothing to do with why the paper has been rejected.

There are certainly many smart things in the piece, but ultimately, I think it is more appropriate for a more specialized journal.

More standard praise ("many smart things"), followed by the let-down "more appropriate for a more specialized journal"; this means "your paper isn't important/remarkable/impactful enough for this journal".

Your points are often well-taken, but really didn't convince me, or the referee, to question the standard interpretation of the data.

It sounds like the paper is critiquing the standard interpretations/analysis procedures in other papers. The editor feels that while those critiques have merit, they wouldn't impact the conclusions of the standard procedure enough to be paradigm-shifting. I don't think it's that more is needed to convince the editor that the critiques are correct, but rather that they aren't convinced the critiques are impactful. One might consider the aphorism "all models are wrong, but some are useful": it may be that the paper successfully shows that someone else's model is wrong in some way, but if it hasn't shown that their model isn't useful or that the alternative approach is more useful, then it just isn't that impactful.

I could imagine a paper on similarity relations which convincingly made the case for this approach being acceptable to us

Same as above: the editor is saying that if the paper made a better case for the proposed approach being convincingly better, that paper might be acceptable. As a mere critique of existing work, it isn't.

Ultimately, this seems like a critique of the current approach which is right in many ways, but criticisms and extensions of existing research are best sent to more specialized outlets.

Translation: send this to a specialized journal concerned with the specifics of the methodology in this area. The paper is not being rejected because it's wrong, but because it isn't sufficiently interesting. It's not appropriate to send detailed nit-picky critiques to a journal the principally publishes work that advances the field substantially.

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There are enough good answers here already explaining that the word "provocative" is not negative in this context and, if anything, is positive. To those answers I would just like to add that this editor's use of the word "provocative" is in line with the dictionary definition you quote (emphasis mine):

Causing annoyance, anger, or another strong reaction, especially deliberately.

When a paper argues against the status quo of a research field, it is likely to cause strong reactions - not particularly annoyance or anger, but intrigue and intense debate. The paper puts more at stake than a typical paper does, it may imply that a lot of previous research done by other people is flawed in some way, and that may provoke those other researchers to defend the value of their work.

Note that while causing annoyance or anger would be negative, causing a "strong reaction" in general need not be. So to directly answer your question, you have misinterpreted the definition of "provocative" by (it seems) assuming that "another strong reaction" means "another strong negative reaction". It doesn't have to, and here it doesn't.

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