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One referee report is awful. Comments are basically two types:

  1. Please re-invent the wheel and write a primer to the whole field.

    • Must supply more basic background to the field (analogy: paper is about one aspect of mouse genetics, referee wants me to explain what genetics are, and what mice are - the request is that broad, that absurd.)

    • Must supply all details of my source material because paper must stand alone, just referring to previously published work (mine and others) is insufficient (That would require a shelf of books to cover it.)

  2. Clearly you don't understand the technicalities of the subject.

    • I don't understand the subject. (I quite literally wrote the standard reference book).

    • I use the technical terminology wrong. (This is a "scientific use" / "popular use" issue, I think; they use the looser laypersons' definition, I use it as per our discipline.)

    • Half the publications I refer to don't understand the subject either. They are wrong about everything. (Again, these are publications by respected authorities.)


Editor says "revise and resubmit". But how? Do I just write to the editor and refute these points one by one? What are my likely outcomes if I do just that?

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Since I don't know the editor, consider this as a suggestion to be considered, not necessarily a recommendation, but it is what I would personally do.

Revise the paper as best you can taking whatever is valuable from the reviews. In general, it isn't necessary to take every recommendation, but each should be considered.

I would resubmit my best effort with a note to the editor that you believe that one of the reviews was wrong in (nearly) every respect and so much of it couldn't be incorporated. Further, I'd suggest that the reviewer was possibly (probably) the wrong person to do the review.

Then let the editor(s) do their job. If you get rejected, submit elsewhere. You might, however, get a new review cycle with a different reviewer. That takes time, of course, but gets some additional advice that might be valuable.

But a detailed rebuttal probably won't help and will possibly seem defensive. Possibly offer to submit a detailed rebuttal if the editor requests it.

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Where the unreasonable referee says "write a primer to the whole field" perhaps instead you can provide some references of primers to the whole field.

Where the referee says "I don't understand this technical point", you should add a reference for that particular technical point.

If the referee objects to a usage that you consider correct in the technical sense, add a bit taking the time to explain that it is, indeed, a technical usage.

In general, you can probably make your paper better (and satisfy the editor) by adding references and little explanatory sentences here and there.

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I have been in situations like this before, also from the editor's side. As editor, as long as I don't reject the paper, I have some hope that it can be brought up to publishable standard. If the negative reviewer actually recommended to "reject", this already implies that as editor I don't fully agree with that reviewer. This means that you'd probably have a chance to convince me that the points made by the negative reviewer are mostly invalid. I would however expect a point by point response and that you make an effort to understand if some of the issues raised by that reviewer actually can be used to improve the paper. Ultimately as an editor it is my interest to have a paper that is as good as possible. Sometimes this does not mean that I want everything fulfilled that a reviewer wishes. I'd be open to arguments from both sides and would like to be convinced by you in case you don't follow that reviewer.

I can't predict the outcome obviously without having any idea about the paper and its content, however with me as an editor you'd have a chance to convince me in a point by point response. Less so if you generally write that the reviewer has been bad and shouldn't have been chosen as a reviewer in the first place (even if I may ultimately agree; I have for sure seen reviews that made inappropriate demands and as editor I will not impose these - but even then there may be one thing or two in such a review from which you can learn and improve the paper).

I should maybe add that as author and reviewer I occasionally have seen editors who wouldn't take a clear stance against one of their reviewers, and ultimately won't accept a revision if you can't convince the critical reviewer themselves, regardless of whether their demands are justified and reasonable. I don't think this is good (my interpretation in such a case is that the editor may be too lazy to think through the issues themselves), and I think it's a minority behaviour, but it does happen. A bit of luck is needed in publishing.

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