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A few years ago, I submitted a paper to a journal. After one and a half years, I got a 3 sentence report that was negative. There were no helpful comments on how to improve the paper. The paper was rejected.

It makes me think that whoever wrote it is trying to prevent me from getting a job.

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  • Answers-in-comments and other advice has been moved to chat. Please remember, the system only lets us move to chat once.
    – cag51
    Oct 6, 2022 at 3:12

6 Answers 6

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For these types of situations, you should apply a variation of Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity/laziness/professional incompetence."

I doubt this was intended to sabotage you, or with any malicious intent. More likely the referee was just bad at their job, and the editor failed to deal with it. In any case, waiting one-and-a-half years for a perfunctory rejection is an unacceptable outcome and represents poor journal practice. The editor should have been on top of this and arranged review within a more reasonable time (e.g., by sending to an alternate reviewer). You could write to the journal editor to complain if you want, or simply state the name of the journal here in this forum so that others can avoid.

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    The editor should have been on top of this and arranged review within a more reasonable time The trouble with this is that all the editor can see is that there's no guarantee that a new reviewer will agree to paper & submit a review faster than the original reviewer.
    – Allure
    Oct 6, 2022 at 0:21
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    Sure, but the editor presumably already has a history of working with previous reviewers, and therefore has knowledge of reviewers who are reliable and could give a review on time (or even at short notice if the review is already overdue). They also should be keeping track of bad reviewers so that they never solicit reviews from them again. It seems silly to me to let the editor off the hook for a one-and-a-half year review process leading to a perfunctory review; if that isn't an editorial deficiency then it is hard to see how anything would be.
    – Ben
    Oct 6, 2022 at 2:34
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    Yes, I agree taking 1.5 years is too long and the editor should have done something. I just meant to say that the editor cannot "arrange review within a more reasonable time", because once a reviewer does not submit a review, there is no way to suddenly acquire a review immediately; the paper is always going to be late relative to the average. It still does not have to be that late, though.
    – Allure
    Oct 6, 2022 at 6:16
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    We don't actually know that the editor wasn't already trying to fix a review. This could be the second or third reviewer the editor sent the paper to, and from that last reviewers pov they responded in a very timely fashion.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 6, 2022 at 9:03
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    @Clumsycat Yup, that was also my first intuition. The "Hanlons Razer" explanation for a 1.5 year review is that it was incredibly hard to find a good reviewer for this paper, and sending this terrible review back is essentially the editor giving up. This is certainly (extremely) disappointing as an author, but editors rely on volunteers, and can't force somebody to do a review ...
    – xLeitix
    Oct 6, 2022 at 15:31
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As other answers point out, in all likelihood this was simply (0) a manuscript that did not meet the required standards of publication, (i) extreme tardiness on the part of the reviewers, (ii) negligence on the part of the editor to not push reviewers harder, (iii) laziness on the part of the reviewers to not give you more feedback.

But, and that's where I'm really going: You can't ever know whether it was the reasons above or indeed someone trying to sabotage you. Nobody is ever going to tell you who the reviewer was, and even if you knew, you couldn't know that person's motivations. So here are your choices:

  • Assume tardiness, negligence, laziness in the people in your community.
  • Assume malice and intent to sabotage you in the people in your community.

Since these are your colleagues, and since it could be anyone, how are you ever going to go to a conference and look people in the eye if you assume the second choice above? Do you want to live a life where you have to assume that everyone out there could be out to get you? Could you be happy if that were your attitude toward your colleagues?

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    I just don't get why it took 1 1/2 years to receive 3 sentences, because everyone has told me that this is extremely unusual. If this were typical, I wouldn't suspect anything.
    – cgb5436
    Oct 5, 2022 at 22:24
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    @cgb5436: Once you've been in academia longer, you'll find that the publication process is in a sufficiently dysfunctional state that a case like this is not as unusual as you might hope. It's certainly not the typical review time, but it happens (and shouldn't).
    – Ben
    Oct 5, 2022 at 23:52
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    @Ben Well that sucks. Oh well shrugs
    – cgb5436
    Oct 5, 2022 at 23:56
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    @cgb5436 You are completely justified believing that it is outrageous that reviews take that long. I don't want to normalize it -- I believe that those among our colleagues who believe that that is acceptable are not considering the effect on those of us who don't have permanent positions yet, and are willfully being arrogant about it. I do think that their behavior is a disgrace. But it is not unusual, and I don't think it is useful to consider it malicious or intended to sabotage. Oct 6, 2022 at 4:18
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    @cbg5436 Was the reviewer who gave you the 3 sentence negative report the first and only reviewer? (it took 1.5 years) Or were they actually the second/third/fourth reviewer the editor submitted your paper to in order to review. (it took <1.5 years for that particular reviewer, but took 1.5 years all told)
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 6, 2022 at 11:54
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That would be very unlikely at a reputable journal. The editor needs high quality advice. Someone who knew you personally should have disclosed that to the editor. Editors cultivate reputable and honest reviewers, but can't control timelines.

More likely they got busy (or forgot), did the review very late, were unimpressed with what you wrote, and gave a minimal report.

Even for a disreputable journal it would be unlikely since they are likely happier to publish things of low quality if you help pay the bills.

Eighteen months is a long time, however. You should have asked for updates prior to this happening and possibly withdrawn the paper if no progress was being made.

You didn't say if it also was a rejection, nor whether advice from others helped you get to a better place. Hopefully you worked out something positive, or can submit elsewhere.

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    I did ask for updates. Twice. The response was a generic response saying that they're sorry but it takes a long time.
    – cgb5436
    Oct 5, 2022 at 20:16
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    With the possible exception of reviews of papers in maths, 1.5 years is way beyond "very late". In all reputable journals I have dealt with, a reviewer is uninvited if they don't submit within a reasonable time (usually after two months at the latest). It is increasingly common that editors have trouble finding willing reviewers but even then, they should desk-reject way before 1.5 years are over. I've had an editor-in-chief calling me to apologize and tell me that 12 experts declined to review my paper (because they were too busy) but even then the paper was accepted after 5 months.
    – user9482
    Oct 6, 2022 at 5:15
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Interpretation of this situation depends on some details: you said in comments you asked for updates, and they said it takes a long time. In my field (pure math), while getting a perfunctory report after such a long time is unusual and far from ideal, it does happen from time to time. While it's reasonable to be upset about this, and certainly the editor did not handle this well, there's no evidence given that this was intentional sabotage.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. In some fields, refereeing is often very slow, and I think long delays became more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. I've certainly experienced a number of long delays recently, both due to slow referees or editors dropping the ball. But even in normal times, a referee or editor may have health issues or pass away, creating extra delays you don't know about.

  2. You did not necessarily see all of the comments that the referee wrote. The editor or referee may have decided to keep some more critical comments from you.

  3. Sometimes referees accept but don't finish their job. One possibility is that this happened to your paper, and the editor had to ask someone else after a year or so, and this was the report they gave after a few months.

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What field are you in? I assume someone having to provide feedback on a theoretical maths paper will take much longer than someone looking at the results of an medical case study. It is also surprising that the journal sent the paper to one referee only to start with.

One can always withdraw a publication if it takes too long to get the paper refereed, to submit it to a different journal hoping for a faster turnout. Having said that, for some fields the number of possible and available refs is small, so one might just get to the same referees.

Knowing nothing about your manuscript, your accusation nevertheless comes across as extremely offputting. As we are not in the position of giving any informed comment, anything is possible in the spectrum going from you submitting a very poor and tedious paper, to the referee being actually malicious. In addition, some editors are actually very bad at managing the refereeing process (for what we know the editor might have sat on the manuscript for 17 months, and the referee might have been quite fast), and you seem to discount that.

Just so we are clear -- this is the internet, and any complaint about the issue there can only have two outcomes: people validate your position, or not. If you are correct, this is the very worst place to deal with the issue (you have a supervisor, right?). If you are not correct, anything goes. Nevertheless, you pose a real world problem which has near 0 chances of being resolved here.

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    It certainly takes longer to provide a full review of a math paper than for many other disciplines. But it shouldn't take any longer to provide a review of the form "not good enough for this journal: reject", which is all OP got. Oct 6, 2022 at 8:07
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Probably yes if they were harboring an old grudge. It may or may not be intentional. The person could be in bad mood.

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    I saw this post in LQP queue. I usually would recommend deletion for this kind of answer. However, given that the paper received rejection with short report one and half years after submission, I kind of think this answer makes some sense.
    – Nobody
    Oct 6, 2022 at 4:52

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