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For several years, I've been trying to publish a specific line of research, without success. Rejections are common in academia, so the lack of success is not surprising.

During peer review the reviewers are typically polarized, with one faction awkwardly praising the manuscript, while the other faction clearly opposes publication. However, the chair/editor decisions are eerily similar. The text is usually quite long (much longer than for other papers I've written). I've summarized some examples below

  • "The chair acknowledges the solid ... However, reviewer X rightly pointed out that ... Unfortunately, the paper cannot be accepted in its current form ... However, the chair has no doubts that this research will eventually be published" – Reject, no revision offered
  • "This paper has great potential ... However, some reviewers, in particular X, ... Section Y needs revision. However, no revision is possible for this manuscript. If a revision were possible, it would have been accepted" – Reject, no revision offered
  • "This paper has several strengths ... However, reviewer X raised concerns about ... I view this paper as slightly below the acceptance threshold" – Reject, no revision offered

Note that these are from different reputable journals (Q1).

Question: Why does the chair/editor keep telling me that the paper is "almost good enough", but does not offer a revision? I find this odd, as do my co-authors and colleagues. To me, it sounds like the editors/chair are not telling me the true reason for rejection, but how should I figure this out if they're not honest about it?

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  • Question might be related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/162070/78796
    – usr1234567
    Commented May 21 at 8:50
  • 2
    Maybe it's just not Q1 material and a Q2 journal will publish it? Commented May 21 at 11:48
  • It is not unreasonable to ask the editor directly. Doing so removes the ambiguity of other people, who are not involved in the review, interpreting the editor's decision.
    – tnknepp
    Commented May 21 at 12:49

3 Answers 3

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The editor is probably telling you that the paper is "almost good enough" because it is "almost good enough". For better or worse polarizing research can be scrutinized a bit closer. Just speculating, but it sounds like, from your description, that maybe the work isn't as airtight as it needs to be for those journals to risk publishing what might be a controversial take. Of course it is also possible that the negative reviews are impossible to address and no matter what you do someone will be unhappy. An editor may not want to deal with that if they don't have to (not that this is good practice).

So, I would not assume that the editors are lying - a paper can be good but not good enough. The examples you provide are actually pretty straightforward from my perspective. They all say that your manuscript isn't bad but that it can't be revised to a point where they would consider accepting it. Taken at face value, there are flaws that can't be fixed. Maybe this isn't a fair assessment but if every set of reviews you've received have been polarized, that goes beyond bad luck or a bad reviewer.

I think you have a few next steps. You probably need to comb through the reviewer reports - there may be a common thread. You could also reach out to the editors and ask for more details - they might not respond but at this point it's worth a try. And, if you haven't already, find a neutral third party who can look at the paper. An unbiased perspective might help you spot some weaknesses that are killing the paper in review.

At this point, I would also consider targeting lower tier journals. Your story paints the picture of a manuscript that is being sent to journals a bit out of reach. You're consistently being told "hey this is good and publishable but we don't want it". Which is weird in a vacuum but might be less weird if you are targeting big names in your field. In my experience, three rejections from similarly tiered journals with similar, vague comments means that it's time to fall down the list a bit.

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  • Thank you for the answer. I get your main point about not being good enough. But if that is so, why do the editors make it seem like it was a close call? This was the main reason why I kept submitting that manuscript to top venues
    – mto_19
    Commented May 19 at 7:35
  • It probably was a close call. I don't think there is any deeper meaning to the rejections. It's up to you to decide how much time/effort you want to spend shopping it around before jumping down a tier though. For me, 3 is enough but you might have different priorities.
    – sErISaNo
    Commented May 19 at 7:50
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    @mto_19 I think the tenor here is that for some reason, some reviewers strongly reject your work, the editors agree, and there is nothing you can do about it (e.g., by editing, revising). The problem is in the approach, method or result (we cannot know which one applies from your post). For example, imagine your research shows that on average, white people are less intelligent than black people, and that there is a genetic reason colocated with the skin color gene. As an editor, I would avoid such a work like the plague, and I would hide behind a reviewer. But I cannot say that. Commented May 21 at 19:31
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica Do you mind converting your comment to an answer? You might be right. I would be worried, if journals suppress articles with political delicate but scientifically sound findings!
    – usr1234567
    Commented May 22 at 5:08
  • @usr1234567 I have zero experience in research, let alone publishing, so I feel not qualified to write an answer. My remark was more a logical conclusion. My example was perhaps less than optimal; more likely than a politically fraught (but correct) result would be a method or result which is burnt or defies conventional wisdom -- and is very likely wrong, even though there is no obvious mistake. Say, homeopathy works; cold fusion; empirical psychology claims which already reek of non-reproducibility. Commented May 22 at 7:38
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High-ranking journals and conferences often evaluate papers on two axes, both correctness and "notability."

This second is a fuzzy notion that speaks to the other function of high-ranked journals, which is to help their readers triage which articles to pay attention to in the ongoing deluge that are always passing through.

The rejections that you are getting sound like the journals are considering your work borderline with regards to the "notability" criteria: interesting enough to send out for review rather than desk reject, but then the reviews are not positive enough to keep going with it.

My strong recommendation, in a situation like this, is to move your article to venues that don't care so much about notability. Specifically:

  1. If it's not already in a preprint archive, put it in one ASAP. Then people will be able to see, discuss, and cite it even if it's not officially peer reviewed yet, which is very important!
  2. Try a Q2 / society-level journal, which are fine "bread and butter" places to put work.
  3. If that fails, go to a reputable megajournal (e.g., PLoS ONE) that explicitly does not care about notability.

None of these will be quite as nice for your CV as a top-ranked journal, but rank is less important than it looks. Remember, if there's truly something interesting there, this is just the first of a long serious of publications that you'll be making on the subject (building reputation and "notability" over time), and good work can easily rack up hundreds of citations even in lower ranked publications.

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Go to conferences and give talks. There you get direct feedback from the community and you might get more unfiltered comments, opinions, and hints regarding your research. You can discuss with people and get a feeling, how your research is perceived. Do they think you are an outsider or a crank? Are they just not interested or do they think your research is not interesting at all?

Your talk needs to be accepted first! Depending on your field, it is easier to get a talk then a paper in a journal (or the other way round).

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