One of my friends submitted a paper to a reputable communications journal and received some reviews a week back. The paper was rejected, but the review comments were abysmal:

  • The language was so bad in one of them that it was difficult to understand what the reviewer was hinting at. Besides, the comments pertained to trivial things like the naming of axes, and there was no comment on (or understanding of) the overall work. The second of the three reviewers rejected the paper in one line, saying it was impossible for him/her to understand what the paper was aimed at. The third reviewer appreciated the paper and its results and made good suggestions for improving the results.

The editor-in-charge has rejected the paper since the vote was 2/3 in favour of that, but my friend feels hard done as he feels the two reviewers did not merit the opportunity to review the work.

What recourse does an author have if his paper is rejected by a reputable journal but the review comments indicate a serious lack of understanding of the paper's work? Should the author write his/her grievance to an editor higher in the hierarchy (an associate editor, for example)? Or is ditching the journal and submitting it somewhere else the only solution?

  • 15
    Normally an editor should do more than "majority vote". My paper got accepted with minor revision despite 1 out of 2 reviewers suggesting a rejection. Instead I just adapted the introduction slightly — the reviewer had not understood the main point.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 12:14
  • 5
    @gerrit indeed, in theory the reviewers only advise the editor, and the decision is hers alone. This can also have its downsides: I once had a paper rejected with 3 reviewers in favor, 1 who advised rejection.
    – F'x
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 12:31
  • 3
    If they were not able to suggest improvements then definitely it is a plus for you and for your paper not publishing in this journal. look for other better venues. I believe reviewers (i.e. the final outcome of reviewing your submission) reflects the journal reputation.
    – seteropere
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 18:52
  • It might just be the revievers didn't understand the paper (or see the point). Maybe that requires improving...
    – vonbrand
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 3:24
  • 5
    Maybe you should consider as a warning sign if two out of three reviewers has no even clue what you are talking about. You can blame them, or you can consider how to make your manuscript more accessible for the audience.
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 5:01

6 Answers 6


F'x has ably covered one possible reason: that it's not you, it's them.

I'm going to cover the other side of things. That is, starting from the assumption that the editor has made a good decision.

The authors should consider rewriting the abstract and introduction. If two peer reviewers didn't understand the paper, the paper may just need a savage reworking.

The authors may also wish to try working with a freelance development editor.

Finally, the authors might want to bring on board a co-author who's been frequently published: I expect that many decent-sized, decent-quality departments have at least one person whose quality of writing leads to get manuscripts getting accepted first time, pretty much every time.

And then submit to a different journal. I don't know the field, but I'm willing to speculate that there are a few reputable journals where the article could be published.

  • 81
    I take a more extreme view of this position: Without evidence to the contrary, I assume both the editor and the reviewers acted in good faith. With that assumption, if the reviewers don't understand my paper, it's my fault. No matter how frustrating I may find the reviewers' lack of understanding, it's my responsibility to educate them. If I've failed to do that, the paper isn't ready to publish. (And if the editor or referees didn't act in good faith, I don't want to publish in that journal anyway.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 19:04
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    To "bring on board a co-author" looks like a serious misconduct to me. Author are supposed to have participated to the research, not to be names to get a given research output accepted. Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 16:09
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    @BenoîtKloeckner maybe that varies with field: it's really very common to have authorial help during writing up. Development editors have been doing a chunk of that job for many years, uncredited on the many papers they improve. The state of scientific publishing would be much worse without such procedures, and I can't see that anyone would gain by doing away with it.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 18:12
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    @EnergyNumbers Some journals will go through some efforts to spell out exactly what constitutes authorship. I'm not aware of any, but would not be terribly surprised if there was a reputable journal where "had a significant hand in the writing of the accepted version" is sufficient--it would meet a fairly literal interpretation of the word "author", after all. For others it wouldn't suffice, but they could be acknowledged. I've seen papers with acknowledgments for proof-reading etc. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 19:40

There is an extremely simple rule for dealing with reviews that make you unhappy. Here is the rule: it's not them, it's you. This rule of thumb implies, it is never the reviewers' fault. Rather, it is always your responsibility.

Oh, you say the reviewers didn't seem to understand the paper? Well, that's your fault. It is your responsibility to make sure the paper is comprehensible to its intended audience. If the reviewers didn't understand the paper, odds are that the rest of the readers of that journal/conference won't either. Maybe you need to do a drastic rewrite to make the paper more understandable. Or, maybe you submitted the paper to the wrong place.

The reviewers didn't seem too excited about the paper, and they gave you a short one-line review, or they focused on nitpicky comments about grammar and didn't say much else? Well, that's on you. It's your responsibility to convince readers that your results are significant. Maybe your paper's results just aren't up to the level of significance expected at that journal/conference, and you should be submitted somewhere else. Or maybe the paper didn't adequately make the case for why people should care about your results.

Why this rule? Because authors are notoriously poor at seeing the shortcomings in their own work. No parent thinks their own baby is ugly. When you get negative reviews, it is natural and human to assume the reviewers are idiots and too blind to see the brilliance of the work sitting before them. Well, that's fine. Take a moment to curse the reviewers, and get it out of your system. Then calm down, and think more rationally. It is rare to find cases where reviewers are stupid or lax in their duties; it is much more common to find that there is something valid behind their reviews.

Realistically, if the reviews are negative, the most constructive thing you can do is improve the paper and re-submit (possibly to somewhere more suitable). There is almost always some way that you can improve the paper and that you can learn from the reviews you got back.

I realize my rule might seem like an oversimplification. Well, technically, I suppose it is, but it's a lot more accurate than most folks who are new to the field realize.

In my experience, complaining to the editor rarely leads to any positive result. I suppose that in the most extreme of cases, it could be warranted, but I would have a heavy presumption against that. And, you probably don't have enough experience to form a judgement on that. Before complaining to an editor or appealing the decision, sit down with someone much more senior and more experienced and ask for their advice. If they are skeptical or neutral, don't bother complaining; just improve the paper and submit it elsewhere. Only if they tell you that complaining is the right thing to do should you consider complaining to the editor.

  • 4
    In a general case, I back everything you wrote. But, I was hoping you'll make a comment on the first bullet from the question, and you didn't: the part which said "the grammar of the first review was so bad, it was difficult to even understand the review". Also, if you have some useful insight on the fact that two out of three reviewers didn't provide any comments useful for improving the work, it would be very interesting to read. Also, Merry Christmas :)
    – penelope
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 15:58
  • 4
    @penelope, I don't have anything much to add. It sounds like the original poster wants me to say that the reviewers were bad, wrong, evil people, but I'm not gonna. Regarding the grammar in the first review, perhaps the first reviewer doesn't speak English as a first language and still struggles with the language; if so, I can certainly sympathize. As far as comments to improve the paper, the reviewers are under no obligation to provide suggestions for improvement, particularly if the paper is very poorly suited for the publication venue.
    – D.W.
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 1:33
  • 1
    ... (but that said, I do count two reviewers who provided useful suggestions: the third reviewer, who commented on the work itself, and the first reviewer apparently also provided comments on the presentation, such as the naming of the axes.) Finally, I just want to repeat the golden rule: it's not them, it's you. If the paper didn't get the response the author was hoping for, the most effective answer is not to rage at the injustice of it all, but to look at how to improve the paper, work on making it better, and then try again. There's always room for improvement.
    – D.W.
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 1:34
  • 3
    I'm not trying to say anything is wrong with your answer; I concur with it's you, not them. I'm not saying that you should say what OP wants you to, or that the reviewers are evil. I'm just saying, since the answers are supposed to have lasting value, and you seem to be saying interesting and insightful things, that there are some more points to the question and I for one am interested in what you have to say concerning those things ;)
    – penelope
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 17:28

The first course of action is to reply to the editor who made the decision. Write to them, say that you are willing to improve the manuscript for publication given some guidance from the referees, but the judgement by referee #2 seems a bit rash and not thoroughly justified. Possibly, send to them a revised version of the manuscript, taking into account comments made so far, and ask them to reconsider their decision. You can also hint that you would like them to send the (revised) manuscript to yet another reviewer (some editors have the concept of an “adjudicating” reviewer, even though the editor should actually ne the adjudicator).

The second avenue to try, if the first one does not succeed, is to ask the matter to be escalated to the associate editor (or senior editor, or arbitration committee…). The exact procedure will be indicated in the journal’s instruction to authors, but usually one way is simply to ask the corresponding editor to forward it. For example, at the end of your email from step #1 asking for him to reconsider his decision, you could say:

We strongly believe that you might find our revisions and this justification sufficient to consider our paper for publication in XXXX. If that is not the case, we would like this matter to be escalated to an Associate Editor.

Be aware that it's somewhat of a strong option, because people usually don't change their mind very easily, and they don't like to prove their colleagues wrong. So, one option you really have to consider is simply publishing your paper in another journal. At least, sketch something like a risk/benefit analysis before appealing the editor’s decision.


While I agree with D.W's views that authors tend to not see the flaws in their own work and that complaining to the editor rarely helps, I do not completely agree that "the reviewers are under no obligation to provide suggestions for improvement.” According to the Council of Science Editors’ white paper on publication ethics, one of the responsibilities that peer reviewers have towards authors is “Providing written, unbiased feedback in a timely manner on the scholarly merits and the scientific value of the work, together with the documented basis for the reviewer’s opinion.” While author definitely need to revise the paper based on reviewer comments, reviewers should also make an attempt to understand the paper they are reviewing and provide detailed feedback as far as possible.

From what you have described, I can identify two genuine problems with the reviews:

  1. Reviewer #2 has not given any detailed comments
  2. Reviewer #1 has not given any comments on the merits or shortcomings of the overall work

Although complaining to the editor might not help, such superficial reviews should be brought to the notice of the editor. In my opinion, there is no harm in writing to the editor politely explaining that while you respect the reviewers' opinion, it would be helpful if you could get more detailed feedback about the scientific drawbacks of your paper from reviewers #1 and #2.

  • 1
    "suggestions for improvement" in a narrow sense is not the same as "feedback". Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 16:44
  • I agree the two terms may differ slightly, but at least "feedback...on the scholarly merits and the scientific value of the work, together with the documented basis for the reviewer’s opinion" definitely warrants more than just a brief dismissal of the paper on the grounds that the reviewer could not understand it. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 5:52
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    The volume of submissions has drastically risen, while the general quality has stagnated or even gone down. I always give comments/reasonings for my reviews, but in some cases the review process has degenerated from being a scholarly reality-check to a patch-up of the deficits of graduate education. I can therefore to some extent sympathise with reviewers who do not wish to waste their time to cover these deficits. Without an estimate of the overall quality of the paper, it is difficult to judge whether the paper was inappropriately tersely reviewed, it's the editor's job to decide this. Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 15:48

Would like to add the following to other answers:

  • No paper will be accepted with 2 reviewers voting for reject. Usually, single reject will seal the fate of the paper, so don't be surprised that the editor rejected the paper.
  • I absolutely, as an author, reviewer, and editor, agree with the "it is probably your fault" theory. If 2 reviewers say the paper is reject, then either you chose the wrong journal (and wrong audience, reviewers ARE members of your audience as well), or your paper is really not worthy of publication.
  • You assume that a reviewer with broken English did not understand the paper; that is perhaps true, but again, it is your responsibility as an author to make the paper appealing to the journal audience. Many fresh researchers actually forget that the end goal of publishing is that someone reads your paper, accepted papers which are not even read and cited by nobody are a sad witness to the race to the bottom in the current scientific community.
  • The reviewers may have misunderstood your paper, but that may be due to your improper use of terminology, (too) complex language or simply the fact that you selected the wrong journal. Still your responsibility.
  • And finally, the question of whether to appeal to the decision of the editor. Never, if majority of reviewers are in agreement, because editor's hands are effectively tied, and these reviewers will be insulted if they see the paper accepted or get the revision of your paper to review, after they already judged your paper to be not suitable.
  • The rare exception to the above rule is when you get significantly differing reviews, e.g. two very good reviews, and the single negative reviewer appears to have misunderstood the paper or is in some or other way incompetent to review the paper. Note that in such cases (2 good 1 reject) the decision of the editor is usually "reject" as well. This is the rare case, when you have any chances to appeal the decision. I did it once, and was successful, however the appeal was lodged to editor-in-chief who assigned the paper to different editor, and the review process was repeated. This is as much as you can hope for.

First off, if reviewers do not understand your paper, either the editorial staff or the journal has done a piss poor job of allocating a reviewer to review your work or your paper is subpar in putting its point across. While the former is also a possibility, it seldom is in reputable journals. Since everyone here is talking a shot at you (author), let me take the opposing view point.

While there may be other conflict of interests or differing school of thought that may also prompted the rejection. It is quite possible that the reviewers have working drafts that align too closely to your work, or rendered mute by your findings, or that they are subjective in accessing the merits of your work because it conflicts with their scientific ideology/methods/practice. The rejection or the lack of "understanding" might be an escape from giving an actual feedback that benefits the paper!

The only recourse to all this is to have an open review process where it is equally possible to contest the findings of a paper and contest the reviewer's lack of clarity for rejecting a paper. Till that happens, reviewers are the gate keepers and will play favorites in who is allowed to publish and who is pushed down to second tier journals.

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