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In the past year I have, on three separate projects submitted to three different venues (both conferences and journals), received incredibly mixed reviews. In each case there have been two reviewers, one with a very positive review and one with a very negative review, and the editor has decided to reject the paper without soliciting a third reviewer. They all follow this general pattern:

One reviewer: This is useful, interesting work.

  • "well-written, informative, to the point...quite helpful"

The other reviewer: I don't see the point of this work.

  • "To be quite honest, I am not sure what the purpose of such an article is."

I have two questions.

  1. How common is this? It this just me or does this happen a lot? If the former, what can I do to help avoid it? All of these papers have included a discussion of the impacts/applications of my results and tied them to the existing literature. If this is pretty common, though, and it's just the luck of the draw then I'll keep plugging away and submitting.
  2. How should I incorporate this feedback? While any rejection is frustrating, usually it comes with the silver lining of suggestions to improve the project. But what on earth do I do when the feedback is simultaneously "this is a good/interesting project that I find helpful" and "this project is useless"? I don't want to just throw out these projects, especially since I think at least some other scholars find them helpful/interesting.

At this point I'm confused and disheartened and would really welcome feedback, especially from other scholars with the same experience.

Thanks!

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    From the quoted snippets, one possibility is that the positive reviewer was basically saying, "this work is correct and well presented," while the negative review was saying, "this work is not important." When you submit to a high-prestige journal, it will happen very frequently that the referees and editor agree that your work is correct, but the journal will not publish it because they're being selective based on the importance of the work. – Ben Crowell Jun 2 '16 at 17:52
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    I have actually found this to be extremely common! – somerandomdude Jun 2 '16 at 19:30
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From my experience this is the norm, not the exception. I may sound a bit negative here, but I think many areas of academic research are getting more cross-functional and collaborative; especially in science, and especially in my field (genomics and computational biology).

Can any one person really comprehend every detail of the work? No! Are reviewers magical people that know everything and recognize novel work at first glance? No! Good reviewers will do their homework, check for related works, or ask their colleagues. But reviewers are also human, and it's intellectually easier to say "this is not interesting/important" as opposed to making an effort to understand the context and impact. Reviewers are human, busy people, uncompensated, and not necessarily up to speed on the latest topics. The peer reviewer may have been a poor choice by the journal or head editor. Peer review is, in my opinion, an outdated idea in an era when the scientific enterprise is becoming increasingly complex.

But that said it is not always true. If the negative reviewer did leave some constructive feedback, do address it or take it to heart.

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