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Did you ever get a paper accepted by a journal without any comment at all? It has happened to me twice; both times with a very high-standing journal in my field.

I was initially confused, did not know whether to be pleased, or horrified. I then settled for the latter. In my opinion, this is a terrible consequence of the current publishing model where editors are not necessarily qualified to review papers, and referees do not have either financial or prestige incentives to do a good job.

Is this common? What did you think of this phenomenon?

EDIT: after all your nice answers and comments, and talking to people working in the editorial side of peer-review process, I came to the conclusion that the lack of replies was due to the fact that both papers were - somewhat - interdisciplinary. I understand it is way harder for editors to understand interdisciplinary papers (they are expert in a subject, not necessarily in multiple subjects) and thus judge for themselves and to find appropriate reviewers. If this was true, it would be particularly scary as the most groundbreaking papers are typically multidisciplinary and thus most likely be accepted with little criticism (if the author is already renowned) or dismissed without further ado (if the author is relatively unknown, at least in that area).

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    Do you write good papers? I.e. well-cited and positively commented upon in meetings and conferences? Perhaps you just do a good job? If not, and you still do not get comments from a top journal in your field, then your community is in serious trouble. – Captain Emacs Jan 6 '17 at 14:38
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    That was always my goal - write a clear paper and have it accepted as is. Counting on somebody else to improve your paper seems to me a little off target. The paper is good when somebody else can read it and understand it as is. – Jon Custer Jan 6 '17 at 14:44
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    To Captain Emacs (great name, by the way!) these papers were in a highly quantitative field with tens of thousands of practitioners over the world; the journal was the no.1 of the field. Both papers were signed by a very large collaboration, as it's typical in my field. Still, it was atypical not to receive any comment. To snalx and Jon Custer: it's not really about the missed opportunity. It is about what if I was wrong? I am afraid nobody would have realized. Disseminating ideas is about being challenged so that you can improve your results, not about increasing your own h-index. – famargar Jan 6 '17 at 14:49
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    @famargar (Thanks for the compliment!) There was a time where peer review was not standard. It was a matter of personal honour to produce the most complete and error-free manuscript possible. Peer review, unfortunately, has turned quite a few submitters sloppy, and more often than not I felt I as reviewer had to do the job that the students' superviser who submitted the paper hadn't done or getting some early beta version. If you did your very best to produce an error-free manuscript, I think that you have fully done your duty. Peer review is rarely a guarantee for anything, anyway, nowadays. – Captain Emacs Jan 6 '17 at 15:40
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    Perhaps you got lucky in the sense of having reviewers who understood the difference between an objective improvement to the paper and subjective personal opinion. It's easy to suggest changes to any paper, since there is always more than one way to skin a cat, but "changes" and "improvements" are not necessarily the same thing. – alephzero Jan 6 '17 at 19:21
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This has happened to me twice. The first occurrence was for a paper that was accepted in a decent computational fluid mechanics journal with a single reviewer. The comments were purely aesthetics ( Color change to some figures, etc.). The second time was in a chemical engineering journal (also a pretty good one), and there were absolutely zero comments from the single reviewer that reviewed the paper.

Initially, I found these occurrence quite alarming because the papers had been accepted after significant delay (2-3 months at least), but had been reviewed by a single reviewer. With time, I think this is just a proof that the review process is by itself flawed, but there is little we can do as researcher except carry our own reviews with as much care as possible.

However, from a career point of view, no one knows how many reviewers actually reviewed your paper once it is published (except for some very specific journals). What I did, and maybe I can suggest you do the same, is to take extra care when you do the proof reading of the paper and the corrections. I would even ask some colleagues or at least your co-authors to help you as much during the proof reading.

  • Thanks BlaisB, I agree with your conclusions about the whole process, and that we can just try our best. I am afraid what happens is editors seeking reviewers, finding in a reasonable time only one who's not responsive, or simply zero. I would love to have someone who worked as journal editor commenting here. I do not understand last part of your comment: the paper is finally accepted, then during proof-reading I got minor or none aesthetics/editing comment and work them out. What do you mean that I should I put extra care in that part of the process? – famargar Jan 6 '17 at 17:19
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    What I mean is that even though your paper is accepted, there might be some mistakes remaining therein. For instance, typos, errors in formula, etc. Generally, there is always something slightly wrong in a paper because after all, we are human. Generally, if the review process is good, incoherent elements should be identified by the reviewers (such as a symbol not defined, a formula error, etc.). When you get a single reviewer, this is rarely the case. Therefore, it becomes more and more important to take extensive care when carrying out the proof reading of your paper. – BlaB Jan 6 '17 at 17:47
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I would be suspicious in that case. You may be a very good scientist, but I still think that no two readers would have exactly the same opinion about the paper (let alone two reviewers and the author). I am deeply dissatisfied with the review process as it is, since I get sometimes unreadable papers to review even from good journals. It is pure waste of my time. So I honestly cannot believe that two people would 1) read the paper 2) understand the paper 3) have an opinion about the paper and would have really nothing to add. It never happened to me as an author, and only once as reviewer, and in that case I wrote the positive aspects of the paper in the review (including "I have rarely a pleasure to review a paper which needs basically no revision"). So ... I would be suspicious, yes.

  • I've had the same experience with unreadable papers. I'm not fussing about a grammar mistake or two. I mean the obvious non-native English is so strong that it interfered with comprehension of the material and made it painful to parse the paper. Given how "low the bar is" in some sense (that editors of decent journals send stuff like that to review), perhaps if you just do a solid job, your papers can fly through. – guest Jan 24 at 17:27
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It happens with one of my earliest papers, which was very technical in establishing a close-form derivation of a statistical error, hence could not be much improved or modified. I took it in a positive mode! I would say it all depends on the paper and on the journal: some electronic journals aim at quick acceptance or rejection and ask referees to refrain from suggesting aesthetic modifications.

1

One of your comments clarifies your question as being about inaccurate findings slipping through the review process (“It is about what if I was wrong? I am afraid nobody would have realized.”) I don't share this view of what the peer review process is about and I think it's totally the wrong thing to be concerned about.

Depending on the venue, peer review is about ensuring the research is minimally competent (the researchers are aware of what's going on in their fields, standard methodology, etc.), internally coherent (the data and argument presented support the conclusions), described properly (with enough details and clarity) and relevant. It's not and cannot be about the results being true. Maybe mathematics or computer science can occasionally be different but that's certainly the way it works in empirical fields.

So what if you are wrong? If the result is important enough, other people will hopefully notice, publish their own results and correct the record.

That said, I would still be a bit concerned about receiving no feedback at all. The reason for that is that, in my field at least, reviewers always find something to say. It can be wrong, it can be nitpicking, but it's very unusual to get empty reviews. Personally, if I get to review a paper that's good enough to publish as is and I really don't have any suggestion to improve it, I would usually at least write a paragraph restating what I think are the authors' main contribution and praising them for it. Not writing anything does suggest the paper might have been reviewed very superficially.

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    I agree on the limits of the peer review. As you said, peer review guarantees minimum standards of the scientific work behind the paper. That is roughly 1) ensure that the problem is relevant (to the field) 2) ensure that experimental design is appropriate 3) ensure that the conclusions follow the experimental results (and are not broad, beyond what the results prove). If someone makes the error in experimentation itself (e.g. when implementing the method or processing the data), the peer review cannot uncover that. And for math, there is Mathematica. – xmp125a Jan 8 '17 at 19:45
  • I think we disagree on the core idea of what peer-review is. As I said, publishing should be about disseminating science, not growing h-indices. At any rate, at least the journal I refer to seems to share my view of what a reviewer role is: "Referees should check for Validity.— Work is valid if it is free of detectable error and is presented in sufficient detail that this may be determined." – famargar Mar 21 '17 at 12:27
  • @famargar Who said anything about h-indices? Disseminating science is exactly what it is, and that include preliminary, uncertain or plain wrong results and ideas. It's kind of naive to think that truth could be adjudicated prior to publication or that that would be the role of peer review. That's just not how science works. – Relaxed Mar 21 '17 at 20:14
  • @Relaxed sorry do not remember where my comment on h-indexes came from, please ignore that. It seems we just come from different academic branches. In quantitative sciences, a paper can be proven wrong (the math isn'r right, the findings ignore prior knowledge, the statistics are inaccurate). So yes publication should ensure correctness to the best of current knowledge. And yes that does not mean the paper isn't going to be proven wrong afterwords. – famargar Jun 26 '18 at 10:48
  • @famargar No, I come from a quantitative(ish) science too, that's exactly what I wrote in the answer already. The examples you give are exactly the kind of basic checks I mention in the second paragraph and doesn't preclude wrong results at all. – Relaxed Jun 27 '18 at 5:00
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It's certainly not common, but can happen. Example: Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, the first paper to describe the structure of DNA, was accepted without review. Nature's editor, John Maddox, later had this to say about it:

... the Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature ... the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field ... could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure.

0

There are two variables, your work product and the actions by journal. If you think the journal is lax, just see if they accept things from other authors without revision. (I would think this is a basic scientific problem solving idea.)

In all likelihood if it is a good journal, it is not common that they accept without revision. For various reasons. Papers aren't that great. Reviewers are fussy. (Most journals you can see on the papers the dates of submission and revision so it is obvious what the practice is. Otherwise talk to people to get the skinny.)

So your papers were the variable. Given there were two of them you can't even figure it as luck. Probably you write well. Not just clear English but clear science logic (e.g. some authors play games with dancing around limitations rather than just being candid about them).

Finally, I would see yourself as the overcontrolling Hollywood director of your first author paper. That is your baby. Sure, if someone can give advice that helps it, take it. But don't TRY for a committee process. And when you submit papers make them as ready as you can. You should always have the attitude that the thing is as perfect as you could get it, before next person went to review. So if it hits the street (after typesetting), fine.


I had similar thing happen with my papers. I am very far from an English major. But I did try to do my best with them (writing clearly and honestly and following the notice to authors for the magazines).

Funny thing was my advisor didn't think the my first paper would be accepted because I was not bragging enough and making the work seem too simple. I just told him to send it in as is and see how it went. It ended up being accepted without revision (good ACS journal, no page charges). We never even saw the reviewer sheets but I learned afterwards who 2 of the 3 were.

My prof was in shock. Said he had over 100 papers and had never had one accepted like that. We just got the letter back and he came and asked me what "accepted" meant as editor response. He even said as a subeditor he had done 500 papers and never seen it. Prof didn't fuss at me after that. And I ended up having the next 4 first author papers after, all that I was FA, accepted without revision.

And I did not discover DNA. While I am a native English speaker, I'm not some trained writer either. I really think if you just do solid, honest science and tell it straight that the papers can/should move through smoothly.

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