Long story short: Submitted a paper to a very respectable (but not TOP) journal in the TCS community. Received 2 reviews. The one was alright, not extremely enthusiastic but a decent review.

The problem is with the 2nd one: The reviewer failed in the most obvious way to even understand the statement of the problem, and said that "I cannot convince myself that the paper is correct". The misunderstanding is on the definition of the problem.

for the TCS people: its a standard resource allocation problem where we want to optimize some objective function. The reviewer's objection is that if we assign the same item multiple times to different users we could achieve a very different objective value thus the analysis on its bounds we give could not possibly be correct!

This does not any make sense since on the definition it is said explicitly that each item must be assigned once. In any case, it's the most standard definition of a very well known resource allocation problem!

Anyway, after the rejection of the paper based on the above reason, I contacted the Editor in Chief of the journal, asking for a 3rd reviewer to resolve the issue (I was not offensive to the 2nd R). The EiC responded immediately saying that a 3rd R could indeed resolve the issue but there is nothing the EiC could do because the handling editor communicated to the EiC that the Com. Editor trusts the expertise of the reviewers, and thus the rejection decision is irrevocable.

I want to ask:

  • How normal is this situation? We are talking about an old and very well respected TCS journal, not some hocus pocus unknown journal.
  • Is there any safety net for such kind of obvious mis-managed cases?
  • Any particular advice for the incident? I am not very interested in the obvious "deal with it, it happens" answer. But observe that I am in a point of my career that an extra journal publication could mean a lot, since I am trying to find a permanent position and I cannot wait another year for this paper to go through such a process.

Note: I see few people misunderstood my comment. My comment is not targeted to the reviewer who might have made an honest mistake. It happens and I do not blame her/him. My point is mainly on the way the journal handled the situation, even when the very serious and very easy mistake was brought up to their attention. I was mainly interested if such a reason is valid for straight rejection (usually there is some revision needed which we have the chance to explain to the reviewer and the editor where they have been mistaken), and what to do when this happens. As mentioned again, I do not have 30 journal papers so that I could say this won't make any impact in my CV. I am applying for permanent positions and a +1 (very good) journal might make some difference. Thus my main question: is there any safety net that prevent non-professional editors make such unjustified and arbitrary decisions with such huge impact on us? And how this affect only us as authors? Is there any way to make journals (in general) act more professionally (without making a war against them): sadly, from the comments below, I guess not, besides boycotting the journal, but they couldn't care less.

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    Regarding your last question: why not try a reputable conference?
    – Nobody
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 10:06
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    Is there any safety net for such kind of obvious mis-managed cases? The editor-in-chief is the safety net. If he/she aren't doing their job, it sounds like you (and the journal) are out of luck.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 11:55
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    For such incidents in the context of seminal papers, see cs.adelaide.edu.au/~qsheng/papers/computer.pdf Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 19:59
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    "I am not very interested in the obvious "deal with it, it happens" answer": then it looks like the answer that will make you happy will not be in phase with reality. You appealed, it didn't work out, that's about it. We all had papers rejected for reasons we did not approve of, now your question is how to get the best from a bad situation. Moving forward instead of wasting energy and possibly reputation by overplaying repeted appeals, and clarify the paper to make the error of the second referee even less likely to occur to reader are the two advice you need, and they've been given. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 21:21
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    @PsySp It's easier to understand something you wrote yourself, though. Can you have someone less expert (though still reasonably knowledgable in your field) read it? IME experts can have a a harder time spotting unclear writing because they're better equipped to see around/past it. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


It is pretty normal for a reviewer not to get the gist of your article and then the article gets rejected. I find that the best way to deal with that is to remember that the reviewers are reading the article more carefully than the future readers. So if they don't get what I want to write, the future readers are surely not going to get what I want to write.

Sometimes reviewers are just wrong: they are humans too and typically do this with a limited time budget (a larger time budget than future readers will want to spent on your article, but still pretty small). That is bad luck. Just improve what needs improving and submit your article to the next journal.

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    I understand your frustration, I have felt the same way you have many times. But giving in to that will only make your life in academia miserable. Moreover, often the reviewers don't look so dumb anymore after a good night sleep. Remember that we are deeply invested in our own articles, and it is easy to loose sight of how the article looks to readers. So I suggest you focus some time on another project, and look at the reviews again after you have calmed down. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 12:16
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    @PsySp Until you haven't made reviewing mistake yourself, you will be upset about this. But, at some point in the future in a scientific career, you are likely to do someone injustice in your review, either reject a deserving paper or accept an undeserving one - because you are overloaded, overestimated your expertise, were just tired or whatever; and will understand that mistakes, unavoidably, do happen. In my opinion, it is the mistake of the editor here, rather than the reviewer. FYI, we once submitted to a top(!) journal and got very flawed reviews with factual mistakes and no recourse. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 12:17
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    @CaptainEmacs My frustration (believe me, it's very mild) is mainly towards the editor (I thought it was apparent from my question). I did not actually blame the reviewer, no matter how obviously under-qualified is, but the editor for (1) selecting this R, (2) trusting him and (3) not even reading my response (if s/he did, it would be apparent in a minute that there is something very funny is going on)
    – PsySp
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 12:22
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    @PsySp I would provide an informal definition next to the formal one. Maybe provide a toy example to illustrate what the definition means. The reviewer is simply telling you that part is easily overlooked, and once that happens, the paper falls apart, as illustrated by his/her unfair review. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 19:23
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    @PsySp Referring to the fact that it is clearly explained in the abstract misses the point. A paper needs to be completely understandable without the abstract, which is only meant to be the thing you read to see if you want to read the rest of the paper. Nothing should be included only in the abstract. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 8:13

This happens all the time. I have sometimes raised it with the editor. Doing so has always been a waste of time. The best thing you can do is move on.

I have had a reviewer say it would be good if they had done X, but since they haven't, reject it. Except that we had done X. I got absolutely nowhere. This was at a very prestigious journal.


Is there any safety net for such kind of obvious mis-managed cases?

Well, if there is a Board of Editors you could write to them individually explaining exactly how (in your opinion) the Editor-in-chief has not dealt adequately with your concerns. (I have had it done to me, and had to justify my actions to the members of the Board, coughing up all the correspondence and paperwork. Happily the Board agreed everything had been properly dealt with; but if things had gone wrong I would have expected to be told off to get things sorted, pronto.)

  • I am not sure if it's mostly the EiC fault here (although I do not know about editorials). S/he was willing to help (admitted that a 3rd reviewer would resolve the issue) but s/he probably did not want to go against the handling editor's strict recommendation. Certainly, in the whole process, the one that I blame the least is the reviewer. Also, I am not sure there was any obvious mistakes in the process, besides blindly trusting an obviously flawed review, even after I brought to their attention the simple mistake.
    – PsySp
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 18:18
  • If a paper is rejected on the grounds of a fundamentally flawed report, and the editors are unwilling to review their rejection on the basis of the flawed report, then the journal's editors need to review their protocols. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 18:34
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    I think this advice is misguided. Following it would probably not get a better outcome than the OP wasting valuable time, and could possibly make him look bad to the board, which is not a good idea in general and especially for a non-tenured colleague. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 21:16

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