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What are my best options when a reviewer misunderstands my work and asks for an unreasonable improvement? She was very clear that this was a major issue and that she would only accept the paper under this "improvement".

  1. Should I withdraw the submission?

  2. Should I write to the editor and try to convince him that the reviewer is wrong? (Possibly asking for a new reviewer).

  3. Should I make the revision normally trying to convince editor and referee that what they ask is impossible?

  4. Something else?

I'm inclined to go with the 2nd option.

The field is in the intersection of Mathematics and Computer Science, and the journal is not a top one.

Edit: I've made the revision normally, as suggested here. Thanks to everyone that commented as I wouldn't have done so. In the end, I was happy with the revision.

  • 10
    Do not compare it to P=NP, this would look not mature. Say that because of reason A,B,C, this would require a completely new proof of which even the outline is not known. It would not be a simple extension of the paper result and is not reasonably achievable. That being said, the paper, as it stands, may not look sufficiently substantial to the editor and might still be rejected, but at least you then made the point that it is not at the stage where "just a little push" is needed to make it publishable, but actually a fully new paper. – Captain Emacs May 12 '17 at 19:54
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    As a mathematician, I think you are misusing the word "impossible." It is also not clear why you think the reviewer misunderstood your work or did something wrong. I know of several journals that only want to publish things that dramatically improve upon what was previously known. If you submitted e.g. a paper on algorithmic complexity to the Annals of Mathematics, if they were feeling especially honest they might conceivably respond by saying that you would need to decide P vs NP in order to publish there.... – Pete L. Clark May 12 '17 at 20:09
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    ...Of course there is a lot that you didn't say, and it may well be the case that in context the referee seems to be asking for something that she thinks you should be able to do if you wanted to and is mistaken about that. In which case option 3) looks most reasonable to me, but I would advise you to avoid the off-putting word "impossible." – Pete L. Clark May 12 '17 at 20:10
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    The reviewer has no power to accept or reject the paper. Only the editor has that power. The reviewer can only recommend acceptance or rejection. – JeffE May 12 '17 at 23:50
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    Possibly related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/67173/… – David Z May 13 '17 at 3:58
36

I believe the key is that you can include the information in your paper about this direction being "impossible", and improve it significantly by doing so.

Rather than rejecting the suggestion outright, add a discussion to your paper of that future direction and some notes on its difficulty (i.e., although we show in this paper that 10+10=20 through novel use of the podal digits, the corollary of 20-10=10 cannot currently be proven empirically due to limitations of the primary technique of positive incremental dactylonomy, and the lack of willing test subjects for the secondary approach).

Although it might seem obvious to you why that improvement is "impossible", your reviewers may read your paper even more carefully than your broader audience. If something was unclear (or at least, non-obvious) to this reviewer, you should expect that at least some non-negligible proportion of your broader readership will come to the same conclusion. I think you improve your paper substantially if you can explain this concisely.

Even better, if you can suggest some approach that is possible but currently difficult to implement or outside the scope of your current paper, your work could be the priority reference for that approach.

  • 10
    +1 for "podal digits" and "incremental dactylonomy". Perfect lalocracy. – Captain Emacs May 12 '17 at 23:12
  • Onomy or ectomy? – Yemon Choi May 12 '17 at 23:49
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    @YemonChoi That would decremental dactylectomy. – JeffE May 12 '17 at 23:54
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    +1 "If something was unclear (or at least, non-obvious) to this reviewer, you should expect that at least some non-negligible proportion of your broader readership will come to the same conclusion" - So very true. That's the value of review that many writers fail to appreciate, and it can be difficult to explain (both as teller and recipient). – Philip Oakley May 13 '17 at 9:36
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    I’m not a researcher, just live with one and work with others, but it seems to me that reviewers do this kind of thing a lot, where they state a need for a major extension or augmentation of the research when all they really want is for the paper to acknowledge its limitations and discuss important future work. Kind of seems an odd way to go about asking for those things, which achieves little more than stressing out new researchers, but it seems to be pretty common. – KRyan May 13 '17 at 15:55
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I am not sure about your field, but when I have made a revision to a manuscript, it is required to have a letter detailing your changes and your response to the reviewers' comments. In your case, make the changes that you can accomplish and detail your reasons for not doing X in this manuscript. Be detailed and specific. You could even address the fact that you did not do X in your manuscript as well, if you think it could be useful to a reader.

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    Agreed. It is acceptable to push back. A reviewer may still feel they are correct, and argue against acceptance, but it doesn't mean the editor will side with them. I don't think a special contact with the editor is necessary except under special circumstances. The normal cover letter will suffice. – Fred Douglis May 12 '17 at 20:49
  • I have met a similar situation now, one of the reviewers criticised the lack of novelty, not enough for publication and proposed some drawbacks of the article. In fact the revisions according to the comments are somehow infeasible, some kind of redoing the work. Yet the editor just ask me to adquately address the concerns of novelty and highlight it in the Introduction of article. Does it mean the editor prefers accepting the article without major revisions according to the reviewer's comments? – Enze MA Jul 10 '17 at 19:34

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