We received two referee reports from the editor, who made a major revision decision. One referee has a long list of comments, while on the whole it is positive towards our paper. But the other one gave only half-A4-page comment with strong criticism on the paper as well as some other works in the community, as you can see as follows, which is very tough.

Review report:

The manuscript considers proposition. The authors carry out their study in the framework of an approximation. Unfortunately, the approach used in the manuscript is totally wrong since reviewer's scientific objection. This issue representing a pitfall for many researchers in the past (and unfortunately sometimes in the present) is thoroughly described in one reference deleted here, which is an article of another author.

Therefore, I recommend to reject the manuscript. I do not see a possibility to repair it and to reduce it so that it will fit for publication.

After I read the reference provided, I think that the approach used in our work is correct and the results presented are reasonable, because none of which directly contradict with the reference cited by the referee.

My questions are: what is the best practice to respond the editor and how do I refute the criticisms of the referee?

I apologize if my question is too general for this site. Thanks for your help!


6 Answers 6


How you reply is going to be largely determined by what's in the paper mentioned in the "described in xxx" reference. Step one is to read that paper, and understand it. Then read every paper that cites that paper. Then, maybe talk to some people in your area about the criticism and see what they offer. You're trying to refute a referee who flat out says you're wrong. You absolutely need to do due diligence so you can hold your own.

After doing this work, you might even agree with the reviewer. If this is the case, you go into salvage mode:

In the original submission, I said A, B, and C. The review pointed out flaw X. Given this, A no longer holds, but B and C are still true.

If, after doing your homework, you still disagree with the second reviewer, the response to that reviewer should take the form of

I don't believe the second reviewer's criticism applies, because.... In the original paper, this wasn't as clear as it should have been, and this is how I've clarified this point in my resubmission.

If the paper is still turned down, if you think the paper is VERY important, and that the literature would truly suffer without publication, sometimes editors can be persuaded to send it out for a third review if there is a major disagreement between reviewers. This is more likely to happen if the first review is clearly and overwhelmingly positive, and not "on the whole" positive. Don't go to this well for borderline cases, and certainly don't do it too often-- it's a once or twice in a career thing.

  • @ Scott Seidman, after carefully read some similar posts on the forum and the others' answers, I realized that U were listening to me and help me from the my perspective and position! Thanks! I voted up your answer and wait for 1-2 days for someone else's good answers like yours. Then accept one.
    – jsxs
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:30
  • @ Scott Seidman, just clarify one sentence in your answer. Is it "Then read every paper that cites that paper (the mentioned reference)" or "Then read every paper that cited by that paper (the mentioned reference)"? Which is your meaning? Actually, I am reading the mentioned paper recently :)
    – jsxs
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:42
  • 9
    @jsxs The reason why I say go find the papers that cite the critical paper is because of the possibility that the reviewer is simply full of it, and has some agenda. The reviewer might be pointing you to his or her own paper, and if other published works disagree with that paper, it's important for you to find that out. Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:59
  • 3
    +1 for emphasizing to OP to start out from viewpoint that the referee may have valid point and their responsibility to do due diligence to figure that out. From what was written, the reviewer is stating their serious negative review rather politely and collegially, and it is 'complete' (they are saying - check this literature for more information). It could be in end simply one important camp fighting over-pedantically about some potential 'sloppyiness' that has crept into field. It behooves someone new in the field to learn about potential issue to either dismiss it intelligently or not.
    – Carol
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:14
  • 2
    "If the paper is still turned down, if you think the paper is VERY important, and that the literature would truly suffer without publication" then submit it somewhere else. After appealing to the editor if desired, but that rarely works. Commented May 26, 2017 at 17:12

The main problem with this as a review is not the brevity or harshness (neither one of which is necessarily inappropriate) but failure to adequately explain/justify their objection to your work.

A good review should give objections/criticisms that stand on their own. References should be used to support the reviewer's points, not given in lieu of any explanation.

In addition, it seems that it is also not obvious how the reference relates to your work.

Make the focus of your response not this reviewer is wrong but I don't understand this reviewer's point. Explain why your work is different from that discussed in the reference and why you think the objections don't apply, and thus it is not clear to you why the reviewer objects.

In addition, you ought to ask the editor what they have in mind by major revisions. The "major revisions" response sounds like it was halfway between the responses of the two reviewers. But that doesn't mean it is a coherent synthesis of their positions. It doesn't seem there are any changes that would satisfy the second reviewer (indeed, they have pre-announced that). So what does the editor expect you to do with this request? I would seek clarification on this.

It may well be that the difficult reviewer will not have their way in the end (the fact that the paper was not rejected by the editor as they requested suggests this). So you may be able to simply add some more supporting text for your approach, have their inevitable reject decision overridden by the editor, and be fine.

  • 1
    @ dan111 1.That referee did explain his objection to our work in a sentence and gave a reference. The info is deleted here.
    – jsxs
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 12:23
  • 2
    @jsxs I took your question to imply the reviewer's objection was not clear. It's hard to know without getting into the specifics, but if they gave a one sentence objection that is not adequately supported, I would still consider it unclear.
    – user24098
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 12:26
  • @dan1111thanks for your answer and encouragement.
    – jsxs
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:05
  • "That referee did explain his objection": presumably the referees are anonymous, so there's no evidence that this one is male. Our implicit biases cause us to make these assumptions; recognizing when we do it is crucial to not perpetuating those very biases. Commented May 28, 2017 at 6:54

First of all, take this into account that you must provide answers to all concerns of all reviewers so that they become satisfied with your manuscript.

Since you feel that your manuscripts' results are reasonable and do not contradict with references provided by the reviewer, I suggest you to politely describe your results for the reviewer and compare them with that of the references. Tell the reviewer why the results are not in contradiction with previous works.

Moreover, consider that the reviewer has not stated anything about the results. His/her critics are about the methodology.

All in all, be very polite when answering the reviewers.

  • Politeness may not be helpful, but may come across as an attempt to dodge the criticism.
    – Walter
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 23:45
  • 4
    @Walter, politeness doesn't mean failing to respond fully or forcefully to the criticisms. It simply means using an appropriate tone, not being rude or combative, etc. There are almost no situations in life where this is a bad thing.
    – user24098
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 6:22

dan1111's answer is excellent, but I want to add some aspects that have not been mentioned enough.

First, in the second round of revision, the reviewers may see each others report and this may play to your advantage, if the first reviewer disagrees with the second.

Second, it appears that your particular field is characterized by a split between competing theories, with you adhering to one and the reviewer to another. In such cases there is often a almost religious belief in the 'correct' approach and rejection of any alternative (including supporting evidence). If this is the case here, there is very little you can do to change the belief of the second reviewer.

Third, you should not avoid confronting the 2nd reviewer by being just polite. An important argument is as follows. Whether a certain theoretical approach is correct or not should be decided in an open scientific debate and not by peer review. The scientific journals are the platforms for scientific debate, which happens in form of publications. Suppressing publications, not because they are demonstrably wrong but because they follow the 'wrong' theory, is dogmatic and suppresses scientific debate.

Finally, it's not clear from your post whether reviewer 2 is not actually correct and your methodology is out-dated and proven to be unsuitable. When writing your response, it may be helpful to imagine that the reviewer is the author of the refuting paper XXX.

  • "Suppressing publications, not because they are demonstrably wrong but because they follow the 'wrong' theory, is dogmatic and suppresses scientific debate." This is true, but not necessarily easy to distinguish between the two, especially for those inside the debate. Clearly the reviewer believes the work is "demonstrably wrong", and I don't think we can know for sure that it is not--though the style and tone in which the reviewer responded makes me think you are probably correct.
    – user24098
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 6:26

Walk away. Submit your work to a different journal.

I received all kinds of reports, from detailed and helpful to totally unfair. Don't waste your time to try to argue against someone which cannot be convinced. Try to clarify some points in your paper and try again somewhere else.

  • The final decision is the editor's, though. It seems likely that after making some changes the OP will get an "accept" recommendation from one reviewer and "reject" from the other. It's far from clear what the editor would do in that situation.
    – user24098
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:36
  • Probably depends on the subject: Often one reject is enough to reject the paper. Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:50

The good news here is that the editor clearly believes that the paper has merit and could potentially be published with revisions. If the editor agreed with your tough referee then you would have gotten a reject decision instead of a major revision decision. In such a case, I would imagine that the referee intends for you to undertake major revisions in accordance with the long list of issues highlighted by the first referee, and to justify your work in regard to the criticism of the tough referee.

Now, you have read the paper this latter referee cited, and you still think your method is still okay. In view of this, you should add a paragraph to your paper noting the criticism in the cited paper and explaining why your research method is still okay despite this criticism. That will help to head off criticisms like the one made by your tough referee, and it should therefore improve your paper. In terms of responding in the response-to-referees document, I would then recommend something like this:

Disagree, but revised anyway: We thank the referee for this general challenge to the approach used in our paper. We have reviewed Smith and Jones (1994) and we are convinced that our research approach does not contradict this. In order to address this criticism, we have added an additional paragraph (p. 16) discussing the model criticisms made in Smith and Jones (1994), and explaining why our method survives these criticisms.

The editor will ultimately have to make a decision on whether your method is convincing in light of the referee criticism, and whether or not you have made the other revisions adequately. Based on the fact that your paper was not rejected outright after the initial review, the editor is obviously open to being convinced on this.

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