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I have submitted a mathematical paper for publication several months ago. A couple months after submission, I noticed some mistakes and things that can be improved, but while I sent the unsolicited revision, I received no confirmation on that.

Anyway, six months passed with no contact, so I emailed the editor. The editor came back after a few days and said that there was a referee assigned shortly after the original submission, and that they will see that shortly I will receive the report.

And indeed, a couple weeks later I received what is obviously the work of someone that entirely forgot about this task, and did a lousy job. It was very clear from the first paragraph that the paper wasn't seriously read into, several odd comments were made which I can only conclude were the result of skipping a line in the statement of a theorem...

In any case, almost all of the complaints of the referee are such that I considered invalid (either by the revision made, which was ignored, or by the obvious lack of attention put into the reading).

Nevertheless, a handful of suggestions were helpful, and I did make those revisions. But now it is time to submit elsewhere.

Should I reveal that the paper had been rejected before? Should I explain why that rejection was ridiculous? Or should I just submit the paper as though it was never submitted before?

One reason to reveal the history of the paper is that it might be that the same referee will get to handle the paper again. And then there is a good chance of getting a second rejection. By doing this, I can at least make sure that the editors are aware of the situation.

One reason not to reveal this is that the original journal is not considered "top tier" (and in fact many people raised eyebrows when they heard about the rejection). So by stating that I got rejected from a B-tier journal, I might be shooting myself in the leg.

I'd be happy to hear any advice as to how to proceed, and if I should be revealing some of the history, then how much details should be enough?

  • I am entirely uncertain about the choice of tags. So... feel free to fix that. – Ink blot Jun 10 '17 at 11:24
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    I would not mention the history of the paper. If you suspect who the referee was, you can ask the editor not to use him, or better yet acknowledge him for useful suggestions (which is true!). Editor tend to avoid anybody mentioned in the acknowledgements. – Walter Jun 10 '17 at 17:39
  • I actually have no idea who the referee was. I suspect they were not one of the experts on the topic, but rather someone who was "coerced" to refereeing this paper. It really felt like the referee pushed this out of their memory like a bad experience "Ugh, I have to referee a paper about this subject now? Somebody save me..." sort of thing. – Ink blot Jun 10 '17 at 22:20
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I have never known anyone to submit a mathematics paper and identify it as having been previously rejected by a journal. (In particular, I have never done this myself, though I have resubmitted over a dozen papers.) If a journal specifically asks for this information, then ethically speaking you should give it or resubmit elsewhere -- I would recommend the latter, since requiring this kind of authorial disclosure is exceedingly rare in mathematics (if indeed it is done at all).

I don't see any benefit to the authors in disclosing a previous rejection. You write

One reason to reveal the history of the paper is that it might be that the same referee will get to handle the paper again. And then there is a good chance of getting a second rejection. By doing this, I can at least make sure that the editors are aware of the situation.

I don't follow why you think that making the editors aware that the same referee previously rejected the paper will help: if the paper and status of the journal are not much different the second time around, then giving the same verdict seems to be appropriately consistent.

Also, in my opinion, that the referee did not seem to understand the paper very well makes it more likely that they were chosen by the first editor somewhat capriciously / randomly / badly, and thus the chance that they will be called upon again is small. Getting a repeat referee is only likely when the referee is one of a very small number of experts in your subfield....but such an expert had better be able to understand your paper, or you have problems well beyond the scope of your question.

For completeness, let me say that I didn't find the argument against disclosure so convincing either:

One reason not to reveal this is that the original journal is not considered "top tier" (and in fact many people raised eyebrows when they heard about the rejection). So by stating that I got rejected from a B-tier journal, I might be shooting myself in the leg.

In my experience, any journal can reject any paper, and the necessary meaning in any one instance of this is infinitesimal. I know many mathematicians who like to tell stories about getting rejected from journal A and then getting accepted by better journal B. Moreover, as I understand the editorial process [I am not a journal editor, but I know some and have discussed the edit flow with them] it is not even really clear where the piece of information that the paper had been previously rejected would be taken into account. If the paper looks decent then it goes out to at least one referee. Certainly the referees are not being informed that the paper has been rejected elsewhere before (unless they were themselves previous referees, but again, this has nothing to do with the disclosure). In most cases the decision to accept or reject is made entirely based on the referee reports. In some cases the editors exercise some additional scrutiny, but it doesn't sound plausible that at the end of this long process they would take the prior rejection into account.

The one case I can think of where this disclosure might matter is if the paper has the superficial look of being really faulty (this includes the case in which it is really faulty!). If I were a journal editor, then upon hearing from an author "The Annals rejected my paper on the proof of the Goldbach Conjecture, so I'm submitting it to you" then I would think: well, if it was correct, the Annals would have published it.

Finally, I think you should pay more attention to the fact that you chose to pass along a second draft after "a couple of months." Not getting a confirmation of that resubmission was a mistake -- it puts you in the position of having to accept a referee report on the old version no matter how much time has passed, and that sounds like it might have been what happened. When it comes to submitting an "improved draft" before receiving a report, I advise doing one of the following:

1) Resubmit within a couple of weeks of the original submission, ideally before the referee has started reading the paper.

2) Refrain from resubmitting until after you receive the referee report, with the understanding that you may get dinged for problems that you already found and corrected.

3) Withdraw the paper. Then submit the new version as a new submission -- either to the same journal or to a different journal.

  • Thanks, Pete. About the faulty mishap with the first journal. I agree that I should have pushed harder to receive some sort of acknowledgement about the unsolicited resubmission, even more so when I emailed the editor six months after the original submission (the revision was about six weeks in, which is borderline, I know, but it was also a semester, and I know that it's kind of hard to referee papers during the semester: you either do it right away, or push it to the break). Thank you very much for your answer! – Ink blot Jun 10 '17 at 22:18
  • If I were a journal editor, then upon hearing from an author "The Annals rejected my paper on the proof of the Goldbach Conjecture, so I'm submitting it to you" I suspect that for many editors this scenario actually occurs from time to time . . . – Dave L Renfro Jun 12 '17 at 20:26

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