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Common ways of having a paper rejected

  1. Aug 29, 2014 #1


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    This week I received a criticism of a short letter of mine, along the line of "the starting point is not well justified, and the rest of the paper are just calculations".

    It is not the first time that I get a critique in this format; in the first paper I got rejected, the referee asked "where the formula (1.1) was coming from", and finished telling that the rest was just algebraic manipulation or calculations.

    Is it me -because I do the introduction very short-, or do you get rejections following this pattern too?

    Are there other common rejection patterns which everyone should be aware of?

    Myself, when rejecting a paper, use the structure "I would accept the paper with minor changes, such as xxx in the abstract, yyy in the body, and zzz in the conclusions. Ah, and perhaps the authors could consider a title along the lines of ..."
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  3. Aug 29, 2014 #2


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    This may differ from field to field, but I can tell you the following about high-energy physics:

    The type of referee report you received would be among the worst to get. It would seem to indicate that the referee would not accept your paper even if you revised it. If the referee asks where your first formula came from, it seems plausible that you have not motivated it properly or taken it for granted although it is not part of standard literature in the field. It is difficult to say which without knowing more. Regarding the rest being just algebraic manipulation, the referee may have considered this to be the case and that your findings did not add significant new knowledge. Unless you are in high-energy physics, I would be unqualified to judge this.

    As an author, I have gotten referee reports of essentially all sorts - from "publish without change" to "not of interest to the community". The usual thing for a paper of reasonable quality is to mention a few points that can be improved (some times you get the feeling that referees do this just to show that they actually read the paper).

    As a referee, the first priority is to check whether the paper is original and adds to the current knowledge. If it passes these criteria, I typically try to look critically at the paper and figure out if it and how it can be improved and if I find something I write this in the report. My personal opinion is that the best referees are those that actually help you improve your paper to get your message across.

    Regarding your way of rejection, it really would not be considered a rejection in my field but people would consider that "minor changes" and essentially a promise of acceptance once your suggested changes have been implemented - more or less the "usual thing" I mentioned above. A rejection would rather be along the lines "not original", "not sufficiently interesting", "wrong", or "plagiarism".
  4. Aug 29, 2014 #3


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    Well, the field was not HEP (and the few reviews I have done have been in quantisation and general quantum mechanics, not HEP neither) and for some time I thought it was just a case of a mistake of the editor when choosing referee. The 1.1 formula was the dilute approximation for instantons, straight from Coleman lectures, and the calculation itself had been published -I didn't know, then- the previous year in the Physical Review, by some other group. The referee obviously also was ignorant of this publication.

    Years later, and considering that the editor didn't bothered on calling other referee, I have come to think that the message was that even a letter nowadays need to cover one third of its space with an introduction to the state-of-the-art. My guess is that most referees use this introduction to evaluate the author before entering really to the evaluation of the content.
  5. Aug 29, 2014 #4


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    Referees need to ultimately understand what it is you're doing. Just because a result has been published doesn't mean that everyone is aware of it - particularly if it's recent. Referees "should" be experts in the field and "should" be aware of recent advances in the field, but (a) this is not always the case and (b) they also have to make a call on behalf of the general readership of the journal. Further, not that I necessarily agree with the practice, but I'm sure that there's a little bit of "the paper needs to cite my papers" that goes on.

    Writing well and succinctly is a skill that comes with practice and critical, constructive feedback. I've had to reject papers before where I just couldn't understand what the authors were talking about. This is hard to do because I know how much work goes into these papers. In such cases it's likely that one of the key elements is missing: (i) what the research/paper means to accomplish, (ii) why this is relevant to the field, and/or field and (iii) what is novel about it. You don't need to write a novel to communicate these things, but you do need to have these elements in there somewhere. And the easier it is for the reader to find, the better.

    As for how to referee, the journals should provide specific guidelines for this. I'm not sure about comments along the lines of suggesting title changes. The referee's job really is not to be an editor. Although, I suppose sometimes such comments are warranted for the sake of clarification.
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