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Chris Stephens

I agree with this. As a referee (and author, for that matter), I'd much rather see a paper that is trying to do something original and positive. Papers that respond to a bunch of little objections tend to be secondary or tertiary - responding to others in the literature, and making a minor point overall. Of course, other referees may have different tastes. But you can't anticipate whether you'll have this sort of referee - and even if you do, as you point out, you can't possibly anticipate all the objections that some referee might make. Better to just send it to another journal if you think their objections are arbitrary and narrow.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Chris: I think you and Helen are right, at least in principle. But let me mention something a few other people mentioned elsewhere on social media. Early-career people (grad students and job marketeers) often don’t have time to waste on simply shopping around a paper at a bunch of journals until they get lucky enough to find sympathetic referees.

When I adopted the “referee-proofing” method, I was on the market desperate for publications that would make me more competitive as a job-candidate. After waiting 3-6 months only to see papers rejected for idiosyncratic reasons—namely, this or that referee minterpreting something or presenting an objection they had as sufficient reasons to reject my paper—I started trying to preemptively address potential misinterpretations and address any remotely plausible objection (if only in a footnote). This dramatically improved my acceptance rate, and my greater success publishing appeared to help me tremendously on the market. In contrast, now that I’m tenured I tend to sweat these things less, spending less time on referee proofing.

So I guess that’s the crux of my response: if one is well-situated enough to publish slowly (i.e. if one has tenure like Helen, you, and I), then referee proofing may be something to avoid. But I am still not convinced that early career people seeking jobs or coming up for tenure should avoid it. For there are (at least in my experience) a good number of reviewers who will reject something because of an objection you failed to raise or address—and for people in need of publications, rejections for those reasons can be career-impeding.


Referee proofing does damage the quality of the final product. However, it is impossible to avoid when you have limited time to publish in an environment where referees at top journals will go to any lengths to find some reason for rejection. The only way to fix it is to alter refereeing practices.

Helen De Cruz

Andy: yes, that is true in a sense. The alternative is to send things out and hope to be lucky (this is what I'm doing now, although I send less out to journals than I used to. I do not mind given that journal pubs is really a zero-sum game and junior people need it more). I have a piece commissioned on good refereeing practices, written by someone who frequently reviews and who is also a journal editor, so hopefully we can discuss that side of the equation well.
In brief, my sense (I'm not sure what take the guest author will have, so here is mine) that it is fine to have a perfectly referee-proofed paper and yet reject it because it is simply not interesting. Many referees hesitate to throw out a paper and instead try to find weaknesses in the argument, which leads to the referee-proofing culture and Marcus' advice. But a reviewer should be bold enough to say, sorry, this paper does not advance the debate significantly. It would make for shorter referee reports, quicker turnaround times, we have to be careful that it doesn't become desk-reject by proxy, but I think overall that approach would be better.

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