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I think we all can agree that plenty of crappy papers get into top journals, seemingly because they're fashionable or written by someone in the right circles. So, without seeing the papers or knowing any other details, there's some chance Frustrated isn't the problem.

But, I agree Frustrated should do some honest, humble reflection on their reports --- e.g., the bar for acceptance shouldn't be whether you're "convinced" or the argument succeeds, it should be whether this is an interesting paper that's worth discussing and makes a contribution to the literature.


I agree: given that the two referee reports diverged significantly, I would just assume the editor took a look and decided my verdict was too harsh (or generous, as the case may be).


"Frustrated" confuses me. If he/she thought that the paper was "really really bad", why would he/she recommend revision? (Especially since we're talking about a "top journal" here?)

Personally, I don't care what editors decide to do in light of my referee reports. Their job is to select papers for their journal. A critical criterion (albeit not the only one) is paper quality. It the editors' job, and their responsibility, to judge paper quality.

My job as a referee is to provide advice on this (and other issues) and expert insight. In a way, I'm happy to see behavior like what "Frustrated" describes, because it means that journal editors are doing their jobs, and not pushing off their responsibilities on referees.


Thanks for all your comments!
Tom2: I recommended major revisions because the topics and theses were interesting. Given also this covid situation, I understand that many of us are struggling, so if the ideas are good I give another shot.
Anyway, all comments are extremely useful - I'll reconsider my strategies as a reviewer (there is indeed a pattern!). But I want to emphasize that I always try to give constructive comments when I'm asked to review a paper (and in general I received constructive comments on my papers). Thanks!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Frustrated: Thanks for chiming in! I'm glad that you always provide constructive comments and that you're willing to reconsider your refereeing strategies.

On that note, I guess I'll just point out that I find something about your overall description of the case puzzling. In the original comment, you say that the paper is 'really really bad'. But here you say that 'if the ideas are good I give another shot.' This suggests that the paper *isn't* really really bad after all (which is what the other referee and journal editor evidently thought). So it sounds like you may be holding papers to too high of a standard for publication.

I don't know if this describes your approach to reviewing, but some reviewers seem to think that to be publishable, a paper must be absolutely 'watertight' and respond to every possible objection a reader might have. If this is your approach as a referee, then I could see why you might think that a paper with 'good ideas' might not be worth publishing. But I don't think it's a good standard to use. The test for publication should be: does the paper make a valuable and interesting contribution to the literature? A paper can do this *without* being watertight or responding to every objection. Just ask Kant. The Groundwork was well worth publishing. It also happens to have holes all over the place that people have objected to and tried to fill for over 200 years.

If a paper has good ideas and makes a worthy contribution to the literature, it should be published. As reviewers, we shouldn't hold papers to (most likely idiosyncratic) standards of perfection!


Thanks Marcus. What you say is indeed an important lesson


I'm confused by the description of the case. Was Frustrated asked to review the same paper at three different journals? And then, at the third journal, Frustrated asked for revisions and it was ultimately accepted? If that's the case, then it seems like twice Frustrated rejected the paper and twice it was. Once, Frustrate recommended revisions, and that was the verdict. And only once did Frustrated recommend rejection and that was not the verdict. So 75% of the time editors agreed with Frustrated. That doesn't seem so bad. But maybe I didn't understand the case.

Regardless, I second Tom2's comment. This may be a moment to reflect on one's reviewing habits and exercise some epistemic humility. Alternatively, this may be a moment to reflect and become less emotionally invested in one's reviewing. Journals are a mess and its generally wise to not become emotionally invested in messes.

Overseas Tenured

This happened to me a few times, both as a reviewer and as an author. Other than the editor needing to decide which referee to trust, there's also the issue of inconsistent referee reports. So on one occasion, the editor of a top journal didn't merely give me an R&R in the face of a report that recommended major R&R and another that recommended rejection, but explicitly asked me to ignore the second report, probably because it was impossible to rewrite the paper in a way that takes both of them into consideration. (The second report actually wasn't bad at all; but it did demand revisions that would have required me to take the paper in a direction that I didn't want to.)

As a referee, I don't take it too much to heart when this happens. However, if a journal repeatedly and consistently does this, I'll probably decline reviewing for them in the long run because I'll assume that I'm just being used as a rubber stamp.

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