Peer review: quick guide for rejection

Recently, I have been very lucky with the referees of my papers. It is a good time to recall the occasions where I had been not so lucky in the past, without the danger of venting unresolved personal angers; and give some advice to young referees.

So, imagine you receive an article to referee from a prestigious journal; you don’t really understand what it is about, but your gut feeling is that it should be rejected. There are good and bad ways of doing that.

Here are some hateful strategies which border the unethical:

  1. The paper presents a new idea and studies only the simplest case: dismiss it with “There is no much interest in the topic” or “The idea is interesting but is not applied to a realistic scenario”.
  2. The paper provides the solution to an open problem: dismiss it with “The idea is not new” or “The result is not surprising”.
  3. The ever-successful “it is not of sufficient broad interest to justify publication in this journal” can be applied at any time.

Notice how 1 and 2 can be used in sequence to block a full series of papers: one can first reject the initial idea by saying that the authors should work more, then reject the extensions by stressing that the idea has already been presented before.

How do you see that these strategies are nasty? Basically, they use a very generic statement, against which the authors have no possibility of scientific reply. If the authors are told “not broad interest”, their only hope is to argue “yes, look better, it is interesting”, not very convincing; if the authors are told “not surprising”, they can only try and convince the editor that “surprise” is maybe not a criterion, but editors get very nervous if you try to teach them criteria for acceptance…

So, what are better ways of rejecting? It depends on each paper, but when you write a report, you can check some items:

  • If your criticism can be applied to a paper you admire, it is wrong. For instance, with strategy 1 above, you could have rejected the original quantum teleportation paper: bad idea, for sure. As for criterion 2,  I am sure you have written yourself some paper with very good, but “not surprising” results. Never use an argument that can be used against yourself!
  • If your report is topic-independent, it is wrong. Always base your rejection on the scientific content of the paper: “This is a marginal improvement over [work that you consider similar]”, “This is not new since it was already mentioned in [review paper]”…
  • As a referee you must feel moderately competent in the field, otherwise it is better to decline (journals know that I decline a lot). Assuming you think you are competent, the burden of clarity lies on the authors, not on you. So it is fine to write something like “It is not clear to me what these guys are trying to prove, they say it is very different from [reference] but it looks the same to me. Unless they clarify their contribution, I cannot accept”.

P.S. as written in the first paragraph, this post refers to the case where the referee does not have strong objective arguments for rejection, but just a gut feeling (which may be perfectly right and licit) that a paper is of low quality. If the referee has objective arguments, of course he/she should use them!

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About valerio

Principal investigator at Centre for Quantum Technologies and professor at National University of Singapore

Posted on April 10, 2013, in Peer reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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