The Worst Reviewer/Editor Comments You’ve Received
By request, here is a spot for you to tell us about the harsh, insulting, devastating, stupid, nonsensical, mean, unhelpful, contradictory, and otherwise objectionable comments you’ve received from peer reviewers and editors on your work.
Why? The graduate student who asked me to do this writes that he “recently got comments from a journal referee that ended in a snide remark” and that “it would be cathartic for people to post about similar experiences… It would certainly make me feel a little better knowing that such experiences are relatively common.” Also, he adds, “it might be fun.”
(I once submitted an article to a journal whose offices were in a different time zone. They sent back the desk rejection in a couple of hours. It was so quick that, technically, they rejected my paper before I even gave it to them. Now that was harsh.)
Related: “Reasons You Rejected a Paper“
I’ve twice had referees who complained I had not considered articles that came out after I submitted the paper.Report
That’s nothing. I once recommended rejecting a submission because it failed to discuss a paper I thought of maybe writing someday based on reading the submission.Report
You’re just playing until you reject a paper, only to subsequently submit it (complete with data and tables) as your own.
I got the “your lit review was incomplete because you didn’t time-travel to the future” complaint as well.Report
Is that really a bad reason to reject a paper, though? Sufficiently relevant (I suppose) papers came out after submission. The author of the paper under review is surely not to blame for not considering them, but that doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t, not that the papers are out. To take an obviously extreme case, suppose a paper came out with the exact same result as yours, while yours is under review. Surely it’s not unreasonable to reject your paper in this case.Report
Correction: *now* that the papers are outReport
Unless the papers were functionally identical, I’m not sure it would be a good reason. Even if the result was the same, different strategies or emphases are presumably being employed. This just seems like the dumb thing that science does, where replication of results is ignored and disincentivized and, as a result, there’s a replication crisis.
Also, if a relevant (but non-identical) paper comes out and the paper under review was otherwise on track to acceptance, it seems like an R&R is more reasonable. That happened to me: “hey, cool paper, but this thing just came out that is relevant and I think your paper should take account of it.”Report
I received a rejection based on the claim that there were precisely 6 relevant papers in the literature that I had failed to cite, and a few other comments that indicated the reviewer had (maybe?) glanced at the paper but not really read it. All 6 alleged missing citations were cited clearly in my paper and listed in the bibliography. I was furious since I’d been waiting for 6 months already to hear anything back from them.Report
Ach. It’s hard to pick. If you’re as old as I am, you likely have drawers full of the stuff. Snooty/huffy is worse than straight up stupid, though.Report
My all-time favorite post from Philosophy Twitter comes from Mark D White (Staten Island) who wrote, “One reviewer of the proposal for ‘Kantian Ethics and Economics’ said I had no idea how to do Kant and economics, and if I wanted to see how it was done, I should check out a paper by Mark D. White.” https://twitter.com/profmdwhite/status/990190784048783361Report
Yeah, I’ve gotten those. I was once told I knew nothing about mathematics, and I was told that Eric Steinhart knows how to do this stuff right, and I should read my own book More Precisely on math and philosophy.Report
Also, your book is excellent. I’ve used it in my own work, and one reviewer might even say too much. One rejection letter said, “The formal machinery in the paper seems unnecessary to make the author’s case.” The essence of the author’s case is that on an ordinary person-on-the-street moral semantics, ethical naturalism is false. It was my experience that ethical naturalists were remarkably resistant to this claim, such that a less rigorous version of the argument proved unconvincing, with the more rigorous argument being more successful. Yet rigorously making my case was one of the reasons for rejection! (Making matters worse was that most of the criticisms were based on a bizarrely uncharitable reading of my paper.)Report
Sometimes it’s the combination of different reviewers’ comments on your work that leaves your head spinning: Reviewer 1: “I found the author’s thesis quite plausible and look forward to citing the argument once the paper is in print.” Reviewer 2: “It’s full of jargon, incomprehensible claims ([the paper’s thesis]), and very hard to read.”Report
Yes. I once received “accept with no revisions” and “my advice would be to put this project aside.”Report
I work in philosophy of physics, and sometimes submit my work to physics journals. This is one of my favorite reviewer comments: “A more extended discussion of why ‘heuristically useful’ doesn’t in general necessarily imply ‘metaphysically real’ would be good to include.”Report
In fairness, using philosophy jargon like ‘metaphysically real’ in a submission to a physics journal is probably asking for trouble.Report
I’m not keen on this (though I get the catharsis point). I’ve had referee comments that infuriated me and drove me to distraction – but pretty much every time, that was a referee who was giving their time uncompensated to a journal and was working in good faith to support scholarship as they saw it. And I’ve rejected many, many papers, and though I work hard on reports and try to be civil and constructive, I’m sure many of my reports infuriated the author and drove them to distraction too. There is something personal about having an article rejected: it’s very hard to be detached about it.
Of course, there are genuinely unacceptable pieces of referee behavior -plagiarism under the veil of anonymity comes to mind – but those are scandals to complain to the editor about, not continuous with simply annoying comments.Report
I’m inclined to agree with this, although one incident comes to mind where it was pretty obvious the reviewer hadn’t really read beyond the abstract – they complained I didn’t discuss a particular author (I did), didn’t consider a particular objection (I did) and seemed to think my intention was to endorse a position despite making it very clear (in the abstract but even more so the introduction as well as throughout) I was rejecting said position… I have to say, slightly disappointed in the journal’s editor that they didn’t seem to notice this and rejected the paper based on only that single reviewer’s comments.Report
You are correct to warn of the risk that personal investment in ones own work will make it difficult to impartially judge the merit of a referee comment that you find annoying. However, there does appear to be a systematic problem with unprofessional reviewing that goes beyond merely annoying comments. And this problem is far more common and far less extreme than the example you give of referees plagiarizing the work they review. For example, if a referee complains that the paper fails to consider x’s important work on topic y and the paper contains a section titled “x’s work on topic y” this is not merely an annoying comment that might be seen in a different light under a more impartial assessment. It is a case of fundamentally incompetent and unprofessional refereeing.
Related to the point I make above here are a few other points:
(1) When so much weight in hiring and promotion is put on publication success the integrity of the reviewing process is of upmost importance.
(2) Yes, editors are overworked, but this doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to uphold the integrity of the process (especially given (1)).
(3) Junior people appear far more likely to be the victims of unprofessional referee behavior. My own anecdotal experience talking with colleagues and friends suggests this. However, general reasons also support it. For example, many reviewers subvert the anonymity norm by using google to work out the author’s identity. For obvious reasons, a reviewer who does this is far more likely to be unprofessional if the author is junior than if they are senior. Likewise, many journals have reviewing practices where the author’s identity is revealed to the editor prior to the final decision being made (e.g., the associate editor gets to check the authors name after deciding that the paper deserves external review). When an editor receives an unprofessional referee report they are far more likely to take action on it if they know the author is senior and far less likely to do this if they know the author is junior.
(4) Complaining to the editor is less of an option, and less likely to get you anywhere, the more junior you are.
(5) Many senior people in the profession appear to underestimate or downplay how much the poor execution or direct abuse of blind review norms hurts those who are junior or have less prestige advantage and favors those who are senior or have more prestige advantage.
(6) You talk of referees working in good faith to support quality scholarship as they see it. I agree that this is a majority of referees. We should be grateful to them for the unpaid work they are doing (I am one of them). However, there appears to be a significant minority who do not show good faith. We know this because much of the unprofessional refereeing behavior is best explained by bad faith rather than naive incompetence. I have also witnessed someone admitting to bad faith refereeing practices in an unguarded moment (they were slightly drunk) and have heard secondhand reports of others making similar admissions.Report
I’ve had reviewers who were rude and even seemed personally offended by my work, but whose comments were helpful. But I’ve also had at least one rejection which clearly came from a glance at the abstract only, and another where the reviewer essentially asked why I wrote about the topic I did, rather than a different and only vaguely related topic.Report
I think the reaction “don’t get upset because the reviewers are doing it for free and are overworked” doesn’t make much sense. Sure, you should be that upset at the reviewers. But there’s plenty to be angry about, such as the fact that publishers charge ridiculous rates and make a huge proft while making us work for free. And while it may be excusable for unpaid reviewers not to do a good job on an individual level, it creates significant costs for pretty much everyone in the field as a whole, to the point where it would probably make sense to for everyone to pay extra (setting aside the aforementioned profits) to have professional reviewers. There are certainly plenty of people who could use the work.Report
*shouldn’t be that upset at reviewers*Report
I once had a submission pass external review after R&R, only for the editor to demand additional revisions discussing their work on the topic. I was annoyed, but untenured, so I did the prudent thing. I read the relevant portion of their book, figured out why it was wrong, and added a section dragging it. The editor’s response: my view has since changed. Please revise again in light of the unpublished manuscript and incomprehensible comments attached to this email.Report
This isn’t really a complaint about any particular reviewer, but more an expression of frustration at the process. I once got a rejection, but both reviewers were very positive in their comments and made several suggestions on how to improve the paper. One reviewer commented, “I also found the discussion of X unnecessary and distracting from the main points of the paper. I recommend the author drop that section entirely.” I took the suggestion to heart and removed the brief discussion and added a brief footnote instead. I submitted the revised paper to a different journal and again it was rejected but with mostly positive comments. And one of the new referees said, “One significant omission is that the author failed to discuss X. He/She should seriously consider adding this point. There was the footnote on page Z, but it needs to be addressed in greater detail.” I’m sure that my inclusion/exclusion of talking about X wasn’t *the* deciding factor in either rejection. But it was frustrating nonetheless.Report
I recently got a ref report that recommended I expand section x.1 of my paper, and I could compensate for the extra words by shortening x.2.
Neither of these sections existed in my paper.
The other report, for that same paper, recommended I cite a certain philosopher’s book. But this paper was partially a response to that book, and the book was discussed on nearly every page. So…Report
My first thirty journal submissions were all rejections, and many of the comments were frustrating to me at the time. I don’t believe that I have records of any of them anymore, and that’s okay. I eventually learned that I could learn a lot from what reaction my paper provoked, regardless of how it was provoked. Once I started reading reports in that light, I began to have a lot more success at provoking the reactions that I hoped for – in particular, engagement.Report
Thirty!? That’s actually really comforting to hear.Report
Keep in mind, Mark writes 30 articles a day.Report
I have to say the grit exhibited here blows my mind. I’m just in awe. (And how long did this process even take?) It might do some people some good if they self-administered the “Schroeder test” before going to grad school, that is, just really ask themselves “How many consecutive rejections at the start of my career would it take to shut me down?” And if the honest answer is less than thirty, then maybe they should reconsider going at all since that was apparently what Mark Schroeder had to go through and he is, after all, probably much better at this whole thing than most people.Report
I just want to say that I would not pass the test. I expect that around 15 or so would make me call it a day. Maybe even 10 would do it if the process was very drawn out.Report
I once had a paper with a lengthy critique of a prominent senior philosopher X’s ideas, which I sent to a specialist journal. It was rejected with a report where a referee included quotations (but without page references) from X’s papers (of which there were only two relevant papers), arguing that X had already addressed the criticisms I was raising. Searching at length at X’s two relevant papers, there are no such quotations *anywhere in X’s papers*! (I later sent it to a top-five generalist journal, and it was straight accepted.)Report
There is my one comment that has puzzled me good fifteen years now. A referee granted that I had shown that there is a possible world where such and such is the case but he/she still objected that I hadn’t shown that such and such was possible. This wasn’t their reason for rejecting the paper – they had other reasons for doing so and so I cannot complain. I’ve just always wanted to know what they meant.Report
I once wrote an essay on Heidegger’s notion of Truth and the reviewer stated that several parts regarding the definitions were wrong since they weren’t compatible with the JTB (justified true belief) view.Report
Wow! Why isn’t PPR’s behavior here a scandal in the profession? The editors should be ashamed of themselves. DN should have a post on this. It is a more serious case of potential editorial misconduct than allowing the term “TERF” to appear in print.Report
I once wrote a reply to a paper in a fancy journal, showing that the argument didn’t work. Submitted it as a reply, and this journal generally publishes replies. It was rejected with the comment that there was nothing wrong with my argument, but all it did was show the original argument didn’t work. Sent it elsewhere, straight acceptance.Report
I’ve had a similar experience a couple of times from major journals that say that they publish responses to papers published in that journal. The referee reports were, in effect: The argument is good, but the original should never have been published in a journal such as X.
Personally, I think this is actually quite a serious issue as it means that some journals are allowing weaker papers they publish to stand uncriticised (given that it is often unlikely that any other journal will publish a response paper).Report
Similar experience: I wrote a paper arguing that famous paper X was widely misinterpreted. Reviewer’s response: that might be correct, but in that case famous paper X isn’t as interesting as people think, so the paper doesn’t merit publication.Report
I’ve also had this response to a reply. I don’t understand why any competent editor would let this pass. If a reply piece appears to decisively undermine the argument of a paper recently published in your journal then surely it is your responsibility to publish that piece so that the record can be corrected.Report
I wrote a reply arguing that a paper previously published in the journal had multiple shortcomings. I was told that the journal only publishes replies that take a particular point in the original paper and go on to develop something positive from it, as opposed to papers that criticize the paper on multiple fronts. I chose to interpret this as saying that the journal does not publish replies that show that they made a serious error in accepting the original paper.Report
From a 20ish-ranked journal that took four times longer than its average review time, I once got about twenty words of referee comments back. Among them: “This paper is unpublishable in any philosophy journal.” On a whim, I then sent it unchanged to a T5 journal, which accepted it. Shrug.Report
In an otherwise fair rejection report, a reviewer once objected that my argument was question-begging on grounds that if the premises were true, there was no way the conclusion could be false.Report
I don’t have any quite that bad, but I recently got a referee comment that to say that a particular premise of mine was true “offered nothing non-obvious”. The fact that my argument used an obviously correct premise was intended as a criticism. Bizarre.Report
From a top 10 journal and when I was a grad student: “This paper is so bad that it would take another paper just to spell out the problems with this one. And even after fixing the mistakes, it still wouldn’t be worth publishing.” That was a punch in the gut.Report
i submitted a paper to a top journal, got a report which misread it dismissively, complained, endured a long wait, then received R&R w/long report from initial Ref–this time apologizing for first report and adding the best philosophical feedback *ever*–so spent a long time reworking the paper in light of fantastic feedback, resubmitted much-improved paper with notes showing why it was better thanks to Ref, only to have Big Editor straightaway reject on grounds that “credence” does mean in English what i took it to mean in the paper….Report
I once got a referee who agreed that I had shown that the argument I was objecting to did not work. However, he thought, the paper should be rejected because there is a completely different argument that my objection did not work against. The argument involved abandoning the central assumption of the target paper and replacing it with a highly contentious assumption — one that the author of the paper to which I was responding would definitely not accept. The referee produced that brand-new argument and concluded, “The author’s way out is no longer available, because [assumption that led to my objection] is no longer involved at any stage of the argument.” Which, on the one hand, was true…Report
These comments weren’t toward my own work, but toward another’s work whom I reviewed. See if you can spot the different in tone between Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2.
Reviewer 1 (me):
“Despite appreciation of the author’s intentions, the paper in its current form suffers from a number of serious shortcomings, and thus, the reviewer is unable at this time to offer a recommendation toward acceptance in [JOURNAL REDACTED].
“Some papers should not have been written in the first place. This is one of them. I will say that one nice thing about this otherwise frivolous paper is that there is an attempt to give it a dialectical structure (labeled ‘arguments’, ‘counterarguments’, and ‘rebuttals’). Beyond that, there is little else of value. I recommend that the paper be rejected without the possibility of resubmission.”Report
One reviewer remarked that my paper wasn’t of sufficient quality because it did not consider a certain objection to my view. However, said objection begs the question at issue in my argument, which is why I didn’t mention it!
Secondly, on another paper the reviewer said that my argument was not substantial enough to show that thesis T is true. This despite my saying clearly in the paper that my paper’s aim was NOT to argue that thesis T is true, but rather that thesis T is a live option that has been under-explored in the literature and ought to be the focus of work going forward.
I guess the moral of the story is: reviewers, please actually READ the paper’s you are reviewing! 😉Report
When I was an undergraduate, I submitted a paper to a mid-level history of philosophy journal. The reviewer wrote that my argument was “a tissue of hopelessly underdeveloped speculation.”
The good news is that my advisor had prepared me to receive something like that. Turned around and sent the exact same paper to Kantian Review where it was accepted with very minor revisions.
That experience was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me professionally. I realized very early on how arbitrary many of the decisions are when it comes to journal, conference, etc., acceptance, as well as how academics can be especially nasty (in this case to an undergraduate senior) for no real purpose.Report
You know I have to say, I have had very good reviewers along the way. Indeed, the one that was outright rejected gave me the best feedback I’ve ever received on a paper. Perhaps my days are numbered in this regard, but I sure hope not.Report
Wrote a critical paper in grad school developing a new objection to Big Name Philosopher’s recent paper. Sent it to Big Name Philosopher to see what s/he thought, and had a lovely, constructive interaction about the objection and discussed some possible replies. 9-12 months later, I finally worked up the courage to submit my paper to a journal. Alas, it immediately got rejected rejected because in the meantime, Big Name Philosopher had published ANOTHER paper explicitly addressing my objection, and thanking me for it (!), thus preempting my original paper. Never did get that thing published… Moral of the story: Don’t delay, submit today!Report
Moral #2: put things on pre-print archives once you’re ready to share them beyond your immediate circle of mentors.Report
I once had a paper rejected (after originally getting an R&R) for the following reason: “This paper has substantially improved, however, at the end of the day, it is really not Nous material… I suggest the author send it to Erkenntnis.” What’s bizarre is that I *had* sent it to Erkenntnis and the referee was in fact refereeing for Erkenntnis when saying this!!!!Report
I’ve wondered whether referees take into account the reputation of the journal when recommending rejection/acceptance. Now I know!Report
To just a grad.
As a reviewer I can testify that some editors ask you, in effect, to be harsh and captious whilst others ask you to be generous and forgiving. Some make it clear that their rejection rates are deliberately high and more or less tell you to reject anything that isn’t absolutely tip-top, whilst others indicate that they are in the business of giving young philosophers a break and that they don’t want you to be too pernickety. There is another problem with what might be called ho-hum papers. I get to referee quite a lot of papers which I would never consider reading had I not been asked to review them because although they are competent (no obvious blunders, the conclusions more-or-less following from non-silly premises) they are boring and inconsequential and don’t add that much to the debate. Am I serving the profession by getting such papers published in a top journal? No. If you okay a paper for a top journal you are saying in effect that this is something that people interested in the topic really ought to read. Hence if that is not your view, you shouldn’t recommend it for publication in such a place. But it’s a bit different with a downlist journal. There what you are saying when you okay a paper is that the paper is no worse than a lot of the stuff that gets published and that if you are *really* interested in the topic, you *might* like to read it. That’s setting the bar a fair bit lower. Furthermore you may be helping a competent (but in this case uninspiring) scholar along the rocky road to permanent employment, by sticking a modest feather in his or her cap. So is it reasonable for a referee to employ different standards when refereeing for different journals? I say ‘yes’ a) because the editors sometimes ask you to, and b) because the ‘message’ that you are sending to the profession when you recommend publication differs from one journal to another.Report
I once had a referee who said the paper deserved acceptance if only I omitted the Williamson section, which the referee said was “irrelevant” to the central argument. I omitted the Williamson section and resubmitted, however, a new referee rejected it because it “didn’t engage with Williamon”. I wrote to the editor complaining that this wasn’t fair, and was told that the rejection stood because both referees had major concerns with my treatment of Williamson… this response, however, makes no sense!Report
I recently had a paper rejected in which one reviewer gave a long series of comments that seemed to all follow from a rather obvious misunderstanding of the central aim of the paper—unfortunate, but it did indicate that I needed to more clearly flag that that wasn’t my intention.
The other reviewer wrote all of three sentences, the gist of which was that they didn’t like the example on page 2, though it wasn’t clear why other than that they thought it “could” be interpreted differently. No more explanation for their decision was given.Report
These comments are not worthy of publication in this venue. They offer unoriginal arguments and do not engage with all of the relevant empirical literature on actual rejections, and worse, do not consider possible rejections that would be much more interesting. Finally, they do not cite or discuss this reviewer’s rejections.Report
I had a referee recommend rejection based solely on the spelling mistakes I made in the paper.Report
In fairness, you are a truly terrible speller.Report
That is fair.Report
But it is nicer to say, like my mom does, that I am a very creative speller.Report
The first rejection I ever received, back when I was in grad school was to something responding to papers by Brandom and Radner on Spinoza’s attributes. One of the referees said that I had “mispelled ‘Radnor'”. I wrote back to the journal that I figured I hadn’t misspelled it since I spelled it the way she does, but maybe I’d mispelled it. I wasn’t sure about that.Report
A paper of mine was rejected because it made a slightly technical claim that the referee said I did not prove. Two comments:
1. The proof was so trivial – just one line – that I thought it might insult the reader’s intelligence to include it.
2. But I included the proof anyway.Report
I had a paper rejected because the reviewer didn’t like phrases like:
Let f=g*h be monotone
complaining that it didn’t make sense to call an identity between two functions monotone. It’s one thing to not know standard mathematical phrasing, but not when reviewing logic papers perhaps…
“All the literature into which the author positions his or her paper
suffers from a similar misconception. I would love to advise the author to
set the whole community of discussants straight, but that is not what he
himself is about nor is he probably capable of doing so.”
And from the same reviewer:
“I feel much better informed by what Hume has to say than what some up-and-coming associate professor, with an extensive “training” in analytic philosophy, with a job in a department highly ranked by Brian Leiter has to say.”Report
My favorite: “exceedingly well argued, but the conclusion is false.”
Another complained, “fails to consider x’s important work on y” about an article with a five page section titled “x on y.”
Why is this example head spinning? Isn’t it a simple distinction between form and content? A thesis or argument can be unclear in style and presentation while quite good in content. I find this is a very common issue in undergrad work: they’ve got a basically solid idea but haven’t worked it out fully and can’t clearly convey it. So despite the quality of the content, it’s far too much work for the reader (unless teacher or reviewer) to recognize it.Report
Some of my favorites over the years (paraphrasing).
Referee at journal x: I tried very hard to understand this paper but despite my best efforts find it totally unintelligible. Reject
Referee at journal y: The view expressed in this paper is unoriginal. Reject
Well, that’s great my work is both unoriginal and unintelligible. haha! But wait…
Referee at journal z: This paper presents an interesting new view and is clearly written. Minor revisions. Ya!
Referee at journal x: This paper’s position is totally implausible and not worth considering. Reject.
Referee at journal y: This paper has a very interesting thesis and is very plausible. Minor revisions
Referee at journal x: This paper is not a useful contribution to the literature at all. Reject
Referee at journal y: This paper is superb and a significant and novel contribution. AcceptReport
Dennett’s three steps of an idea’s acceptance (paraphrasing from memory):
1) that is nonsense!
2) everyone knows that!
3) hmmm, there may be something in what you sayReport
FWIW, related to Mark S’s comment on the moral he got out of lots of rejections. I once got a review recommending rejection on just awful grounds (essentially that premises from 3 different arguments did not fit together to support a conclusion) and decided that the referee likely didn’t like the paper and then went back to look for a reason to reject. That led me to think about why they might be wanting to look for such a reason and to broaden the paper beyond its original target. Turned out well at the next place I sent it.
One thing I took from this was never to just send a paper back out without considering the comments unless there are no comments.Report
I’ll mention a few that I thought were either mean-spirited, funny, or both. They came from the same journal, but for different submissions. Fwiw, I don’t hold it against the referees. Like David Wallace said above, I think that it’s important to remember that referees often mean the best, always do free work to try to help the profession, and so on. And while the reports might have contained really good reasons to reject a paper, I still find it amusing to mention these.
1. In one paper, I argued that if we took the arguments that supported this specific view of rationality to their conclusion, they’d show that there wouldn’t be requirements of rationality that applied to all rational agents. (I then tried to show how to block the argument and save these categorical requirements).
The referee report:
“It is hard to see that there is anything new or interesting about this argument. The general issue has been discussed since Herodotus’ first account of what he took to be cannibalism.
The present paper offers no argument to show why it must be true that the cannibals ought to refrain from cannibalism in any relevant sense. Nor is any argument offered to show that there is something wrong with crude relativism.
Perhaps the claims of the paper can be dismissed as exhibiting crude objectivism or crude absolutism.
2. In a report rejecting a paper critical of a certain view of perceptual justification and knowledge, this gem: “Granted that reasons are known, I don’t think x would accept that the fact that I see that p is my reason for believing that p. (N.B. I have not carefully read x’s book.)”
X was kind enough to confirm that this was the core idea defended in the book.Report
Paper sent to a journal generally ranked between 10 and 15 on best philosophy journal rankings. Reviewer makes no direct objections against the argument and instead says (paraphrazing): “The conclusion being argued for is significant enough that if the argument worked I would expect this paper to be published in the very top tier of philosophy journals. The fact that it has not already been accepted by one of those journals suggests to me that argument doesn’t work. On these grounds I recommend rejection.”Report
I once had a paper where I defended a complicated view and, in order to motivate the complicated view, I introduced a simple “first pass” version of the view in the first section. It should have been very clear to every reader that the “first pass” version of the view was not the version I was going to defend. Rather, in subsequent sections, I was going to show what was wrong with the simple version of the view and, in each section, amend the view to avoid the problem in question. One of the referees rejected the paper on the grounds that the simple version of the view was false, raising the very objections that were addressed later in the paper. The paper was rejected.
I also had a paper that the editor sent out to two referees and both reports were extremely positive, each recommending acceptance. The editor then decided to reject the paper. Perhaps they sent it to a third referee who recommended rejection. I’m not sure. I wrote to the editor to ask why it was rejected and never got an answer.
I’m lucky because, in my case, these negative experiences are outliers. Most referee comments I receive are positive and/or helpful. In numerous cases, the referees’ comments have gone above and beyond what I could reasonably expect someone to do for free. In numerous cases, the referees clearly took a lot of time to carefully engage with my argument and wrote extremely thoughtful and probing comments in reply. These helpful comments have, at times, significantly improved my paper and, at times, made me realize my argument decisively fails and caused me to abandon the paper in question altogether. I am enormously to the referees for helping to bring about either outcome.Report
Two that stand out in memory:
(i) ” The paper is clearly argued and well written and is of a high standard throughout. Like all great heroes, however, it has a fatal flaw, one so grave it cannot be published and is not salvageable in any form.”
(ii) Editor informing that their referee indicated that they had already rejected the paper for a different journal, therefore …Report
From one of the reviews in a rejection letter from a game theory journal:
“The writing style in general is awkward at too many instances. I was reminded of an article by Steven Pinker about academic writing: http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/ “Report
A while ago, we got the reviewercomment that the paper under consideration appeared to be ‘a puff piece, designed to increase the authors’ citation count’. The story has a happy ending though, as we clarified the intended contribution to the debate and the reviewer was then happy to accept. But the phrase stuck with me.Report
I had a rejection because I didn’t read a necessary article for my paper. The article was from those pop culture and philosophy books. My paper had nothing to do with ooo culture.Report
I’ve had versions of a number of the above, such as: “we, the editors, reject this response because the original paper (that we accepted) isn’t sufficiently clear to be replied to”; “the author doesn’t address this objection they clearly address”; and “the author’s argument works but wouldn’t work against this other argument.” But I thought I’d toss in a positive story, partly just for a change of pace but also because a number of the stories above seem to end without further dialogue with the editor, where in my opinion such dialogue would have been appropriate.
I once received a rejection for a response paper because I had made a somewhat ambiguous claim and the referee had (faultlessly) interpreted it in a way that called my argument into question. I fixed that sentence and made a few minor, related changes and sent a congenial note back to the editor explaining the situation and asking if they’d reconsider. They sent the paper back to the referee, who immediately understood what had happened and recommended the paper be accepted, which it was.
Responding doesn’t always work out, but I think there are cases where it’s called for, and that many of the instances described in this thread easily meet that bar (indeed, moreso than my own case). This is absolutely not something one should be doing regularly, but I’d encourage especially junior scholars not to be *too* hesitant about sending such replies.Report
I won’t give the exact comments in the interests of protecting the guilty, so this will lack a bit of specificity…. But the worst comments I have gotten are of the following sort: “Author fails to consider incredibly important paper x (or papers x, y, and z)” where paper x is in an incredibly obscure journals I’d never heard of before and have usually been published in the last four or five years. Of course this basically amounts to “I’m insulted because he didn’t talk about me!,” which is no reason for a rejection. In general I think “Doesn’t cover the relevant literature” is generally a bad reason for rejection. The only time I use it as a reason is when the author is basically making a point that’s been made better by another paper. It’s a lazy reason to reject, and it’s also unfair. Many people don’t have access to every possible journal through their institution and no one has time to read *everything* that’s written on a subject.
Also, I do blame referees for doing a bad job. If you’re not going to do a decent job don’t volunteer. In a lot of rural areas the fire department and rescue squad are unpaid volunteers. Would you be okay with them doing a lousy, careless job when you’re injured or your house is on fire? Of course not. It’s not as important a job, but the same goes for referees. If you’re going to half*** it at least have the decency not to volunteer.Report
I once had a paper rejected entirely on grounds of inadequate bibliography. One of the important articles I failed to cite was an undergraduate thesis that was published in an incredibly obscure journal. Turns out that undergraduate thesis was supervised by a big name in my field, who almost certainly was the referee for my paper.Report
I don’t know if this counts. An *acceptance* I recently received from a journal included 3 sets of reviewer’s comments, one of which included the line: “The paper is publishable, but not groundbreaking. If the author is a grad student needing a career boost, go head and publish it.” I was happy for the acceptance, but my grad school days were many years ago!Report
Below are some reviews I’ve received over the past few years. The first review is from a philosophy of science paper submitted for a history and philosophy of science journal:
Reviewer 1: The authors position is sound, but the argument behind it is far too technical. Also, it makes no mention of history, or how the history of science is relevant to said position. Reject.
Below are some comments I received after having submitted a different paper to a different philosophy journal:
Reviewer 1: This paper is great and makes a significant contribution to existing literature. Accept.
Reviewer 2: This paper fails to make a significant scholarly contribution to the existing literature. Reject.
The editor ultimately decided to reject, on the grounds that he agreed with Reviewer 1 even though he wasn’t sure himself why this was the case.Report
Paraphrasing from memory of response to NEH application :
Project is clear, applicant will probably complete. However I cannot support any project in continental philosophy .Report
This argument has already been made in the literature. Submitted to a more specialized journal in the field and it was published as a lead article. I asked the original journal to let me know where the argument had been made, but they said the reviewer would not answer repeated queriesReport
I don’t want to threadjack, but I’ve been thinking a bit more about the “Does not address the literature” line as a reason for rejection, and I’m going to step out on a limb and say that it should never be allowed as a reason for a flat rejection. R and R definitely, but flat rejection no. If a paper makes an interesting point and offers a good defense then that’s a reason to accept it even if it doesn’t namecheck every muckety muck or the referee himself. If it’s liable to a fatal counter that’s in paper X, then that, and not the fact it doesn’t mention paper X is the reason to reject it. The same goes for not offering anything new to the debate. The paper may be flawed because it doesn’t address the literature, but it’s the flaw and not addressing the literature that’s a reason to reject. I also think the ubiquity of this line leads to a lot of the bloat that makes academic writing so intolerable since people will cram in reams of footnotes and sometimes entire pointless, distracting sections just to try to ward off this objection. I’ll be honest I don’t even try to to address all the literature anymore in my work, but instead just the stuff that I think is directly relevant. I’m pretty sure that most referees who give that line aren’t acting in good faith and are just reaching for the easiest justification they can find for a decision they’ve already reached.
On the similar note: One of the truly infuriating things in historical work is when someone will counter an argument based on textual evidence from primary sources and careful consideration of the historical background by merely citing claims in the secondary literature. I haven’t had that happen to me, but some of my friends have had terrible luck with that. In one case I had a friend who had a truly novel paper challenging the scholarly consensus on a figure get multiple rejections that did no more than cite the very consensus he was explicitly challenging. Heaven help us when journal editors can’t or won’t spot what could be a textbook definition of a circular argument!Report
The “doesn’t address the literature” line has another flaw: from reading these comments, there seem to be plenty of reviewers who use that line to get a citation in for themselves. While I’m sure that there are circumstances where this is perfectly reasonable, it has the unfortunate consequence that those who persistently do this increase, over time, their own citation count more than those who don’t, therefore increasing their own position in the field and increasing the chance of being asked to review again. It’s a self-reinforcing process, akin to self-citation. Yet another reason to not be so obsessed by citations.Report
I once submitted a paper with “Diagnostic” in the title. The reviewer rejected the paper outright, on the grounds that “If the author titles a paper ‘dialogue’ the author should structure the paper as a dialogue rather than a monologue.”
The word “dialogue” appeared nowhere in the paper. Or the title.Report
I once had a five-note exchange about an original article I replied to over 4 years in a journal where, in accepting my second reply, the editor said that this should conclude discussion on this issue. Then the fifth piece rejoinder by my adversary appeared. Of course I sent my reply, and it was promptly accepted, ending the exchange. Go figure. (Well, my final reply included a figure–a spacetime diagram–maybe that made the difference.) Taught me to never say never again.
I’ve had relatively few informative rejections–most were just desk rejections– but the worst (but also really best) excoriated me for an article on an empirical survey I did in my classes in the late 80s where the reviewer said my methodology was unethical, intrusive, and incompetent. In retrospect, all that was true, and helped wise me up about the value of IRBs (not a big thing then in the humanities at my institution).Report
Reviewer 1: Exciting but obviousy false conclusion.
Reviewer 2: Conclusion is clearly true, but not interesting.Report
I once had a ms first recommended for rejection because “many papers have been published demonstrating …-type equalities,” whereas my _title_ made it clear that I was proving “…-type inequalities.” When this was clarified to the editor, the paper was immediately accepted.Report
I had a business ethics paper rejected because it says that a decision by an actual company was ethically questionable and the editor was afraid that this would open the journal to being sued for libel. This was especially frustrating because I was coming up for tenure soon and the goalposts for what changes were needed to make the paper acceptable kept changing, with long delays between the editor’s replies. Finally I was told that the paper wouldn’t be published unless I made the case hypothetical, which I refused to do. I sent it to another journal with a note explaining the paper’s history, asking for a quick rejection if the new editor had the same worries. The reply was that there was nothing remotely libelous in the paper, that it was accepted without changes, and that it would be in the next issue—in time for my tenure reviewers to see the published version. I heartily recommend the Business and Society Review for all of your business ethics needs.Report
The worst comments are probably better than no explanation at all. How can one hope to improve a text if no reasons for rejection are given?
Would it improve the care, civility, and quality of reviewers for their identities to be revealed (upon request?) if the reviewed submission were eventually published in a reputable periodical?Report
I put quite a bit of effort into my referee reports, and I honestly thing I am a conscientious referee. As such, I often end up recommending rejection.
Now, (1) I don’t have tenure, at least not yet. (2) Insofar as I primarily review articles within my field of expertise, I assume that I personally know at least some of the authors whose papers I review (or that the authors know people I know), or that some of the authors are people with quite a bit of influence. So yes, I sometimes probably reject articles by people I know, or by people who carry a lot of influence in my field, and given the number of articles I referee, it is statistically very likely that I have, despite my best efforts, made some errors of judgment in some my report.
If my anonymity weren’t guaranteed, I can assure you that I would not volunteer for referee work ever again.Report
That seems to make sense. Then I guess it has to be up to the editor to police the reviews.Report
I *think* my first ever submission was rejected with an explanation from the referee noting that I’d used the word “flow” to describe a phenomena that we might try to capture in the philosophy of time. The referee explained that: they thought that it was Prior who had said that any such mention of the term term would make him want to reach for a revolver to end his own life; that the referee felt the same way about my use of it, and that, frankly, I might want to consider feeling the same way myself.
The editor passed on this comment in full.
I was a graduate student at the time.Report
Yikes Jonathan–no doubt the referee thought he (yeah probably he) was putting the “har” in “harsh”!Report
Yes. I’m reasonably sure of ‘he’ as someone later relayed to me with some glee the tale of writing a very similar report, and assumed I would find it hilarious.Report
Writing about the logic of historical explanation and giving the Battle of Stalingrad as an example, I got this fine reviewer comment: “The author was not at the battle of Stalingrad (presumably) so they should not write as if they were”. Not sure what I like most about the comment, perhaps the mixture of obvious absurdity and passive-aggressiveness.Report
A coauthor and I had a paper rejected in part because we had, according to the reviewer, misrepresented the view of Professor X. The reviewer then went on a 1000-word tangent about our misinterpretation and the background debate to which Professor X’s work contributed. But prior to sending the manuscript out for review, we had sent a draft of the manuscript to Professor X, and he had confirmed that we had gotten his view correct. On the bright side, that remains the only time in my experience with peer review that I have gotten thorough comments that were unhelpful. The more common problem is that reviewers only provide 2-3 vague sentences explaining their rejection verdict, which offers an author no insight about how to improve the paper.Report
How about a post with “best” comments from reviewers/editors received?Report
The vast majority of the referee reports I have received have been helpful, and professionally presented.
I think that graduate programs should teach their graduate students how to write referee reports. (In my graduate proseminars, I usually have students write referee reports on each other’s papers, and I discuss how to referee papers in my publishing workshops.) I seem to remember Lewis Powell having really good advice on how to be a good referee: https://blog.apaonline.org/2017/05/19/referee-reports-a-beginners-guide/
I think one hard rule that referees should follow is not to speculate about the author of the paper–just write the referee report only about the paper rather than the author. (Don’t say, “The author neglects to think about X” though you can say “the paper does not but should discuss X.”) The temptation to be jerky should be resisted, and not making your comments personal is one way to help. (Even if it is insufficient in itself.) There’s never a good reason to be cruel.Report
This is the most peculiar comment I received after submitting an essay, from a renowned specialized British journal in my field. I quote the words of the associate editor.
“This is an impressive piece of scholarship. However, the referee seems right to me: too many of the key moves remain extremely hard to follow even for … specialists. Incredibly fine distinctions between the different …[versions of a philosopher’s famous work] are effectively reframed in equally problematic … technical paraphrases – I’m not convinced that is a gain philosophically or even textually given the journal’s relatively broad audience. I’d advise AU to consider one of the specialist venues who may be less concerned on this score”. In short: this prestigious journal rejects what they judge to be “an impressive piece” , able to retrace and indicate (currently neglected) “incredibly fine distinctions” between different editions of a famous work of a leading modern (German) philosopher on grounds that, even in UK, could have been easily fixed by a copy editor, and in other countries would have been appreciated as matter of philological analysis. And why to reject, instead of asking me whether I had research funds to hire such a professional figure (which I had) in order to provide a more ‘readable’ version?Report
I once saw all the internal correspondence about an article of mine that was in R&R where they were discussing how they might have to reject it. I also discovered that it was not in fact the kind of blind review they suggested it was, as the managing editor had been asked who I was (and replied, “a graduate student at x”).
I’ll never send anything else to that journal and a colleague and friend of mine had a different, but bothersome interaction with them as well.Report
If others have had similar experiences, why not name and shame the journal?Report
I don’t want to name and shame the journal because to be perfectly frank, I have an awful lot to lose by doing so.Report
Not as an anonymous commenter you don’tReport
I’m a little late to the party here, but on my first ever submission I received my favourite comment to date:
“However, both those claims appear to be wrong, for ‘the unique man’ cannot be instantiated by something different from ‘the unique inventor’ at any scenario, on the assumption that ‘being an inventor’ entails ‘being a man’.”
(Since someone always inevitably asks: no, it did not matter to the argument that this was in response to whether ‘man’ was being used to mean ‘human male’ or merely ‘human being’; anyone who understood the point would have recognised this. It would also have been a stretch to think that ‘man’ was being used synonymously with ‘sentient being’.)Report
AJP reviewer, quoted almost literally: The author relies upon another author (XYZ) in claiming that there is experimental evidence for p. I have not read the article, and I don’t know the journal. I therefore see no argument given as to why p, as opposed to not p.Report
The reviewer recommended rejection of my paper on the rationality of fearing death on the grounds that the topic was irrelevant. Was this because the reviewer believed that death is just an illusion? I hope he or she is right.Report
Years ago I had a paper rejected from a T20 journal, with a referee’s report that began, “This paper really raised my hackles”, and then proceeded to give a bunch of [to my mind] irrelevant and incompetent objections.
In my paper, I had argued that for a particular philosophical thesis, P, the best judges of arguments for P would be those philosophers who had no vested interest in the debate, because even highly intelligent and scrupulous judges might find it hard to reach the right conclusion about topics in which they are emotionally invested.
TBH I don’t think my paper was all that great, but I *was* tickled that the referee’s report served to illustrate my main point: a pragmatically self-stultifying rejection letter! 🙂Report
Worst one I ever heard (not my paper):
Why was this paper in my mailbox instead of the garbage can where it belongs?Report
One of the worst experiences I have is from a top-journal. I submitted a paper, got a review report that was claiming I was arguing for x, when i was arguing for not x. I noted this to the editor who agreed so ask another review. The next review report comes… and it is from 2019. This was 2021.
Yes, it was a review of my paper, but given that this was a side-project, it had been going on for quite some time and what I got was a review of a version of the manuscript very different from the one that I submitted.
Oddly enough this is what I expect from some of the journals that are considered amongst the best in philosophy.Report