There is no way around the fact that determinations about the relative contributions of papers and journal acceptances will always be highly subjective. In addition, editors and referees are busy people and contribute their time on a near volunteer basis. However, even keeping this in mind, I can't help but feel that occasional my work doesn't get a fair shake. To help frame my question, let me describe some situations I have witnessed firsthand (often as the author):

1) The paper receives strong acceptance recommendations from every referee report. The editor rejects the paper and declines to give any additional feedback beyond a boilerplate sentence that the journal gets many more good papers than it can accept.

2) The paper is rejected without a referee report or any comments regarding the content of the paper by the editor. The rejection note solely cites that due to the backlog the journal isn't even able to send the paper out for an opinion or refereeing. However, the journal is processing papers for colleagues.

3) The editor removes positive comments or quashes altogether a positive referee report and then rejects the paper. This was discovered when the referee approached the author after the paper was rejected against the referee's opinion. There is a similar notorious case involving Duke that has been discussed on the internet.

4) The paper is rejected with a referee report that makes significant objectively inaccurate comments about the results and how they fit into the related literature. The editor declines to discuss or respond to these issues.

5) The referee report compliments the work but doesn't find the problem compelling. The report applies verbatim to other papers on the same problem in the same journal and no distinction or comparison to those papers is made. The editor rejects the paper based on this report.

6) I've also seen this from the other side. A graduate student across the world who I had never heard of solved a problem that I and others had worked on for several years, using some ingenious new ideas. The paper was submitted to a ~15th ranked journal. I was a referee and I wrote the most positive review I have so far in my career. Despite this the editor rejected the paper with some boilerplate language. I was never given a good explanation as to why (and I highly doubt there was any secret/political dimension to the story I am unaware of). This leaves me questioning if an unqualified glowing review by me wasn't sufficient, why even bother asking me to spend the time refereeing the paper in the first place?

I've heard other appalling stories from colleagues about their experiences with certain journals and editors, but I have been personally close enough to all of the instances described above to know the details of the particular cases.

My question is the following:

Is it reasonable to demand some minimal level of due diligence / feedback / justification / consistency / logic from a journal? Do authors frequently push back on editors? Has anyone had success changing an editor's decision based on a discussion following a rejection?

For the sake of this question, assume you are advising a younger established researcher at a well rated research university who has previously published papers in similarly selective journals. Also assume that this person is aggressive and aims high but is not completely delusional.


closed as off-topic by Christian Remling, Andy Putman, Will Jagy, Ben Linowitz, Qiaochu Yuan Feb 20 '16 at 4:38

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about research level mathematics within the scope defined in the help center." – Christian Remling, Andy Putman, Will Jagy, Ben Linowitz, Qiaochu Yuan
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I sympathise with the frustrations, but I relly don't think MO is the place to post what is essentially an attempt to elicit support for a point of view. A blog post and discussion would surely be better $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Feb 20 '16 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ When your paper is rejected, do not bother contesting the decision. Instead, send it to another journal. If it is a great paper, then it is the journal that loses by this, not you. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Edgar Feb 20 '16 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ ..and if the journal loses out, it'll be the journal that will have a harder time getting a job / grants / tenure and it'll be the journal's family that suffers. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 20 '16 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ See my question academia.stackexchange.com/questions/58097/… $\endgroup$ – David Roberts Feb 20 '16 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ As Yogi Berra might have said if he were a mathematician, "If the editor doesn't want to publish your paper, nobody's gonna stop 'em." Starting fresh with a new journal would seem much more promising than arguing with an editor who evidently, for some reason, doesn't like your paper. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Feb 20 '16 at 3:01

As a data point: I have changed an editor's mind after a negative decision that was based on a referee's report that was demonstrably wrong. When I was an editor, whenever an author raised a potentially valid objection to a referee's report based on more than a difference of opinion, I made it a practice to seek other expert opinions, and change my decision if warranted. To misquote Orwell, one has the right to expect ordinary decency even of an editor.

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    $\begingroup$ "Right to expect" is indeed what we have, and we expect. But this is all we can do. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Feb 20 '16 at 14:24

Everything you describe happened to me and to my colleagues as authors. On your question "is it reasonable to demand" my answer is "no". I've never heard of the case when the author could change the decision by arguing with a redactor. Just send the paper to another journal. That's the only thing you can do.

  • $\begingroup$ I have heard that such successful arguments occasionally happen in experimental sciences, but I have not heard of one in math. $\endgroup$ – Lev Borisov Feb 20 '16 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ I have seen this happening in at least one case (where I was not directly involved) in pure mathematics, at one of the very top journal. $\endgroup$ – Joël Feb 20 '16 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Joel: I suppose such cases are very rare. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Feb 20 '16 at 14:22

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