How often have you encountered the following situation? A paper comes back with two positive reviews, one negative review, and a final decision of “reject” by the editor. Or even worse, both reviewers recommend a revise-and-resubmit, but the editor rejects. Until I became a co-editor myself (disclaimer: this was only about a year ago), I thought that paper decisions should parallel a democracy: the reviewers vote, and the editor goes with the majority decision, casting a tie-breaking vote if needed. Anything that deviated from that system seemed arbitrary. The view from the other side (i.e. the editor side), is very different, however. So here are some good reasons* the editor may have deviated from “majority rule” and rejected a paper:
- A reviewer is inexperienced and recommended a revise-and-resubmit despite pointing out some significant, potentially unsolvable issue(s).
- One of the reviewers is particularly knowledgeable in the research area. That reviewer’s opinion and recommendation are likely to be up-weighted.
- A reviewer doesn’t seem to have read the paper carefully, missing one or more fairly obvious flaws that another reviewer or the editor noticed. That reviewer’s opinion and recommendation are likely to be down-weighted.
- A flaw pointed out by one of the reviewers (or observed by the editor) is so significant that the editor cannot see a clear path to publication.
- The editor disagrees with the reviewers’ assessment of the issues*.
- There are so many issues that it is hard for the editor to have confidence that they will all be addressed successfully.
- The paper’s quality/contribution is significantly below that of papers the editor typically gives revise-and-resubmits to.
Ultimately, the publishing process is not a democracy, and the editor has the final say (and responsibility) in the publication decision. A good editor will pay more attention to the content of the reports and the cover letters than to the recommendation itself. The good news is that reviewers recommending rejection can be overridden too, and this does happen regularly.
It is also important to remember that an editor’s assessment is about the suitability of the paper for that particular journal, not about whether the paper is publishable. So if one journal turns you away, don’t despair, reassess (some suggestions for what to do after a rejection can be found here), and keep on keeping on!
*Of course, editors make mistakes too. This is not to say ALL editorial decisions are good decisions.