Reviewing Rejection Top Ten
( The most common reasons I reject papers that I am asked to review )
James Davis
UC Santa Cruz
2005
# 10 Poor figure captions
Figure captions must be self explanatory. Reviewers and other
readers often read figures first to get an overview of the paper.
You simply can’t assume that the reader knows the details of a
paper before looking at the figures. This is what captions are
for – to explain the figure. The captions can be simplified,
since there is limited space. However they should leave the
reader feeling that they understand something, and not more
confused than before they looked at the figure.
# 9 Inscrutable figures
Spend time to construct figures carefully. It is not ok to just
take a screenshot. They should convey information, or they
shouldn’t be present. Diagrams should have the minimum
number of components that convey the idea. Graphs should be
labeled with units and in a legible font size. Labels should go
next the item they are labeling in the figure. .e.g. it’s not ok to
tell me the red line means X and the blue line means Y in the
caption, this forces the reader look away from the figure. The
default look of your MATLAB graph is almost certainly
wrong. Fix it.
# 8 No statement of motivation
The very first paragraph of your paper (or at least the
introduction) should motivate why you are doing this work.
This needs to be done at two levels. First, why is this
important commercially, or to society, or in some vague high
level way? Secondly, what is the particular problem you are
addressing? What is the challenge? Why is the solution not
immediately obvious? A statement of the goal that the paper
addresses needs to be made explicitly. The introduction section
needs to convince the reader of two things. That the work is
important and that there is in fact a problem to be solved. You
can’t just have one or the other. You need both.
# 7 Infatuated with math
The paper text needs to be readable by people who skip
equations. You can assume an appropriate level of
mathematical sophistication, however you can’t assume people
are in the mood to read all your Greek letters and tiny
subscripts. Its necessary to include equations of course,
however they don’t supercede the need for a clear discussion
of your work. Similarly, it can’t be assumed that the reader
remembers what X’i+1 refers to three pages after it was first
introduced. Use plain language to describe the concepts. Read
your paper skipping all equations and symbols. If its not
understandable, go fix it.
# 6 Bad grammar / English usage
The paper needs to be easy to read and understand. Poor
grammar, spelling, and strange English usage make it hard for
people to read. This is nearly always caused by writers for
whom English is their second or third language. Sometimes
the writing is strictly correct, but a native speaker would just
never say it that way. Reviewers should endeavor to be as
understanding as possible. Writers should get a native English
speaker to read their work and help to fix it. Is this fair? Nope,
not fair. I apologize. However it has to be done. [ Most
computer science journals and conferences are conducted in
English. However, if you’re submitting to the Tibetan
conference on graph theory, get a native Tibetan speaker to
read and correct your work.]
# 5 Incomprehensible writing
Your writing needs to be clear. Perfect grammar in no way
insures that the reader can figure out what you are talking
about. The text should be organized to follow some logical
flow. The flow should be obvious to the reader. They should
know when they are reading background, when they are
reading your new idea, when it’s a demonstrated result, and
when you are just speculating. The goal is to communicate
your ideas, there are no extra points for confusing the reviewer
to show how smart you are.
# 4 Unconvincing results
Somewhere your paper should have results. These results
should be convincing. I have reviewed animation papers with
terribly ugly videos. I have reviewed papers with a single
unlabeled MATLAB plot. I have even reviewed papers which
directly say that their results are inferior to prior techniques.
Now why would I accept a paper if the new method is worse
than the old method? Include results. Make sure they are
convincing. Make sure they indicate that your new work is
superior to old work. If you work in graphics make sure they
are aesthetically beautiful. If the results aren’t convincing,
continue your research until they are convincing.
# 3 Not sufficiently novel
Your work needs to contribute something to the scientific
community. Its not worth publishing if it simply repeats what
others have done. (With the exception of certain scientific
studies that need validation from other researchers.) If part of
your work is new and part is old, emphasize the new stuff.
Sometimes the part that took 90% of the time, effort, and
heartache isn’t even mentioned in the paper. Bummer. Write
about the new stuff.
# 2 No relation to previous work
Present your work in the context of the previously existing
work. You have a related work section. This is not simply a list
of papers that are similar. You need to compare and contrast
this previous work against your new work. If you tell the
reader that there are these twenty other similar papers and fail
to make a comparison, the only logical conclusion is that your
work isn’t very novel. The related work section is a chance to
defend the novelty of your work. Anticipate the readers belief
that someone has done this before. Explain why each previous
class of methods does not sufficiently address the challenge
that you identified. Politely. Don’t imply previous authors are
stupid, rather attempt to praise their work, just be careful to
claim they were addressing something different than you are.
# 1 No statement of contribution
State your contribution. Explicitly. Repeatedly. At the end of
the introduction section there should be a sentence that says,
“The contribution of this work is …” The rest of the paper is
your attempt to back up that single sentence. Don’t make the
reader guess what the contribution is. The reviewer is
attempting to determine if your contribution is important,
novel, and achieved. If they don’t know what the contribution
is, this makes their task more difficult. Seem simple? This is
by far the #1reason I recommend rejection of papers. State
your contribution. Explicitly.
Reasons for rejection
# 01 No statement of contribution
# 02 No relation to previous work
# 03 Not sufficiently novel
# 04 Unconvincing results
# 05 Incomprehensible writing
# 06 Bad grammar / English usage
# 07 Infatuated with math
# 08 No statement of motivation
# 09 Inscrutable figures
# 10 Poor figure captions
Reasons related to the work itself
# 01 No statement of contribution
# 02 No relation to previous work
# 03 Not sufficiently novel
# 04 Unconvincing results
# 05 Incomprehensible writing
# 06 Bad grammar / English usage
# 07 Infatuated with math
# 08 No statement of motivation
# 09 Inscrutable figures
# 10 Poor figure captions
Reasons related to the writing
# 01 No statement of contribution
# 02 No relation to previous work
# 03 Not sufficiently novel
# 04 Unconvincing results
# 05 Incomprehensible writing
# 06 Bad grammar / English usage
# 07 Infatuated with math
# 08 No statement of motivation
# 09 Inscrutable figures
# 10 Poor figure captions
Wrong way to outline a paper
1 intro
2 related work
3 my method
3.1 module 1 – lots of details
3.2 module 2 – lots of details
3.3 module 3 – lots of details
4 results
5 conclusion
Right way to outline a paper
• Motivation
– write a sentence explaining the high level motivation
• Challenge
– write a sentence explaining the challenge
• Contribution
– write a sentence explaining the contribution
• Related work
– write down all the related work you can think of and
for each write a sentence about why it does not
sufficiently address the challenge you specified
• Your actual work – not important – really, its not
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Reviewing Rejection Top Ten