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Academic publications are judged, mainly, on two grounds: correctness and importance. A paper which contains incorrect statements should, unquestionably, be rejected from publication. However, importance is a more subjective issue. Typical rejection message related to importance are:

  • "You present a new problem and solve it correctly, but the new problem is not very useful".
  • "Your paper deals with a specific topic and it is not sufficiently general to be published".
  • "Your results are correct but they are not surprising; the proofs are not technically challening."

Evidently, importance is subjective: what seems "useful"/"general"/"challenging" to one person, may seem the opposite to another person.

My question is: when I review a paper (assuming it is correct), what should I do when I feel the paper is not sufficiently "important"?

If it were my paper, I would certainly want the everyone to see its importance. So, based on rules such as: "love thy neighbor as thyself" ("ואהבת לרעך כמוך"), "love your friend's property as your own" ("יהי ממון חברך חביב עליך כשלך") and especially "love your friend's honor as your own" ("יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך"), apparently I must consider the paper I am reviewing as important, too. Hence, I should recommend to accept it (again, assuming it is correct).

Is this reasoning correct?

  • I don't understand the premise, nor why this is limited to academia. In countless areas of life, we are put in positions to pass judgment on others. For example - judges. What does passing judgment have to do with loving your neighbor? Nobody is saying you have to deride the author or create a campaign to have the author's reputation smeared. – Seth J Oct 28 '15 at 13:39
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi Maybe you can tell him he fails to adequately demonstrate the importance of his work (rather than that it isn't important)? – SAH Oct 10 '18 at 17:08
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    @SAH this is indeed what I usually do. In general, I try to explain to the authors that it is best for them to continue improving their paper before publishing it. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 10 '18 at 17:17
19

You have restricted your understanding of “neighbour” to the author of the paper.

If, however, you considered the neighbour to be the other possible readers of the paper (of whom there are of course many more than the author), then those neighbours would rather have your best judgement of the importance of the paper. To test this hypothesis, consider your feelings when you have started to read a paper which was supposed to be important but turned out otherwise.

I suggest that this reasoning is more sound than that in the question.

  • This makes sense. Additionally, if it is a conference paper and there is limited room for papers, them necessarily some papers must be selected based on their relative importance. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 27 '15 at 8:10
6

None of the principles that you cited imply that your line of thinking should be identical to that of your neighbor. Your reasoning does not make sense. There absolutely is value in making sure that your rejection is diplomatic; however, the fact that somebody else thinks that his paper is important does not mean that it is.

Of course, you should try to find the importance in the paper that you are reviewing (you don't need a Jewish teaching for that; that's the job of the academic reviewer). But

I love my friend + He thinks this paper is important =/= I think this paper is important.

The entire purpose of your job is to express your opinion on the publication-worthiness of academic papers. If you just start pretending that all papers are important, then you aren't doing your job.

  • "importance" is a subjective issue. What is important to one person is not necessarily important to another person. My reasoning is that "loving thy neighbour" means that I should try to understand their point of view. Try to see things as they see them. As an example: suppose my child paints something. This painting is not really "important". But for my child it is important. So, because I love my child, it is also important to me. Similarly for a paper: if a close friend of mine writes a paper that is important to him, then because I love him, it is important to me too. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 26 '15 at 18:48
  • @ErelSegal-Halevi No. Because you love him, it is important to try to understand why he believes his paper is important. This is of course true. When reviewing an academic paper, of course you should try to find the importance. But if you can't find it, there's no reason to recommend the paper to be published. That defeats the purpose of your job as an academic reviewer. When your child paints a picture, you can understand why it's important to your child, but it's not actually very important to you. If the painting gets lost, you're not going to burst into tears the way your child would. – Daniel Oct 26 '15 at 18:52
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    @Daniel I follow your answer. But, why do I have problems following your & Erel's follow-up comments? I'm not following the child analogy at all. A father / son relationship entails far different circumstances than a professor & colleague. I don't think the analogy is a good one, here. The child's painting doesn't really affect the public, and its rejection is not something that affects the child's future career. – DanF Oct 26 '15 at 20:25
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I'm going to "harp" on your statement of "love your friend's honor as your own" ("יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך").

Place that together with your 1st statement of quoting .ואהבת לרעך כמוך

If you translate the 2nd one literally, it says, "(Show) love TO your neighbor as to yourself.". This means,, essentially, place yourself in your neighbor's position. Whatever you would do to love yourself, and pamper yourself, and want the best for yourself (assuming that you DO love yourself - many people, BTW, don't, but I assume that's not you) - that's what you do for your friend / colleague, etc.

The 1st statement, about the honor of your friend should be as dear to you, applies very specifically to your academic situation, here.

If you presented your paper, how would you wish to be honored? Wouldn't you want honest, harsh but diplomatic criticism? Would you want your colleague to just "pass off" your paper to the public only because he likes you and doesn't want to hurt your feelings, even if the public gets a "nonsense" or "trivial" paper? (I've read plenty of academic "nonsense" myself, and I'm an "outsider". I won't delve further, though.) Isn't it more honorable to you to publish a useful paper, and if it isn't that way, wouldn't you want your colleague to tell you that and suggest ways to improve it? Wouldn't you be more honored by a useful publication that the public can use?

If you can answer the above questions honestly, I think, you can determine what you should do. It makes more sense to criticize if it's necessary.

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    There are many many people who would prefer that you let their paper through and subject the public to a trivial publication rather than reject it. Once it's published, it goes on the CV. Plus, they do think their subject matter is important. – Daniel Oct 26 '15 at 19:46
  • @Daniel Re 1st sentence - I did not know that. It's not an obvious fact from the OP's question, but, fine. Offhand, that process sounds somewhat "wasteful" to the public, and may explain, perhaps, why academia might be catering to a "stupid" general public. But, that's my (uneducated?) opinion. 3rd sent. - Yup, I hear you. Which would explain exactly your 2nd sent. They HAVE To publish so that they CAN fluff up their CV. That's why, perhaps, there is political pressure to publish "trivial nonsense" in the 1st place! So, if the "neighbor" is limited to just the colleague, why bother critique? – DanF Oct 26 '15 at 20:15
  • @Daniel I didn't see your answer & follow up comments before typing mine. I might glean some insights from that :-) – DanF Oct 26 '15 at 20:18
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Another angle, but have you considered that overly indulging in the wants and wishes of the authors can actually become 'a stumbling block before the blind'? Not well thought out ideas, problematic summaries of existent literature, ill-conceptualised variables and models can all contribute to the published article becoming a red-herring for future researchers, and for the authors as well.

It is okay to love your neighbour and to be honest in your review and to review without a hidden agenda. In my scientific reviews I make sure that I elucidate upon my comments: what holes I think are missing. This is how I would like to be treated. If I think an important study is not referenced, I provide a reference to that source. I make clear in my comments when statistical critisicm is to be considered minor, so that the editor won't think important sounding complex statistical things are major issues. This all from the viewpoint: love your neighbour as yourself.

But above all: Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. My reviews are there to protect the readers from articles that are wrong, the journal from publishing articles that won't serve their interests and citation counts, and to protect the authors from publishing something that will be harmful to themselves later in their career.

To put this answer more in line with your more specific question: what about situations that papers do not seem 'important'. I think the same general reasoning as above applies. A study needs to address its importance in the introduction. If a study does not feel important it is either a problem of description (the introduction does not convey the importance well enough) or because the authors missed key literature that diminish the reviewed study. If the authors are not made aware of this their paper will not get the attention the authors desire, and the journal does not get the citations that it wants. Love thy neighbour: give them clear feedback why you think the article does not feel important and provide key literature that the authors seem to have missed where possible, but also Do not put a stumbling block before the blind: the publication on the short term will hamper them in the long run.

  • I totally agree with you that wrong or poorly-written papers should be rejected. But the case I described in the question is different: the paper is correct and good. The only issue is that the problem it solves looks not sufficiently "important". – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 28 '15 at 5:49
  • @ErelSegal-Halevi, yeah I could have worded my answer better; I lost myself a little :). I see it as te same thing. When something seems insufficiently important it is either caused by a lacking introduction, which did not position the research question well, or failed to address key research that precedes the paper. Either way, it is necessary to address it. The journal and the authors both want the paper to receive citations, so perceived lack of importance is problematic for both in the long run – RonP Oct 28 '15 at 11:12
  • @ErelSegal-Halevi I updated the answer to reflect the question better – RonP Oct 28 '15 at 11:37
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    OK. This is indeed an important point that I overlooked: if the paper doesn't look important to me, then maybe it is because the authors didn't present it well enough, and this may also make it seem less important to the readers. – Erel Segal-Halevi Oct 29 '15 at 6:37

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