The submissions process for scientific authors at times appears to be an oppressive futile effort. A wise person once wrote that a working academic researcher will experience more rejection over the course of their career than in almost any other field.
Perhaps working as a salesperson is an example of a more ‘rejection filled’ vocation. Research papers (also called scholarly papers), grants, and job applications are all likely to come back rejected regularly over the course of your academic career. Especially if you are doing the right thing and always trying to submit your work to the best journals with the highest impact factors. Top journals keep their rejection rates high; some outlets like Nature and Science have rejection rates as high as 90%. Nine out of ten papers will get rejected, very often before peer review.
How to manage rejection as a scientific author?
Writing is a very creative process and so it’s normal to become emotionally invested in your work and how it gets treated by others. It’s also normal to become discouraged when your academic work gets turned down by a target journal. Be gracious, move on, but take on board the useful comments on your work that this process has generated.
The first stage of grief usually experienced after a paper gets rejected can include thoughts like ‘how dare they be so awful about my work’ or ‘those comments about the quality of my research are just plain wrong’. Reviewers and editors can sometimes be quite unconstructive about work in their written comments. The important thing to remember here is that now you’ve been rejected by this journal it’s up to you which comments and criticisms to take on board and use to aid you in a re-work for future submission. And which to just ignore. Returning to a piece of academic work in light of review comments and rejection can be an enlightening experience: perhaps working with a senior colleague or supervisor you can take the good and positive comments about your work and use them to improve the study, the writing style, or structure for future submission. Denial does not last long: it’s a good idea to write a short, polite email back to the Anger
A good rule of thumb in academic publishing (as well as in life) is: don’t get angry about rejection. It happens all the time. As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said ‘success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. The other point to make here is: never show your anger to the editor. Angry emails about rejection are never a good idea and, again, you might want to use this journal in the future. Always leave a positive impression when communicating with journals, editorial offices, and peer reviewers.
In many cases, authors will feel that they have been treated unfairly by a journal or, more specifically, by a peer reviewer. Perhaps the comments that come back about one of your papers are clearly unfair, incorrect, or just plain unethical. In these circumstances, if you feel that an editorial decision has been based on something you disagree with, it’s a good idea to write to the journal to ask for more information or to lodge an appeal. This happens all the time. As an author, you should never feel that you cannot communicate directly with an editor, especially in cases where you want to learn more about why a decision was made. Lots of journals ask reviewers very specific questions about articles and collect a lot of information behind the scenes that they then don’t share with authors. It’s also not unusual for appeals to editors to result in a further round of peer review or a changed decision. What’s the worst that can happen? Your paper is already rejected. Remember to always stay polite and positive with all communications, however.
As we’ve discussed, feeling down, even depressed, about a negative outcome with one of your research papers is normal. You’ll bounce back. Take a step back and try to put your rejection into a bigger picture: maybe you chose a high profile journal with a high impact fact for this submission (top tip: this is the right approach) and so rejection was always a likely outcome. You can move on with your next attempt with this paper to a journal slightly down the tree in terms of IF. Or perhaps some of the comments that have come back after peer review are valuable: maybe you did make some mistakes with your data collection or analysis? Isn’t it better to learn about these issues now, while the paper is still unpublished than experiencing the far worse outcome of someone penning a negative commentary on one of your actual articles? There is always a positive side to rejection.
editor of the journal that’s just turned you down just to say ‘thanks for your time’ and ‘for helpful and constructive comments’. You might want to submit a paper to this journal in the future and so it’s always a good idea to leave a positive impression.
Once time has passed and you’ve allowed the dust to settle it’s time to accept the editor’s decision and just move on. Take on board the comments you and your collaborators agree with that have come out of this round of peer review and re-work the paper. Aim for submission to another journal, perhaps more specialized and with a slightly lower IF. Some of the most common scenarios to avoid after rejection include a total loss of confidence (the project just gets shelved and what could have easily been a decent publication to add to your CV never sees the light of day) or opting for a far from the optimal outcome. You review your paper once again, one more time for good luck. It is ready. The research is good. You know the material by heart. Then you submit to a much lower IF journal, far down the tree, just to see their work come out. Just get it published, somewhere, anywhere. This is a bad strategy to advance your career.
No matter how far you proceed on the “Five Stages of Rejection”, keep in mind that editors and reviewers are human, and do make mistakes. It is possible that the reviewers’ comments and the editor’s decisions were incorrect. The decision to accept or reject a paper rests with the editor. Appealing the decision is always an option, but such appeals must be based on rational arguments focused specifically on why the decision should be overturned. Focus the appeals on objective issues (interpretation of data, as an example), that’s where success typically lies. Take a deep breath, deeper still, chant if you have to, then calmly and rationally present clear arguments (do avoid emotional pleas), and address all of the critiques (address the negative parts of the review, do not skip them). On a related note, editor rejections based on the journal scope (material does not appeal to the general readership) are unlikely to be overturned no matter the strength of the appeal. Generally speaking, appeals are taken seriously, and if the arguments are presented reasonably, they may solicit additional opinions from other editors or members of the editorial advisory board before coming to a decision.
A final thought: Most Editors not only handle hundreds of papers per year but also are active research scientists who submit manuscripts themselves. After all, they are colleagues and have had the same opportunity to experience these five stages when their own papers were been rejected. Editors do understand.
- Kübler-Ross, E.; Kessler, D. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss; Scribner: New York, 2005