Publication in peer-reviewed journals is an integral part of academic life, but however successful you are in your research career, you’re likely to receive a lot more rejections than acceptances of your submitted manuscript. Excelling as a researcher requires a delicate balance between handling rejection and savouring fleeting moments of triumph – after all, it’s estimated that at least half of all papers undergo one or more rejections before finally being published. Here are 7 suggestions on how to cope, understand, and learn from manuscript rejection.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
First of all, let’s be upfront that rejection hurts – bad news and stressful situations can have a physical effect on a person. Whether this is your first rejection, or you have dealt with this before, it doesn’t necessarily make rejections any easier to bear. If you need advice or support, consider talking with senior colleagues who will doubtless have gone through the same emotions on countless occasions.
2. Build resilience.
Resilience is the ability to meet, learn from, and not be crushed by the challenges and stresses of life. As manuscript rejections are all too common for researchers, resilience will be crucial for helping you bounce back and try again. In many careers, ambition comes with the risk of being turned down, but it doesn’t mean that you should give up. Robert Wickes explains that although everyone has different a range of resilience, we can make a conscious decision to be self-aware, to practice self-care, and to apply ideas from positive psychology.
3. Re-frame rejection as success.
Any ambition comes with a risk of being turned down and I believe that if your manuscripts are never rejected, you might not be aiming high enough. While there are many factors you should consider when choosing where to publish your research, the reputation and prestige of the journal tend to top the list when academics rank their priorities.
Submitting your article to the top journal in your field or well-known cross-disciplinary journals inevitably comes with a higher risk of rejection because of the amount of demand and competition, but it is worth a try if you feel your findings are important, and it does keep life exciting. If you do feel your findings are important, a high-level submission may also provide the opportunity to obtain expert reviewer comments, which can be especially valuable to early-career researchers who want to improve their manuscripts.
4. Understand the rejection.
There are multiple reasons your manuscript might have been rejected and it is important to try and understand why.
An editorial or desk rejection is when your article is rejected without being sent for peer review. Most journals have a limited (and often diminishing) pool of willing reviewers nowadays, so need to be quite careful which manuscripts they send off for detailed consideration. Desk rejections often happen because the topic or article type does not match the journal’s scope, or because it does not conform to the submission requirements. It might be worth double-checking previously published articles and instructions to authors.
If you do receive reviewer comments, you can at least take heart that an editor was interested enough in your ideas or results to seek further opinion. When you are in the right mindset to do so, try to consider these comments so that you can take practical, level-headed steps towards another submission. A constructive review, even if negative, will explain whether the reviewer thought there was a fundamental problem with your methodology or premise, or whether they disagreed with specific aspects of your interpretation of results or your arguments.
Should you try to guess your anonymous reviewers?
5. Understand your options.
Just because your manuscript was rejected, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. It’s important to know what next steps you can take.
The ‘cascade’ process, also known as transfer, is intended for papers that are deemed inappropriate for the initial journal they were submitted to. If this applies to your manuscript, the editors may recommend one or more alternative journals from the same publisher. You will be given the choice to submit your work to one of these suggested journals for evaluation. Alternatively, you can opt to submit your article elsewhere.
Should you appeal a rejection?
My advice is that it’s usually more beneficial to focus on moving forward. I would only consider appealing if a manuscript was rejected due to a single concern or a minor misunderstanding. If you are considering an appeal, a good first step is checking the ‘instructions to authors’ page to see if they have an appeals policy but if this isn’t available, you can contact the journal administrator for advice.
6. Act on constructive feedback
There is something a little objectively strange about a community whose members spend their time anonymously commenting on and evaluating each other’s work. But take advantage of the outside perspective and act on constructive feedback. I recommend that you discuss any feedback with co-authors or your supervisor and decide which aspects of your article need revision.
Before you submit your article to a new journal also take the opportunity to revisit your abstract/summary and cover letter, to ensure they are as compelling as possible.
7. Get Involved
One of the best ways to improve your own writing is to go behind the curtain and experience reviewing and editing other academics’ work. Nowadays your email need only appear once or twice on published work, and you’ll find yourself receiving several peer-review requests each week along with every other form of academic cold-calling. Some will be relevant (within your field of expertise), so why not contribute?
For early career researchers, there are an increasing number of schemes and initiatives to help you with training and involvement. For example, lots of journals offer support for researchers who are new to peer review and editing.