REJECTED! What academic paper rejections are about from both sides of the process

Academic papers are a lot of work. Your research is dear to you. You’ve loved this study enough to see it through, to write it up, to find a home for it. And then you get rejected—perhaps without any indication as to why.

What’s that about? Are you a bad researcher? Was your paper bad? Your research stupid? Should you just give up? Particularly students and others who are new to the process can be devastated by a rejection.

But–really!-there is no need for devastation! Even senior researchers with hundreds of publications are regularly rejected. But it’s easier to deal with rejections when you have had some successes and, importantly, understand better what rejection can mean.

I spend a lot of time on all sides of the academic publication process. I’m an active researcher with studies and papers of my own. I’m a peer reviewer for multiple journals. I’m the Associate Editor of Autism in Adulthood. As an author I’ve been rejected and accepted; as a reviewer I’ve made a full gamut of recommendations; and as an editor I’ve rejected, accepted, and been tormented by decisions for the papers I adjudicate. Here’s the insider scoop on the process and what the rejections could mean.

DISCLAIMER: Science is large. I am a social services intervention researcher working with disability communities. Perspectives from another field (e.g., physics or biology) may vary.

Step 1: Administrative Review

When you submit your paper the first type of review it hits is administrative. This is the check to make sure it’s been formatted properly and it isn’t missing pieces. Often if it doesn’t pass administrative review, the author will get information about what needs to get fixed to resubmit but there’s no official guarantee to that. Bottom line: This is the one part of the process you can control; be sure to follow the instructions for authors carefully.

Step 2: Editorial Review

The journal’s editors read everything that’s sent in. That may be hundreds of articles in a year. They make a decision about whether or not to send the paper to peer review. A lot of things are considered in that decision. Does the topic of the paper fit the journal’s scope? Does the format of the paper fit the types of articles the journal publishes? Is the science sound? Does the paper have the appropriate level of academic depth? Is this reporting on something new; does it advance the science in some way, whether it’s findings or theory/ideas? Do we think it’s worth reviewers’ time; in other words, would we want to publish this in our journal assuming it can be perfected in the review process?

A rejection at this stage is sometimes called a “desk reject.” There are a lot of reasons why this might happen. Some may be because the science is bad, the paper is poorly written, or the ideas are stale. But others may be that it’s just not a good fit for the journal’s scope, the editors were reading too fast and missed how cool it is (hey, we are people who make mistakes like anyone, and we read a lot of submissions!), or it’s a good start to a paper but needs more mentorship and development than we feel we can ask reviewers to provide.

If you get a rejection at this point, don’t get upset. If there are comments given, they could be useful, but more often it’s just a form letter. When I get one of these, I assume that the editors felt it was not a good fit for their journal and re-do the paper for a different journal.

The majority of rejections I have gotten were at this stage. It’s a little irritating because I just want the thing DONE and off my to-do list, but meh. There are a bunch of other journals out there and given the number of considerations going into editorial decisions, there’s zero reason to assume it’s because I suck.

Step 3: Peer Review

If you get to the peer review stage, congratulations! As editors we’re not keen on sending stuff to peer review that we wouldn’t want in the journal, assuming peer review can clean it up.

That said, the whole point of peer review is to go over the paper in excruciating and expert detail to make sure that every part of it is sound before adding it to the literature. Sometimes the reviewers do find fatal flaws in the piece that were not evident on the editors’ quick read. Sometimes it takes an expert to notice a deeper problem.

The journals I work with have an editor in charge of making a final adjudication on the paper, and–if the editor-in-charge decides they want to work with the paper–between two and five peer reviewers. Peer reviewers are selected because they offer specific expertise relevant to your paper. The reviewers give their detailed feedback and assessment of whether to reject, ask for revisions, or accept. The reviewers don’t always agree on if the paper should be accepted. The editor in charge of the manuscript makes the final call.

It is possible to get a rejection from the editor only; this means they did not feel like they could work with the paper in its current state, so they did not engage peer reviewers.

It is possible to get a rejection along with a full set of peer reviewer comments.

It is also possible to get a revise-and-resubmit letter. This might seem like a rejection because it will say something like “…unfortunately we cannot accept the paper in its current form.” HOWEVER, if you are being invited to address reviewer comments and resubmit, you have not been rejected. This is just the next stage of the process of revising the article based on reviewer feedback.

I have never had a paper accepted outright, and I know only a few cases where my colleagues were given “conditional acceptances” (accepted if you make these changes). Most often I am asked to make “major revisions.” Sometimes “minor revisions.” This is totally normal. Note though, that while your chance of being rejected goes down significantly with each of these stages you get through, there is no guarantee you won’t be rejected until you get an official acceptance message.

Reviewer feedback can be annoying, harsh, misinformed, or otherwise painful. The editor in charge may provide guidance if there’s feedback you should ignore, like if there’s a reviewer who just doesn’t get something (like saying that qualitative findings can’t be generalized due to small N, which is a methodologically ignorant statement). The editor-in-charge comments should take precedence over the reviewer comments.

If you are invited to revise and resubmit, as an author, you get a chance to decide if you want to self-reject (or pull). If you feel addressing the reviewer comments would compromise your work, or don’t want to deal, YOU can decide not to submit a revision and take your paper elsewhere. You can also decide to completely re-do it and resubmit it as a new submission to the same journal. While I have never done this, I have considered it before. Or you could address the reviewer comments carefully and submit the revision.

If you are rejected by the journal at any time during the peer review, take a cold look at the comments. They will help you even if they are harsh. Even ignorant comments (like quantitative researchers who don’t understand qualitative methods) can be useful. I keep using that example because it’s one that I’ve gotten repeatedly. It’s taught me to always put a sentence in my papers that says something like, “As a qualitative study, we were not seeking to generalize to a population, but to gain an in-depth understanding of a wide range of individual experiences.” I stopped getting bad reviews about my N for qualitative studies after doing that.

It is true–your paper might suck. Your research idea might be flawed, your work might have been done before and you just hadn’t found the papers already written on it. BUT!

  1. That does not mean you suck and should give up. It means you learned something and can move on with better knowledge and skill.
  2. It also means that you are saved the embarrassment and damage of it getting published and then getting huge backlash from the rest of your peers in the field when they see it. Better to know before it is made public than after.

It is also true that your paper may have been just fine and the peer reviewers sucked. Instead of getting upset, ask yourself some critical questions:

  1. Was the writing unclear? It may be your technical communications skills that need to be honed, not your scientific ones. Becoming a better writer is a win. Or maybe the reviewers were poor readers.
  2. Were the reviewers ignorant or coming from the wrong paradigm for your work? Reviewers aren’t always right, or don’t always support the kind of work you do. If this is the case, you can try the paper elsewhere. It probably wasn’t a good fit for the journal and you probably don’t want your paper there anyway. (I have recommended rejection of papers on ethical grounds before, even if the science was rigorous.)
  3. Are there actually major problems? Truly? I’ve knee-jerked to reviewer comments before, dismissed them, and then a day or two later had a long, hard think and realized that even though the comment was written pretty brutally, the reviewer had a very good point.
  4. Do you need to find a mentor / get a second opinion? The papers I have to reject most often come from students who have written wonderful student papers that lack the depth of a publishable academic paper. My role as a reviewer or editor is not to mentor them on their science, even though my heart breaks sometimes stumbling over that boundary. Consider going over your review notes with a more senior scientist, or a peer in your field. Not just for students–I go over review notes with my mentors and peers too. Others can help put things in perspective.

Last Thoughts:

Rejection happens to everyone. Think of it as part of your scientific journey, life-long learning, and intellectual challenge. Also think of it as your initiation into the club of every other researcher in the whole world ever ’cause we get stuff rejected too, all the time 🙂

Good luck <3

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