Managing academic rejection

An academic career increasingly involves submitting research ideas which stand little chance of ‘success’, if success is taken to be securing funding or an accepted manuscript. For those on research focussed academic career tracks, the high rates of ‘rejection’ can feel demoralising. In this blog post we share our experiences of publishing in journals, and how ‘rejection’ is key to the process of publication.

Submitting my paper for rejection

In some areas, rejection rates for journal papers can be nearly 90% (if not higher), although data can be hard to locate. The American Psychological Society tracks this information for leading psychology journals. Rejection rates also vary across disciplines. In management, it is not uncommon for the top tier journals to have an acceptance rate of less than 10%. Put this way, ‘rejection’ is the norm – an accepted manuscript is the aberration. This is why I always (half jokingly) say I have submitted a paper for rejection, as this is likely to be the outcome. Some academics will never share their experiences of rejected manuscripts – perhaps they have been lucky and never experienced that dreaded email, but I doubt it.

There are of course a number of steps we can take to minimise the chance of rejection:

  • Make sure the paper fits the journal – if you aren’t able to cite material from that publication, then it’s not the right journal. Citing from the journal helps to locate your work in the current debates within the journal. It also helps the journal’s citations!
  • Format the paper according to the journal requirements – reading the journal carefully can help to ensure your paper is structured in a way the journal likes.
  • For management journals (and this applies across other disciplines), a theoretical framework is essential for the top tier journals.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to do a critical friend peer review before submission.

Submitting a paper is a sign of success in its own right. The next stage is to cross fingers and hope it goes out to peer-review (and have a little celebration).

Stages of rejection

The desk reject

Perhaps one of the most disheartening types of ‘rejection’ is the desk-reject (or perhaps *the* most disheartening) . Here the editor bounces the paper right back to you. Hopefully, this happens quickly, but I have also experienced this taking 6 months or more. This is miserable. There’s no other way to think of it at the time. A good editor will provide a narrative as to why there has been a desk reject. If this is all done within a few days or weeks, I take some comfort. My advice is to rework the paper quickly and send it on somewhere else. Have a look at the other journals you are citing and see where it might fit. Don’t rush this though – as an editor and reviewer it is always clear when a paper has been rejected by another journal and not reworked prior to submission elsewhere. A number of academics have suggested to me that desk rejection is becoming more common. I don’t know if this is true, but finding reviewers is hard work, so if an editor doesn’t feel it will make it through peer review, I can see why it happens.

Post-review reject

Whenever I get an email back from a journal I read it looking closely for the rejection. Rarely will an editor say the paper is ‘rejected’; sometimes, it’s much softer: ‘I will not be inviting a resubmission of this manuscript’. This can be a demoralising experience, and it can be hard not to take it personally. When I was on a temporary contract the experience was worse – will I lose my job if I don’t get these 3* and 4* publications soon? (These feelings also affect those on open-ended contracts.) It is hard not to take the rejection to heart, especially if the work is something we have invested considerable time in and the research is a subject we care about. I’ve learned not to read the comments too closely to begin with. I let the bad news sink in for a day or two and then take a look. Increasingly, I agree with reviewers’ comments, but I suspect that is in part experience and the relative privilege of an open-ended contract. At this stage, I would suggest reading the comments in detail to consider how the paper can be revised to increase an acceptance for another journal.

[Edit: a number of people have said that the time for reviewers’ comments can be so long that a) the data is out of date or b) that they have moved on from the paper and find it difficult to return back to the work. The latter would apply with R&R although both indicate a problem with the peer review process. As an editor of a journal I know how hard it is to find reviewers. Reviewing is hard work, but important (unpaid labour) service work which keeps the whole system going.]

The post-review reject can happen at the 2nd or 3rd round of reviews . This can be upsetting! It’s likely the paper is significantly different to the original paper and you have put a lot of time and effort into trying to address the reviewers’ comments. There’s no other thing to say apart from ‘it sucks’ and, for most of us, there’s not much more to be done. The good news is that this is rare, but it’s worth remembering. There is no guarantee of publication until the paper is actually published.

[Edit: I have been reminded that I forgot to include the post rejection celebratory drink, if that’s your thing]

While all this can sound pretty grim, there is a home for every paper. My first 4* paper went to two top journals. Each time it went out to review and both times the reviewers were split between acceptance and rejection. Both times the editors decided to reject. Finally, I submitted to another journal – one which actually was a better fit for the material. It still went through a few rounds of review, but it was accepted. I think the previous rejections were part of what made the paper a success in the end. I stopped thinking about rejection as rejection, and started to see it as part of the successful publication process. This has allowed me to be increasingly grateful for reviewers and editors who take the time to provide careful and constructive feedback. It’s rare and incredibly helpful. ‘Rejections’ have helped to shape my writing and certainly improve it.

Perhaps if we can take the emotional elements out of the process, ‘rejections’ are actually agents of constructive feedback and potentially learning experiences to improve outputs. I recognise this is much easier to say from my position on an open-ended contract. I imagine it would be even easier to argue if the UK had a tenure track system. This would allow for more time to spend on publications in order to craft them into saying something important. However, while we have a REF system and no tenure, relatively rapid turnaround of an increasing number of papers will make ‘rejection’ more of a norm.

Thoughts welcome in the comments below!

Kate Sang, Rebecca Finkel and Valerie Caven

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2 thoughts on “Managing academic rejection

  1. Great post. Reject really does help develop a paper but it is the time it takes that stresses me out! A real lesson in perseverance!

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