Having a paper rejected is one of the certainties of academic life. While there are some strategies to decrease the probability of facing a rejection, today I want to focus on my tips to deal with them—particularly for the benefit of younger scientists.
There are two broad kinds of rejections: Desk Rejections and Rejections from reviewers. In any case, the best advice is never to take action after receiving the dreaded rejection letter. Take a day or two, then react accordingly with a cooler head. Remember, this isn’t about you it’s hard not to make it personal but trust me it isn’t.
The first kind, desk rejections, are provided directly from the chief or associated editors of the journal to which you submitted your work. They tend to be quick and rather uninformative except for maybe the incompatibility—to put it nicely—of your work with the scope of the journal. These are also sometimes the hardest to face since they make you feel your work is simply not good enough to be published; but they’re also the quickest and in the publish-or-perish scheme of things, time is key. After getting a desk rejection, if no other input is given, just try again; one tip—though not infallible—to chose a proper journal is to look at which journals are you citing in your own work and chose one with the highest frequency. Sometimes, editors might offer a transfer to another journal from the same publishing house; my advice is always say yes to transfers: the submission is made for you by the editorial staff, it sort of becomes recommended between the involved editors, and expedites the start-again process. Of course, a transfer does not mean you’re manuscript will get accepted but whenever offered there is a good chance the first editor thinks your work should be kept inside their editorial instead of risking you going to another publishing house. Appealing to a desk rejection is highly discouraged since it practically never works. Sure, you may think the editor will kick himself in the rear once you get the Nobel prize but telling them so, particularly in a colorful language, will not make them change their minds.
Rejections after peer review are trickier. If your manuscript went up to peer review, it means the editors in charge of it thought your work is publishable but of course it needs to be looked at by experts to make sure it was done in the right way with all or most things covered (you know what they say, two heads are better than one, try three!). Now, this kind of rejection takes longer, usually two or three weeks—sometimes even longer—but all things being fair, polite, and objective, they are also the most informative. Reviewers will try to find holes in your logic, flaws in your research, and when they find them they will not hold back their thoughts; you’re in for the hard truth. So of course this kind of rejection is also hard to take, makes you feel again like your work is not worthy, that you’re not worthy as a scientist. But the big advantage here is you now have a blueprint of things to fix in your manuscript: a set of experiments are missing? run them, key literature wasn’t cited? read it and cite it appropriately. Take peer review objectively but never dismiss it by trying to just go and submit it again to a different journal as is, for chances are you’ll get some of the same reviewers, and even if you don’t, it’s unethical to dismiss the advice of peers, they are your peers in the end, not your bosses but your peers, don’t loose sight of it. Also, it’s very frustrating for reviewers to find that authors managed to get published without paying the slightest attention to their suggestions. Appealing a peer review rejection is hard but doable and then you have to put on a scale what is it that you value the most: your paper in its original condition being published in that specific journal or fixing it and start again. An appeal upon a flat rejection is hardly ever won but it may well establish a conversation with other scientists (the referees) about their point of view on your work, just don’t think you’ve made instant buddies who will now coach you through academic life.
The peer review system is far from perfect, but if done properly it is still the best thing we’ve got. Some other alternatives are being tested nowadays to reduce biases like open reviews signed and published by reviewers themselves; double and even triple blind peer review (in the latter not even the editor knows the identities of authors or reviewers) but until proven useful we have to largely cope and adapt to single blind peer review (just play nice, people). In some instances the dreaded third reviewer appears, and even a fourth and a fifth. Since there are no written laws and I’m not aware of any journal specifying the number of referees to be involved in the handling of a manuscript there may be varied opinions among reviewers, so different as from ranging from accept to reject. This may be due to the editor thinking one or more of the reviewers didn’t do their job properly (in either direction) and then brings another one to sort of break the tie or outweigh the opinion of a clearly biased reviewer. If you think there are bias, consult with the editor if a new set of reviewers may be included to complete the process, more often than not they will say no but if you raise a good point they might feel compelled to do so.
Science is a process that starts at the library and ends at the libraryDr. Jesús Gracia-Mora, School of Chemistry UNAM ca. the nineteen nineties
These are truths we must learn from a young age. Any science project does not end at the lab but at the library, therefore I let my students—even the undergrads—do the submission process of their manuscripts along with me, and involve them in the peer review process (sometimes and to some limited extent even when I’m the reviewer) just so they now that getting a rejection letter is part of the process and should never be equated with the relative quality or self-worth of a scientist since that is hardly what the publication process looks at.
So, in a nutshell, if you got a rejection letter, get back on the proverbial saddle and try again. And again. And once again.
It was your idea. You had it. Or did it have you? But suddenly, you see it wrapped around someone else’s words. You read and gasp in denying shock. This can’t be! You read again trying to find your mistake, it is clearly a mistake on your part; to find it, you search for differences, preferably major ones that reveal that the identity of this idea is different to yours. You hope to just be mistaking it for yours. The wording is different, of course, you would have emphasized it differently, the way it deserved to be emphasized. But nevertheless its a mistreated version of yours. No matter what, this was yours. Was. Heartbroken, you try to save some face, by treating it differently; by treating it better!; by tending to those bits this third party is neglecting; by dumping it and getting a new and better one. You were so close. All in vain, for the fact is that this idea is no longer just yours, it seduced someone else’s mind and got brought to life by swifter hands. Now forever they will remain bound together as two celestial bodies are bound by gravity in the marriage of scientific annals, under the complicit auspice of editors and reviewers. Yes. You were the last to know this went on. It once made you feel so special, proud of your sparkling originality and your long hard work, brilliant even, but now you feel idle and exposed while in the dark.
You wish that at least you were perceived as a fool, as a laughing stock or even as an intellectual cuckold! But you are left worse than that: You are left with nothing. Empty handed. A runner up at best or part of the despised ‘me-too‘ kind, but only if you manage to get something out there at which the public scrutiny can roll their eyes. Still, that would be indeed better than having nothing to show for after all those long hours of shared intimacy with this idea. Angrily, you decide to blame others: technicians for delaying experiments; your collaborators for delaying revisions; your students for delaying data, and even the head of the department, maybe just for being other than yourself. You read again. The idea, no longer yours alone, stares back at you; no amount of hatred can change that. And then you wonder if you could have possible been on the other side before? You hope you have, for that means you are ahead in the game, but like in any game, sometimes you loose. Could your mind have been the seducing one before? You hope it has, for if it hasn’t it means you are playing alone in a corner of no interest to anyone, and what fun is that? What fun is a game in which you cannot win?
You mend fences. You accept that for this time someone was lucky but soon luck will come back and you will seduce other ideas; your hands will bring them to life and you will successfully collect the recognition for it, no matter how little the victory. Affairs with new ideas will come. Luck will come back. And it will come back to find you busily working or will not come back at all.