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Coping with rejection

“Rejection” is one of the meanest words in the language. This is why leading editors never reject a manuscript: they simply find that, alas, they have no room in their journal for it.
Having your first paper turned down is an important life experience for all researchers. It hurts, but like all painful experiences it also teaches. Remember this: it is your paper that has been rejected, not you. The Editor’s verdict has nothing to do with your standing as a human being or the value of your work. The decision may even have been unfair, for the peer-review process is far from perfect.
An author’s response to rejection goes through the usual phases of grief, anger and denial. The important thing is not to get hung up on any one of these stages, to allow time for healing, and then to sit down calmly and reconsider the situation.

Why was my paper rejected?

Read the comments carefully. A word of caution: the reason for rejection may not be apparent in the remarks of the referees, at least as relayed to the authors. For example, referees who advise outright rejection typically supply very brief reviews, and may even strive to say something complimentary or encouraging to the authors.
Another cause of confusion is that one of the referees obviously liked your work and supplied you with glowing praise. It is natural for you to agree with this verdict. Alas, the sad truth is that people who referee regularly never go overboard in their comments to the authors, for experienced referees know that their opinion may be over-ruled, and do not wish to embarrass either themselves or the Editor. The one who liked you was the junior referee.
More commonly, however, authors complain that the referees either “found nothing wrong” with their paper, or made criticisms which could easily be addressed. This is a common misunderstanding: papers are not selected on the basis of their methods section, but because they are new and interesting.
Believe it or not, most referees are nice people. Why else should they give up their valuable time to read and comment on other people’s papers? You may think that they are simply trying to blight your career, but my experience is that most referees try hard to help the authors of the paper they review. Yes, they may have misunderstood, but whose fault is that? Could you not have presented it better?

Common reasons for rejection

  1. The paper is derivative. It simply repeats previous studies, or adds relatively little to existing knowledge.
  2. The paper is flawed.
  3. The paper is boring.
  4. The paper is incomprehensible.
  5. The authors have published the same material in 15 different journals.

These failings are fatal, but are not easy to communicate to authors. People are not interested in hearing that they are out of their depth, or boring, or simply playing the publications game. That is why we have learned to keep our rejection letters brief and uninformative.
You, however, are different. Why? Because if your paper came under one of the above categories you would be beyond help, which means that you would not be reading this section. You, let us assume, have already read the referees' comments with care, and divided them into three categories: those you can do something about, those you can do nothing about, and those you truly disagree with. Rewrite your paper in such a way as to incorporate the improvements, to explain what was and was not possible to do, and to ensure that the same irrelevant criticisms will not be repeated.
You are now ready to submit to another journal.

Practical tips about submission to another journal:

  1. Never submit an unchanged manuscript to another journal. There is a sporting chance that one of the same referees will see it, and those who review manuscripts have no mercy on people who will not listen to advice.
  2. Editors do not expect virgin brides. Be upfront about the fact that you have submitted to another journal, include the referees’ comments, explain what you have done about them, and why your paper should now be of real interest to them. This may not always work, but it definitely increases your chances of acceptance.
  3. Be careful who you exclude. We score all our referees, and immediately notice if you exclude a whole series of people whose judgement we respect. One Editor even tells me that he routinely sends papers to referees who have been excluded, because they generally supply the best and most objective reports.
  4. Rejection by one journal can be due to bad luck. If two journals turn you down, you have a real problem. Yes, you have the option to keep on submitting (everything gets accepted in the end), but this paper will probably never be cited.
If you have pride in what you do – and if you don’t, why are you doing it? – you should put it to one side and start again.

Edwin Gale, Editor (2003–2010)

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