Manuscript Rejected: Moving Onward and Upward

Laura Pendergast, Temple University
 
“Are you done?” my mentor asked patiently. My beautiful manuscript had been rejected… again. My mentor had been listening to me complain for 15 minutes. I was starting a tenure-track position and needed to publish. I had conducted my analyses using the most current statistical techniques. I had painstakingly crafted my arguments and drawn careful, well-supported conclusions. Why didn’t these reviewers understand my paper?!
 
My mentor looked at me calmly and shared a hard truth that changed the way I thought about my writing. She said, “The editor chose three reviewers who he viewed as trusted experts. These hand-picked experts didn’t understand your paper. If multiple, highly educated people didn’t understand what you wrote, whose fault is that?”
 
She was right. Publishing manuscripts is not just about being technically correct and scientifically sound. It is about communicating with an audience. How is your manuscript useful to the readers? How can other researchers build on this information? How does your manuscript advance the field? I reviewed the comments carefully. Once I worked through my emotional reaction, I realized how useful the reviews were. I thought about how best to incorporate the reviews, and I decided to start over. I began by making a new outline. I kept my original results section but rewrote the rest of the paper in a way that was clear and conveyed why the work was meaningful. The revised paper was quickly accepted at another journal.
 
Rejection: Perspectives from Four Academics
 
Most, probably all, successful academics have stories like mine. Here, I have compiled advice on handling rejection from four highly productive scholars in school psychology at different levels in their careers: Dr. Desireé Vega, Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona; Dr. Stephen Kilgus, Associate Professor at University of Missouri; Dr. Renée Tobin, Professor at Temple University; and Dr. Randy Floyd, Professor and Associate Chair at University of Memphis.
 
All four scholars indicated that, like most academics, they have experienced rejection many times. When asked if he had experienced rejection, Dr. Kilgus noted:
“Far more than I would care to admit! I have had plenty of papers rejected, including plenty that appeared to be tanked by a single reviewer (with two other reviewers expressing high opinions of the work). There are certainly also those “zombie” papers, that have been shopped to multiple journals over multiple years. Some have found a home, others continue to wander the earth…”
 
The respondents provided a great deal of advice for early career scholars. Themes and key supporting quotes are presented below:
 
1. Have realistic expectations. Remember that rejection is the norm.
 
RF: Know you must be tough to navigate through the peer-review process. Check out this cartoon from Nick D. Kim (http://www.lab-initio.com/) that conveys well these challenges that authors face in publishing in the strongest journals: http://lab-initio.com/images/fullsize/nz060.jpg. My guess is that the most prolific authors in our field (and psychology as a whole) experience rejection by handling editors (e.g., associate editors and editors-in-chief) at a rate at least double (and probably three or four times) their number of published journal articles. Based on loads of evidence, such as the annual APA journal statistics and operations reports (see http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/statistics.aspx) and journal operations reports routinely published by school psychology journals like JSP (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022440517300936) and SPQ (in the APA journal statistics and operations reports), your standard expectation when you submit a manuscript for publication should be rejection. Although the rates of rejection do vary substantially across journals, remember that rejection comes with the territory.
 
2. Carefully consider when to read the feedback and how to respond
 
DV: When I receive a rejection, I usually do not read through the comments immediately. Sometimes reviewers are harsh and unfortunately do not always provide constructive feedback, so I wait until I am in a better space to review the feedback.
 
SK: Do not read the rejection letter right away! It’s just going to make you mad. Let the recognition of rejection be enough for the first day. The next day, once you’re a little calmer, go back and read the decision letter. Know going in that there are going to be opinions with which you vehemently disagree. Also know that there are going to be really strong suggestions that are worthy of your attention. Some of my manuscripts have become much better papers as a result of initial rejection and my (occasionally begrudging) response to reviewer feedback.
 
(Note. All respondents agreed that lashing out or sending an emotional response to the handling editor is unwise. See Floyd (2018) for detailed examples of appropriate and inappropriate responses: https://www.routledge.com/Publishing-in-School-Psychology-and-Related-Fields-An-Insiders-Guide/Floyd/p/book/9781138645998).
 
3. Manage your emotions and engage in self-care
 
RF: More generally, if you engage in wellness activities on a routine basis—socializing, engaging in aerobic exercise, eating a healthy diet, enjoying mindfulness activities such as meditation, and getting plenty of sleep—rejection should be easier to face. Consider that collaborating in research and writing may also benefit you, as your co-authors can be there for you in coping with rejection, offering perspective, and problem-solving.
 
SK: Once you have received the rejection, do not spend a lot of time coming up with arguments and counter points. That journal does not want your paper back and I have yet to hear of someone who has successfully lobbied for their rejected paper to be reconsidered by a journal. Expend your energy on revising the paper and resubmitting it to a new outlet…
 
RT: It is easy to associate the project with the negative feelings that come with a rejection. Try not to let that linger. Get it back under review somewhere else so the negative feelings can be replaced with positive ones or at least something you can do about it (i.e., respond to the next round of reviews when you receive a revise and resubmit response).
 
4. Think carefully and logically about your plan for revisions.
 
DV:  After reading the feedback, I decide whether I am going to make any changes to the manuscript before I send it to another journal. There have been times where I have not made any edits to a manuscript after it has been rejected and send it off elsewhere as it is. And there have been times where I have made changes to the manuscript before sending it elsewhere. The positive side of a rejection is that at least two reviewers have taken the time to provide feedback (hopefully constructive) on your work to help you make it a stronger paper. Nonetheless, after a rejection, the decision to incorporate that feedback into your paper is ultimately up to you.
 
SK: Once you are ready to review the rejection letter, look for comments indicating when reviewers either (a) explicitly indicated their confusion or (b) made statements or assumptions that imply such confusion. Some authors draw the unfortunate conclusion that the reviewer was not qualified to review their work. However, I try to remind myself that if a reviewer did not understand something, that is at least partially on me as the author. I need to do a better job of structuring my content and conveying my ideas.
 
RT: Carefully construct an objective list of editor and reviewer criticisms and address them. Once you have done so, find another suitable journal and submit it. Take enough time in this process that are able to be as objective as possible, but not too long that you let this manuscript fall out of your production queue.
 
RF: Recently, someone asked me to address reviewers’ direct or implied references to “fatal flaws” evident in manuscripts. Sometimes, reviewers are correct in identifying serious objective weaknesses in your study (e.g., very small sample size or lack of a comparison group in group designs and lack of experimental control in single-case designs). Strive to stay in the game and address them with careful reporting of study limitations or collection of additional data in order to submit the manuscript elsewhere. After facing rejection by three or four journals, you may decide that your time would be better spent abandoning that manuscript and trying to publish another stronger study. Often reviewers will offer more nebulous, subjective criticisms (e.g., “this manuscript does not contribute significantly to the literature in the area”) that are idiosyncratic when rejecting manuscripts. In these cases, give the criticisms close scrutiny and consult with a more senior colleague, an insightful peer, or even the journal’s handling editor. In most cases, careful responses to these comments and reframing of the study can, with time, lead to significant improvements in its quality and ultimate acceptance by another journal.
 
5. Use the reviews to improve your writing.
 
RT: Consider how you can make your manuscript clearer to avoid similar criticism. Did you spend too long getting to the main point of the article in the introduction? Were the details of your methods obscured by complex syntax? Did you omit key information assuming that the reader would have a deeper understanding of your data collection or analysis methods? Forcing yourself to generate an objective list of criticisms and then systematically addressing them helps take the sting out of rejection, makes revising more manageable, improves your product, and will ultimately lead to you finding a home for your manuscript.  
 
6. Find the right “home” for your manuscript.
 
DV: But the best advice I received from a senior colleague was that there is a home for your manuscript. It might not be the first, second, third, or even fourth journal that you send it to, but it will eventually find a home… After a rejection, I would suggest finding a new home for it as soon as possible!! On average, I wait no more than one month to resubmit the manuscript. This helps me maintain a steady stream of projects/manuscripts in progress and under review.
 
RT: Early in my career, one of my colleagues noted, “Every project has a home. Your job is to find it.” Sometimes finding that home requires minimal revision and submission to another journal. Sometimes it requires a major overhaul of every section of the manuscript. Sometimes it requires that you collect additional data. Whatever it is, do not give up.
 
RF: After time has passed, determine what you can control, and ponder ways to prevent the same decision from occurring again. Consider the manuscript that was rejected, generate strategies to address the critiques in a revision, and search diligently for a better-fitting journal (based on the structure and relative strength of articles published in that journal, the number of manuscripts submitted to it, its impact and reputation, the composition of its editorial board, etc.). More generally, file away the feedback and use it to guide your development of future studies and design of future manuscripts.
 
7. Know the Habits of Productive Scholars
 
RF: Perhaps the best, most data-driven article on the topic of being productive as a scholar was developed by Rebecca Martinez for a special issue of JSP published in 2011. This article is “Strategies And Attributes Of Highly Productive Scholars And Contributors To The School Psychology Literature: Recommendations For Increasing Scholarly Productivity” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022440511000835). Personally, I re-read it from time to time. A key finding was that the most productive scholars take peer reviews seriously, address revisions thoroughly, and learn from constructive feedback. Specific strategies included (a) not taking criticism and rejection personally and (b) rewriting, revising, and resubmitting without delay. Some of these scholars also suggested serving as a reviewer for journals in which you’d like to publish. Among other things, doing so gives you perspective by allowing you to see the review process from the other side of what you experience as an author.
 
8. Move Onward and Upward
 
SK: There is going to be plenty of rejection throughout your career – it’s the rule more than the exception. Of course, recognition of rejection’s commonality by no means makes it easy to take. Just do not get discouraged. Some folks end up playing it too safe and submitting their future work to lower tiered journals, just because they do not want to face tough criticism or because they do not think their work is worthy. Keep getting better at what you do and expose yourself to tough feedback. It is the only way we grow.
 
In conclusion, rejection is part of academia. While many prefer not to talk about it, most of us experience it more than we’d like to admit. As an Associate Editor, I am often in a position where I need to recommend that a manuscript be rejected. When this happens, I always close my rejection letter to the author by noting that I have been the recipient of many rejection letters, and that I understand how disappointing the news can be – because it is true. I have received many rejection letters over the course of my career. But, while disappointing, the feedback that came with each rejection brought me one step closer to success.
 
References
Floyd, R. G. (2018). The peer-review process and responding to reviewer feedback. In R. G. Floyd (Ed.), Publishing in school psychology and related fields: An insider’s guide (pp. 45-61). New York, NY: Routledge.
 
Martinez, R. S., Floyd, R. G., & Erichsen, L. (2011). Strategies and attributes of highly productive scholars and contributors to the school psychology literature: Recommendations for increasing scholarly productivity. Journal of School Psychology, 49, 691–720.
 

This is a great blog post -

This is a great blog post - thank you! I am curious if people have additional feedback for early career scholars about how to improve their writing (5. Use the reviews to improve your writing). What tips do people have for this important aspect of manuscript acceptance?

I appreciate the comments

I appreciate the comments offered by the panelists and the author of this blog. In addition to the points of advice raised above, my mentor would always prompt me to take a step back and realistically assess whether some of the more "catastrophic" faults could actually be remedied or whether there was a serious flaw in the logic laid out in the paper. He always emphasized that scholarly work should contribute to the knowledge base, not just increase your personal article count. I'm wondering what other folks think about putting a paper out to pasture and determining whether it is ever in fact better for a paper to be "put to rest". In my personal experience I recall NOT resubmitting a few rejected manuscripts because of issues brought to light by the reviewers, and felt ultimately that the right decision was to not publish the work.

Also being on the other end of the process, not changing a single thing about your manuscript can be a high risk venture. Particularly when the same reviewers serve on multiple editorial boards....

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