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The surprising benefits of rejection

November 1, 2019 | 4 min read

By Christopher Tancock

Hand changing the letter N to G of the word NO on gray blocks

Why getting a “reject” decision isn’t as bad as you might think

I’m sorry to say that, on this occasion, your article has not been accepted for publication in our journal…” If you’ve slaved over a hot word processor for many months, after having conducted meticulous field research, run your experiment and painstakingly reviewed the relevant literature, getting a response like the above is probably not what you wanted. No-one wants to learn that their paper has not been accepted. Though rejection is hard, however, it can actually be a liberating experience and one which could lead to bigger and better things for you and your research. As such, we are devoting some time in this article to exploring the benefits of rejection and hope to persuade you in doing so not to give up…

Reasons for rejection

There are many reasons why your paper might have been rejected, of course. The majority of journal editors will also make clear in the decision letter what precisely is the situation for your paper. In general, papers rejected before external review will have been declined for one of three reasons. Either the paper has significant problems with its language or structure, or it might not conform to the journal’s guide for authors sufficiently or, perhaps most likely, it is simply not a topic that the journal covers. By the way, you might think that the first two reasons are insufficient for a rejection but consider that the editor in question might be dealing with several new papers at once. It is your responsibility to ensure that your work is written and structured correctly – and that it follows the journal guidelines. If one or more of these aspects is wanting, it’s a simple (albeit regrettable) reason for rejection.

If your paper is rejected after external peer review, it is likely that there are one or more issues with the content of the paper. Again, the decision letter should specify what these are. You should expect to see detailed comments from the reviewers together with a commentary from the editor. (If this is not immediately forthcoming, you are entirely justified in asking – politely – for an explanation from the editorial office.) Regardless of the timing – and reason(s) – for being told “no thanks”, however, there are some strategies you can adopt to ensure that you get where you want to be.

Best foot forward

Let’s deal with the “worst case” scenario first: you are told that your paper simply isn’t of sufficient quality for publication. That will come as a blow, to be sure, but it’s also a good thing if it helps bring you to the realization that you need to do some substantial work before you start thinking about where to submit to next. This leads us to an important point – it’s never a good idea to ignore the feedback you get from a journal (even if negative) and regardless of how difficult it is to hear. Remember that your paper has had the benefit of at least one (maybe two-three) experts giving your work their undivided attention. As such it’s a good idea to pay attention to what they say – rather than rushing off and sending precisely the same material to another journal.

It might be frustrating to be rejected if your paper is considered to be “out of scope” for the journal but again try to see this as a good thing. Better that it be rejected early on, allowing you to identify a more suitable journal (in fact, the editor might go to the trouble of suggesting one for you!) than waiting weeks or months to be told the same thing. Similarly, being turned away due to language or structural errors allows you to get these issues fixed before you try again. Try to see each stage (even if it feels like you are moving backwards) as an opportunity for (further) improving your paper.

If you have been rejected after revision then (once having taken some time to "decompress") seize on the input from the editor and reviewers and make a conscious effort to process, then respond to their feedback. Doing so will allow you to give your paper the best chance of success when you move to submission elsewhere.

What doesn’t kill us…

The path to publication is not necessarily an easy one. Every author will have to confront rejection at some point in their career. The trick is to turn the situation into one which enables you to end up with either a better publication or a more suitable home for your research – maybe both! We can’t guarantee to put a smile on your face with rejection but at least you can perhaps now see the upside of a “no thanks” decision and make the most of the chance to succeed next time.