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Managing rejection in academic publishing: 5 stages of grief

Managing rejection in academic publishing: Five stages of grief

We all get discouraged. We all feel lost. We all have our moments. It’s what we do when we feel these things that makes all the difference.

- Kristen Hadeed

Rejection in academic publishing

A wise person once wrote that a working academic researcher will experience more rejection over the course of their career than in almost any other field. Perhaps working as a salesperson is an example of a more ‘rejection-filled’ vocation.

Academic papers as well as grant and job applications are all likely to come back rejected on a regular basis over the course of your academic career. This will especially be the case for papers, and especially if you are doing the right thing and always trying to submit your work to the best journals with the highest impact factor (IF). Top journals keep their rejection rates high: some outlets like Nature and Science have rejection rates as high as 90%. Nine out of ten papers will get rejected, very often before peer review.

Managing rejection as an academic

Writing is a very creative process and so it’s normal to become emotionally invested in your work and how it gets treated by others. It’s also normal to become discouraged when your academic work gets turned down by a target journal. Be gracious, move on, but take on board the useful comments on your work that this process has generated. Think about the Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief, but for academic publishing.

1. Denial

The first stage of grief usually experienced after a paper gets rejected can include thoughts like:

How dare they be so awful about my work?!

Those comments about the quality of my research are just plain wrong!

Reviewers and editors can sometimes be quite unconstructive about work in their written comments. The important thing to remember here is that now you’ve been rejected by this journal, it’s up to you which comments and criticisms to take on board and use to aid you in a re-work for future submission. And which to just ignore. Returning to a piece of academic work in light of review comments and rejection can be an enlightening experience: perhaps working with a senior colleague or supervisor you can take the good and positive comments about your work and use them to improve the study, the writing style or structure for a future submission.

Denial does not last long: it’s a good idea to write a short, polite email back to the editor of the journal that’s just turned you down just to say ‘thanks for your time’ and ‘for helpful and constructive comments’. You might want to submit a paper to this journal in the future and so it’s always a good idea to leave with a positive impression.

2. Anger

A good rule of thumb in academic publishing (as well as in life) is: don’t get angry about rejection. It happens all the time. As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

The other point to make here is: never show your anger to the editor. Angry emails about rejection are never a good idea and, again, you might want to use this journal again in the future. Always leave a positive impression when communicating with journals, editorial offices and peer reviewers.

3. Bargaining

In many cases, authors will feel that they have been treated unfairly by a journal or, more specifically, by a peer reviewer. Perhaps the comments that come back about one of your papers are clearly unfair, incorrect or just plain unethical. In these circumstances, if you feel that an editorial decision has been based on something you disagree with, it’s a good idea to write to the journal to ask for more information or to lodge an appeal. This happens all the time.

As an author you should never feel that you cannot communicate directly with an editor, especially in cases where you want to learn more about why a decision was made. Lots of journals ask reviewers very specific questions about articles and collect a lot of information behind the scenes that they then don’t share with authors. It’s also not unusual for appeals to editors to result in a further round of peer review or a changed decision. What’s the worst that can happen? Your paper is already rejected. Remember to always stay polite and positive with all communications.

4. Depression

As we’ve discussed, feeling down, even depressed, about a negative outcome with one of your research papers is normal. You’ll bounce back. Take a step back and try to put your rejection into a bigger picture: maybe you chose a high profile journal with a high IF for this submission (top tip: this is the right approach) and so rejection was always a likely outcome. You can move on with your next attempt with this paper to a journal slightly down the tree in terms of IF.

Or perhaps some of the comments that have come back after peer review are valuable: maybe you did make some mistakes with your data collection or analysis? Isn’t it better to learn about these issues now, while the paper is still unpublished than experience the far worse outcome of someone penning a negative commentary on one of your actual articles? There is always a positive side to rejection.

5. Acceptance

Once time has passed and you’ve allowed the dust to settle it’s time to accept the editor’s decision and just move on. Take on board the comments you and your collaborators agree with that have come out of this round of peer review and re-work the paper. Aim for submission to another journal, perhaps more specialised and with a slightly lower IF.

Some of the most common scenarios to avoid after rejection include a total loss of confidence (the project just gets shelved and what could have easily been a decent publication to add to your CV never sees the light of day) or opting for a far from optimal outcome. Lots of authors get papers rejected and so submit to a much lower IF journal, far down the tree, just to see their work come out. Their attitude seems to be:

Just get it published, somewhere, anywhere.

However, as final words, this is a bad strategy to advance your career. Keep the faith!


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