Received a rejection letter? Don’t take it to heart as this is not always what it seems

No one likes getting rejection letters. Sadly, however, these are a fact of academic life; papers sent out to journals and (in particular) grant applications are more likely to be rejected than accepted (or funded), especially if you are doing what you should be doing and aiming high with initial manuscript submissions (trying to get your work published in the best possible journals).


It is for this reason that almost all of the papers I have submitted in my career were initially rejected from our first choice journal. Thus, ‘work down the tree’ is the advice I always give to Early Career Researchers; make a list of the best journals in your field from top-to-bottom and learn to pitch your work to the best possible one you think your paper has a decent change of getting into, then push it to the next down your list (once rejected), and so on. I learned this from my supervisor when I was a PhD student, and it certainly works. It’s always well worth trying to publish your work in the top journals, while taking the time to market your research appropriately. These are skills that you can learn with the help of Charlesworth Knowledge; learn how to maximise your research outputs, including targeting the best possible journals and driving up your Impact Factor.


Although some of my papers did end up getting published in our initial targets, including Nature, Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, more often that not initial submissions lead to rejection.  I understand that receiving rejections can feel like a set-back and can often be taken very negatively, especially early in your career, but you must develop a thick skin and also realise that such outcomes might not be what they first seem: many journals these days reject almost all the papers that they receive, including after securing sets of peer-review comments. This is in part because ‘rejection rate’ factors into a journal’s Impact Factor and so publishing houses want to ensure that this is as high as possible.


This means that the standard set of responses that you would normally have received from a journal after submission (‘accept’, ‘minor revisions’, ‘major revisions’, and ‘reject’) are no longer so cut and dried. Journal editors will often send a ‘rejection’ email that also includes an option to re-submit (‘we would consider a revised version of this paper if you are able to take the comments of the reviewers into account’). So: read rejection letters from journals with care as they are often more akin to ‘major revision’ letters.


This actually happened to us very recently with a paper submitted to Scientific Reports (an interesting example that I’ll discuss in a later post) for which we received an initial set of four conflicting reviews; ‘although rejected, the editor would be prepared to consider a response to the comments received as well as a revised manuscript which will be sent out for another round of peer review’. The moral of this story is read the letters that come back from journal editors with care; our paper is now happily in final revisions, following another set of reviews and a letter from the editor that asked for further ‘major revisions’ even though just very minor issues where subsequently flagged by a returning reviewer.


We know the paper is going to get accepted, however, because the most recent manuscript correspondence includes a link to ‘final formatting guidelines’. A journal would not be asking us to check the final manuscript formatting if our paper was not now going to pass into production.


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