Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
If one situation can be selected as the most dreaded moment during a journal to publish a paper, it should be the editorial decision of rejection after review(s). I can easily recall the traumatic feeling of the rejection emails after many months or even over a year for the peer review process and rounds of revisions. Especially for papers you particularly loved and dedicated to, the feeling can be called the end-of-world moment. But it’s common even for the brightest minds in science - Nobel laureates can have their paper rejected (for example, see this article)! Well, the fact your paper was rejected after review does not mean your work will give you Nobel Prize, but it might give some solace to our sour hearts.
Before talking more about how to deal with this tragic event, I wish to share my opinion/experience on why papers got rejected after review(s)?
Why papers got rejected after review(s)?
As with all editorial decisions, the rejection after review(s) is the result of various considerations that the editor has to take into account. Hence, it is not always clear to learn the reasons behind the rejection (although some kind editors provide a brief basis of their decision in the decision letter/email). However, it may still be useful to share my personal opinion/thought based on my experience:
Insufficient novelty. When your paper is sent out for external review, it generally means that the editor found your paper’s topic interesting and potentially fit with their journal for publication. However, the editor relies on external expert reviewers for detailed assessments of your work, based on which the editor can make a more informed decision. In most journals, novelty is one of the most critical requirements for publication and when the reviewer(s) provide well-supported critiques on the insufficient novelty of your work, it might be enough to turn our paper down from the editor’s consideration. This is probably one of the most common reasons for the rejection after review(s). How to make sure your work is novel? You need to do a good job on the literature review (this tip post might be helpful).
Marginal advances over existing works. The reviewer(s) might agree that your work is novel/new at least in part, but they still can give substantial critiques on the impact and significance of your work based on the marginal advances made in your work compared to existing works. While the assessment of significance is more within a subjective domain than the assessment of novelty and technical soundness, the strong and well-supported criticism on marginal advances can still be formidable enough to kill interest in your work from the editor’s mind. This is probably a more common reason in high-profile journals (for example, flagship journals like Nature, Science, Cell, etc) where typically both novelty and impact (or significance/breakthrough) are emphasized.
Insufficient supports for claims. The reviewer(s) might agree that your work is novel and significant. But they still can give substantial criticism on the technical soundness/completeness of your data/method/analysis in support of your major claims in the paper. This is more technical critiques than that on novelty and significance, but strong and well-supported criticism on insufficient supports for claims/hypotheses in the paper can be sufficient reason for the editor to decide not to continue further external peer-review or consideration for publication.
Is the rejection after review(s) the end and you must swallow the bitter taste and look for another journal to submit restarting all the tough journey again? Probably (and sadly) the answer is yes mostly, but also sometimes no in some cases. However, this is not generalizable as each paper has its unique situation. So, I am quite cautious to call these as tips but more wish to share my personal experiences on rejection after review(s) in rough categories and how I dealt with them. Hope it would still be helpful.
Category I – Rejection with fundamental & well-supported critiques
This type of rejection is often a result of strong and well-supported criticism from the reviewer(s) on fundamental aspects of the work such as novelty and significance. Good and professional reviewers might support their critiques on novelty and significance based on the relevant literature references accompanied by their expert opinions and assessments. In my opinion/experience, this type of rejection generally means the end of the process and requires searching for a new place to try. It is tempting to appeal as an assessment on fundamental quality of the paper such as novelty and significance can be subjectively affected by the reviewer(s) personal view. However, it is important to respect the reviewers’ professional assessment and the editor’s decision based on it when they provided well-supported criticism.
But we still can take lessons from the reviewers’ comments and the rejection decision to improve the work for the upcoming refreshing journey. Sometimes, most difficult critiques to shallow might shed light on the best ways to improve our paper. You can carefully check from the reviewers’ and the editor’s comments on:
Category II – Rejection with technical & well-supported critiques
This case of rejection is often the result of strong and well-supported criticism from reviewer(s) on more technical issues of the paper such as insufficient supports for claims. In my experience, strong and well-supported criticism on technical insufficiency or incompleteness to support the major claims/findings in the paper can result in both major revision or rejection – while the rejection might come when the editor finds the degree of insufficiency/incompleteness of presented data/analyses is beyond the level addressable by revision(s). While this case of rejection would have much clearer paths to address the concerns of the reviewers and the editor, it would still likely require you to search for a new journal to try. Rarely, the editor might re-consider the significantly revised manuscript where all the reviewers’ and the editor’s concerns and comments are fully addressed in the form of (unsolicited) resubmission, but it would be completely dependent upon the editor. So, I think the default path is finding a new journal to submit, but it would still be possible to ask the original handling editor’s opinion if you would like.
However, there is one important thing to note for this type of rejection. This type of rejection is probably the most informative as the reviewers’ and the editor’s comments and critiques may clearly indicate the parts of your paper to be improved with additional experiments, analyses, and so on. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND taking those comments seriously to address and improve your paper BEFORE you submit to another journal. It is often common to find that the authors submit the rejected paper after review(s) to other journal(s) without any change, hoping more naïve reviewers would pass it easily. It is understandable, but I believe that it is not a good practice for making our science healthy and strong. As a reviewer, we all share our valuable time for free to review other papers to value and maintain our scientific community thriving with rigor, integrity, and excellence. As an author, we should keep improving our work and science based on the valued communications and feedbacks from the peers in return.
Category III – Rejection with erroneous critiques
Alas, this is a nightmare to any paper, but it does happen sometimes although rare. This type of rejection is mostly the result of strong and erroneous critiques from reviewer(s). Here the word erroneous is important – the erroneous critiques are criticism 1) without reasonable and scientifically justifiable support such as reference, 2) based on excessively subjective or unprofessional opinions, and/or 3) based on a misunderstanding of the presented data/analyses in the paper (either intentional or mistaken). How and why do erroneous critiques happen? Probably a myriad of reasons. In a good case, the reviewer(s) might be busy or not very familiar with the topic than they originally expected based on the title & abstract (typically the only information before accepting the review invitation), so inadvertently rely more on subjective opinion than objective scientific expertise; miss or misunderstand data/analyses in the paper. In a bad case, the reviewer(s) might have a conflict of interest such as competing groups – even though this should not be the case as researchers with conflict of interest must decline the review invitation by the most journals’ policy (but lamentably, it is the reality that some people do not keep this simple rule for various deplorable reasons).
This is the case where you can consider appealing to the editor for reconsideration. Different journals might have specific policies on appeal process. But it typically requires the cover letter to the handling editor together with the revised manuscript (where you addressed non-erroneous critiques in full as like typical revisions). In the cover letter, you should be very clear on (yet in concise format) on:
It should be noted that the appeal may or may not change the editorial decision. Experienced editors might notice the errors in the reviewers’ comments and already considered them in their editorial decision. In such a case, your appeal to point out the erroneous critique might not change/affect the editor’s decision. Also, the appealing process is somehow scientifically not productive or rewarding as it is closer to more personalized arguments than scientific discussion (although the fault would be on the reviewers who made erroneous critiques sadly). Hence, I do not highly recommend appeal in general. Considering the devastating and destructive consequences of erroneous reviews and resultant rejection of papers, I think that it is of utmost importance for all of us to do our best to serve our role in the scientific peer-review process with rigor, accuracy, integrity, and honor.
The next is the last tip post on a journey to publish a paper – Acceptance & Post-Acceptance Jobs.
Part I: Overview
Part II: Presubmission Inquiry & Initial Submission
Part III: Desk Rejected, What Can be Next Step?
Part IV: Revision, Art of Rebuttal
Part V: Rejected After Review, End of World? (this post)
Part VI: Acceptance & Post-Acceptance Jobs
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.
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