Guest article by Lars Witell.

Rejection: it happens to everyone

I opened Outlook, and I saw that we finally had gotten a response from a journal for our paper that was in the 3rd round of revision. I saw that we had a new reviewer — I read the line “This can be of No Interest to Anyone”. It was rejected. F##K! I called my coauthor. We were upset, we were angry and buried the paper far down in the desk drawer. We all have gotten these kinds of decisions — we had high hopes for an accept, but we were rejected. Hopefully not with a comment as devastating as this one, but still, it is part of being an Academic — not the best part, but still, a part of day-to-day activities. In the following, I share my views about getting rejected by academic journals as an author, and about rejecting manuscripts as a reviewer and as an Asc. Editor.

Let us state the obvious,  everyone gets rejected. The rejections rate for most of our Academic outlets are 90-95%. That means that most of us get rejected over and over again. I started working with a colleague some years ago, and she told me that she never had been rejected. In my view, she had targeted her manuscript at a too low level for the quality of her work. I promised her that if we started working together, she would learn at least one thing: how it feels to get rejected. We started the project, and later submitted it to a high ranked journal. We survived the first round of review, but we got rejected in the 2nd round. I lived up to my promise to her — a rejection.

Rejection: from the perspective of the author

The best rejections to get is when you get the “aha moment”. That means feeling that the reviewer and editor were right. I have done a poor job, I understand what I did wrong, I can fix it — and if I do, the manuscript can become a great contribution. I have to publish it somewhere else, but there is a contribution in there — I just need to put in more hours.

The worst rejections are when the reviewers have misunderstood something — and at least it feels like this misunderstanding is causing you to get rejected. Often, I assume that the reviewers have other reasons, but it always feels like this misunderstanding is the only reason.

Sometimes you get a rejection, but when reading the reviews, it feels like “the reviewers loved me!” — but you still get rejected. What happened? The first blame goes to the editor — I do not like him or her, why did they not see the brilliance and hard work I put into my manuscript. After taking in the pain, I usually blame this on my poor writing — that I have not been able to communicate the contribution of the manuscript — and that I have to do better next time.

The rejections that hurt the most are the rejections that take place in round 3, 4 and 5 (or later rounds). Then you usually have gone through the effort of substantial re-analyses and a new data collection. Due to all the efforts you have put in, you really think you deserve to get published. It is even worse when you have listened to the advice from the reviewers, but when they see the results of their suggestions, they feel that the manuscript is even worse.

Rejection: from the perspective of the reviewer

I review for a number of journals, I think that it is a part of our Academic service — and much of our work is based on reciprocity. By that I mean doing the work, not the actual decision. Suggesting ”Reject” on a manuscript means that it is not a contribution to the scientific discussion going on in our academic community. As a reviewer, you often have to reject a manuscript. It often feels terrible because you have been on the other side — getting the rejection — and now the roles are reversed. You will pass the verdict.

The best rejections to do as a reviewer are when you feel that the authors have not put their heart into the manuscript. When the concepts are not defined, when the analysis is not done properly, and it is not well written. You realize that the authors gambled with their submission and that they have not put in the hours needed to make a contribution.

Another type of rejection is when you realize that the authors do not want to discuss the ”hard parts” of their manuscript. So they do a shallow analysis of something that if you go in-depth, would be really interesting. In my view, these manuscripts often balance between major revision and reject. This is where I often write this in the section for the editor and say that the authors are on to something really interesting, but do they have the skills, data and interest to go down that way? I do not know. As an editor, I often appreciate these reflections from the reviewers — I hope other editors also do because I try to provide them when I have the opportunity.

The key is to try to explain to the authors why you suggest rejecting the manuscript — and even better, what the authors could do to address your concerns. Even if I reject a manuscript, even if I know the authors will hate me, it is key to at least give a good explanation to why I suggest reject. There is no reason to not be nice, we have all been on the other side of the rejection letter — by tough and fair, explain why, and give suggestions on how to address your concerns. Then we give the authors a chance to improve both present and future manuscripts.

Rejection: from the perspective of the editor

As an Asc. Editor, I know my most common decision will be reject. The decision often comes back to rigor and relevance, and how big changes that can be handled in the review process. Sometimes doing an additional study or collecting new data is a too big effort to be handled in the review process — meaning that a paper is rejected because it’d take too much time to complete it. As an editor, there are two rejections that break my heart.

First, a manuscript that has made an extensive study, is well-written, but where there is no contribution. The research has for some reason missed what is already published on this topic — and due to this aimed too low with the contribution, and that is unfortunately not enough to get published. If lucky, there is some additional issues in the data or new data is needed to hopefully save such a manuscript.

Second, rejecting a manuscript in a later round, when someone has invested a lot of time and effort into the manuscript. This often happens when you see a way forward for the manuscript— but you realize too late that the authors are not willing to put in the effort needed.

As an editor, I sometimes get papers that I have rejected as a reviewer for another journal. The research community is not that large. We have to expect that if there is an expert in an area, it is probably going to be the same reviewer or editor who will be assigned to the manuscript again, even when submitted to a different journal. The shorter period I received the same manuscript submitted to two different journals is about a week — with no changes being made in one week. My view of the manuscript has probably not changed that much when reviewing for the new journal. Please listen to the reviewers, even if it is a rejection, they probably have some good suggestions that are worth considering.

Dealing with rejections

So how do we deal with rejections. I read the decision quickly, and then stove it away for a couple of days. During those days I am a bit disappointed, perhaps angry and thinking that I have been treated unfair. When this has gone away, I take up the review again — and start to act. What did the reviewers do right? What can I address? What is the right target journal for this manuscript? What does the choice of this new journal mean for the manuscript?

Even a manuscript that is apparently “of No Interest to Anyone”, can be interesting to someone. After resting in a drawer for some years, that manuscript got our attention again. With a new co-author, a repositioning, and some hard work, this manuscript was resubmitted and eventually published! There is a home for all good research, we just need to find it. And when we finally get accepted, remember to celebrate — you have done something remarkable!

Lars Witell,
Professor in Marketing at Linköping University, Sweden,
Associate Editor for the Journal of Business Research (for Service Research) and the Journal of Services Marketing.