How to handle (and even benefit from) article rejection
The quality of the manuscript is a decisive criterion for its screening in/out at the pre-peer review stage—that is, the initial editorial review. However, a manuscript may be rejected by the journal editors for a variety of reasons, including subject matter interest, and sometimes even simply pipeline management—namely, too many articles on the same topic. But, most typically, a preliminary editorial review aims at identifying whether the manuscript:
- sufficiently satisfies editorial guidelines of that journal;
- is likely to provide clear scientific contribution and implications for the domain in question; and
- has some likelihood to be favourably evaluated by the journal’s peer reviewers.
When a submitted manuscript fails to satisfy one or more of these criteria, a decision is made to return the manuscript instead of sending it to peer reviewers as part of the journal’s (typically, double-blind) peer review process.
So, there is a difference between a rejection:
- by the journal editors at the pre-peer review stage after an initial editorial screening; and
- after peer review per se.
Below we discuss both cases.
Rejection at the pre-peer review stage
If a journal is large or even leading in a given scientific field, and, especially, if a journal is multi-disciplinary, a manuscript is usually assigned to one of its sections’ editors. If a journal’s scope and reach are narrower and/or the journal is rather ‘young’, a manuscript can go directly to its general editors or editors-in-chief. In both cases, a preliminary editorial review aims at identifying whether the manuscript sufficiently satisfies editorial guidelines of that journal, is likely to provide clear scientific contribution and implications for the domain in question and has some likelihood to be favourably evaluated by the journal’s peer reviewers.
If that is not the case, the journal editors decide not to send your manuscript to their peer reviewers for their comments and evaluation. In their assessment, they primarily look at the potential contributions that the submission might provide to the current knowledge in the scientific field of the journal. If such contributions are relatively limited and do not exist to the degree that they would expect for a manuscript to be considered for publication in their journal, the manuscript is rejected. In sum, your paper must aim at reorienting the field of the journal (as you may also want to state in the paper).
How to benefit from pre-peer review rejection
So, first and foremost, you need to position your paper in the literature on the field of the journal. While it is not persuasive to contribute to a field you do not sufficiently position yourself in, you might benefit a great deal from the suggestions of the literature and other references by the journal editors in their rejection letter. Quite often, this is the main (and sometimes, the only) substantive critique of the journal editors, usually also accompanied by the examples of missing references. In most cases, the editors provide a sufficient number of such missing references, thus better showing you the gaps of your manuscript. Well, then you should turn this to your advantage—to fill those gaps in references and, possibly, knowledge in your paper, by using the information in the editors’ rejection letter.
The gaps in the literature review/state-of-the-art do not mean that the paper does not have its merits or can’t be publishable elsewhere; it just does not belong to that specific journal. Very often, the journal editors suggest some concrete journals where your—better, revised—paper would fit neatly, sometimes indicating the journals that you might not think, or even hear of, but which still have decent impact factor and other essential features. (To identify target journals for your manuscript, you may also use a journal finder tool.)
Rejection after peer review
If the manuscript passed through the initial editorial review, and has been screened in, then the editors send it to peer reviewers—actually, your peers who are experts in the field in question. At this—typically—second stage of scholarly review, peer reviewers assess much more thoroughly than the journal editors at the previous stage, whether the submission provides clear scientific contribution and implications for the scientific area in question. However, the results of the review by peers are recommendations to the journal editors instead of a categorical Yes / No verdict.
Most scholarly journals in any scientific discipline classify article submissions into at least three general categories:
If peer reviewers recommended rejecting your submission, and if the journal editors ultimately decided to follow peer reviewers’ recommendation, the criticisms of the reviewers are usually attached to the rejection letter/email, most typically in the form of a report. As you will see, often the reviewers find your ideas original and novel—but do not find the current structure and analysis to rise to the level that would be capable of revision to make the manuscript publishable.
Often you will note that both the editors and the reviewers were impressed by the original thinking (after all, the journal editors decided to screen your manuscript in and send it to peer reviewers). At the same time, at this stage, the reviewers often have severe and significant concerns about the structure of the article, its main research question(s) and/or hypothesis or, most typically, the methodology.
How to benefit from peer-review rejection
In any event, read the peer review report carefully and try to improve your paper accordingly. When revising your article, try to incorporate as many of their substantive suggestions as you can. Address all peer reviewers’ arguments, literally point by point, during your revisions. But remember: you do not have any obligation to accept all reviewers’ comments—only those that you deem help to improve the paper. Then send out the improved manuscript to other journals.
The most important point in both cases of rejection is not to discourage yourself from considering other journals for that very paper, and also that journal as a place of publication for your future research!
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