What to do after a rejection

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (though the earliest origin of that idea dates to Christopher Bullock in 1716, apparently). Most academics would agree that paper rejections also belong on that list. My 10 published papers have been rejected a total of 29 times. I also have two “archived” papers that were collectively rejected eight times before I gave up on them and four working papers that so far have been rejected seven times (two are now revise-and-resubmit, so the rate of rejection is decreasing). So I have a total of 44 rejections. I have ZERO papers that got a revise-and-resubmit at the first journal I submitted them to (= each of my papers has been rejected at least once). I’m not even counting conference and grant rejections.

Paper rejections come in many shapes and sizes: your run-of-the-mill “Nice paper, but not enough of a contribution for this journal” or “Too many little things wrong” rejections; a reviewer finding something genuinely wrong with your manuscript; boilerplate desk rejections; a half-page report from a lazy reviewer who clearly hasn’t read your paper; and the frustrating “I just don’t believe your results” rejection. Rejections don’t feel good, but given that they are inevitable, it’s important to learn how to deal with them and move past them as quickly as possible. Below, I provide some suggestions that have worked for me.

First, allow yourself to take a few days to “mourn” the decision. A few days of inaction after a rejection won’t make much of a difference. I typically don’t even read the referee reports closely until it’s been a few days because I’m not confident in my ability to take in the feedback objectively. By all means, trash-talk the referees to your colleagues (people at your institution almost surely won’t be asked to review your papers), join the “Reviewer 2 must be stopped” group on Facebook (especially if you don’t know what “Reviewer 2” refers to), have a drink or two (please drink responsibly), do some exercise, work on another paper, or binge-watch that show you’ve been waiting to see. Do be careful how you discuss your reports online or at conferences because you never know who your reviewers were or who might know who your reviewers were.

It is hard not to take rejections personally, but in the vast majority of cases, they are not. The reviewers rejected your paper, they did not reject you as a person or a researcher. Even the comments about your paper may not have anything to do with the quality of your paper. Some reviewers might strongly dislike a particular methodology or research area, others may have had a bad day or week, and some may operate in toxic environments where unnecessary harshness is disguised as “honesty”. Your reviewer may have been a graduate student doing a referee report for the first time or a senior professor drowning in service work. Almost everyone has a “Reviewer 2” story, including some of the best researchers, and you are not alone. If a reviewer seemed particularly unfair, talk to a senior colleague about appealing the decision. However, appeals are definitely not the standard way to deal with rejections.

Next comes the time for actual work. Unless the journal rejecting your paper was your last stop before you were going to abandon efforts to publish it, try to return to the reports within a week of the rejection and look at them objectively. It can be tempting to either (1) ignore the reports completely and send the paper back out as soon as possible or (2) treat the reports as a revise-and-resubmit and try to address all the reviewer’s comments. Neither approach is generally a good idea, for two reasons.

First, you may get the same reviewer again. In some fields, reviewing the same paper twice is not acceptable, so you may get a different draw in that case. But in economics and surely some other fields, it’s not uncommon for the same person to review the paper two or more times at different journals. In such a case, the best you can hope for if you didn’t change anything in your paper is that the reviewer will return the same report to the editor. But it’s also possible that the reviewer will be annoyed that you did not take into account any of the comments they worked hard to give you and treat your paper more harshly than the first time around. In short, you want to avoid giving the impression that you thought the comments so worthless that you did not address even one.

Second, even if you’re 100% sure you’re not going to get the same reviewer, it’s highly unlikely that the reviewers’ comments were completely idiosyncratic or idiotic. If you ignore a comment that you could have addressed and a subsequent reviewer has the same concern, your paper could end up rejected again for avoidable reasons. Despite all the “Reviewer 2” stories out there, I think the overall peer review process is far from completely broken, so it’s also very unlikely that all the comments are useless and wrong. In short, the best way to treat the reviewer reports following a rejection is as an opportunity to make your paper better.

When deciding whether to address a particular comment, I ask myself two things: (1) How likely is this comment to come up again? and (2) How easy is this for me to address? The higher the comment is on this two-dimensional likelihood-ease scale, the more you should jump at the chance to address it. Whether something is likely to come up again or not is the hardest question to answer. Here, thinking about comments you’ve gotten at conferences or asking colleagues for their feedback on a particular comment can be really helpful. Rigorous self-honesty helps too: with some introspection, most of us will be able to identify comments where the reviewer really does have a point. Once you’ve identified all the relevant comments, start addressing them one by one. Where to stop can be difficult to tell, but if you start with the comments that rank high on ease and/or likelihood, you can stop at any point with the knowledge that you’ve addressed the most important ones. For me, a good rule of thumb is that the paper should be ready to go back out within 1-3 months or less of not-full-time work (this is probably equivalent to about 1-3 weeks of full-time for me). Anything more than that is likely to be excessive in most circumstances.

I’ll wrap up with two specific suggestions. If a reviewer comment makes it seem like she or he misunderstood something about what you’re doing, try to see if you can make that part of the paper clearer. You have the privilege of knowing your paper better than anyone else, so what seems clear to you may not be to the average reader. If there is a comment that seems likely to come up again but would be really difficult to address, you have a few options. You can add a brief explanation as to why doing X would be difficult, possibly as a footnote, possibly as a suggested avenue for future research. This signals to reviewers that you are aware of X. Relatedly, you can hint that you could do X but it’s outside of the scope of the current paper. That allows a persistent reviewer to insist on seeing X in a revision but reduces the likelihood that they reject the paper because you didn’t already do X.

In the end, these steps don’t necessarily make rejections more pleasant, but they do move your paper closer to published!

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