How to cope with rejections

“No interest to anyone” Nearly all researchers have
articles rejected, but the decision can be formulated in different ways. Lars
Witell has written an article about rejections, where he examines the issue
from three points of view – the author’s, the reviewer’s and the editor’s.

Lars Witell, professor in Business administration. Lars Witell.

Buried in the drawer

Lars Witell, professor in business administration, had written an article together with a colleague about the role of quality managers in companies, and they were confident that the article would be published. In addition, it was now undergoing its third round of review. Even so, the article was rejected, with the opinion of the reviewers that: “This can be of no interest to anyone”. That’s a rejection notice worthy of the name!

“I phoned the other author and we were both equally disappointed. Well – we weren’t just disappointed: we were also angry. We buried the article at the very bottom of a desk drawer”, Lars Witell remembers.

In his article Dealing with rejections, Lars Witell analyses the phenomenon of being rejected. As author of around 60 published articles, reviewer for around 50 manuscripts a year, and associate editor for two scientific journals, he has wide experience in several roles.

Lars Witell in his office at LiU.

Most importantly: Everyone gets rejected. On average, one in ten manuscripts is accepted for publication. The other nine are not published – at least, not in the journal to which they are first submitted.

“Having an article rejected is part of being a researcher. And this is the case not only for articles: applications for research grants and contributions to conferences are also often rejected. You just have to get used to being disappointed”, Lars Witell states.

Patience and persistence

Disappointed, but not defeated. In most cases, the rejection letter provides important points of view that the author can learn from and use to improve the article. It can then be submitted to another journal, where its chance of being accepted is higher. One piece of advice from Lars Witell is, quite simply, not to give up.

“Of course, sometimes you probably have to accept that the fight is lost, but you should also remember that a reviewer is simply one individual. Someone else may have a completely different opinion of the article. It may also be possible to use the material in another way. Maybe it’s more suitable to be included in a textbook, or as a book chapter, after a bit of revision. It’s usually better to consider this sort of thing than simply bury the manuscript.”

While it’s true that rejections are difficult to take, Lars Witell believes that the opposite is also a problem – that an author has all articles accepted in the first round of reviewing. This is a signal that something is wrong.

“It may be that the researcher is aiming too low, and could submit to journals that are more highly ranked. This is an important aspect to consider: for which journal is the article most suitable? If everything has truly come together in the best possible way – research questions, data and results – you can submit to a top-flight journal, but it may otherwise be wiser to save your energy for a case with a better chance of success.”

Late rejections hardest

As reviewer, it’s easy to recommend rejection if you see that the author has been sloppy, or submitted the manuscript speculatively, thinking “Maybe it’ll get through”. Your job as reviewer is much harder if the researcher has put in lots of work and carried out an extensive study without producing any new knowledge.

For the editor, the late-stage rejections, the ones that come after three or four rounds of review, are the most difficult.

“The earlier the better, for everyone involved. At the same time, there are cases where it is quite simply not possible to say at an earlier stage whether the article is good enough to publish”, says Lars Witell, who has himself experienced rejection after four rounds of review.

Even though both reviewers and editors often have a thankless task, the work they do is very important. “Maybe researchers who are rejected should feel more gratitude than frustration”, Lars Witell suggests. Without a stringent review process, the scientific quality would be compromised and, in consequence, public trust in research.

“I’m fundamentally convinced that all good research will finally find its proper place, and by that I don’t mean buried in a desk drawer. Sometimes, it just takes a bit more time and needs a lot of work”, says Lars Witell.

And indeed, the article that was “of no interest to anyone” was eventually published. After a few years, a new co-author became involved and breathed new life into the article. And suddenly, in its revised form, the article was accepted by another journal.

Read Lars Witells article: https://www.servsig.org/wordpress/2019/11/this-can-be-of-no-interest-to-anyone-dealing-with-rejections/

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Five pieces of advice after rejection

Give the decision a few days to sink in, before going through it in detail. The most acute disappointment has by then dissipated and you can start to think about revision, and possibly other journals where you can submit it.

When revising, keep the work of competitors in mind. If you’re writing in English, you are competing with researchers who are writing in their mother tongue. You must invest at least the same amount of time in language, building an argument and establishing your position as the competitors.

Think strategically. For which journal is this article most suitable? Have a realistic level of ambition: don’t aim too high or too low. Consider whether adding further authors will improve the article.

Make yourself available as a reviewer. There’s no remuneration and it takes a lot of time, but it can make it easier for you to publish. As editor, I make sure that those who perform well in the role of reviewer are rewarded by a thorough review of the work they submit – the probability that they will be sent out for review is higher.

When you have something accepted, celebrate! You have achieved something amazing.


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