Manuscripts get rejected for all sorts of reasons. It’s all part of the game. However, one of the most contentious types of rejection goes something like this:

“We receive many more papers than we can ever publish or review and on this occasion we have decided not to proceed further with your submission. I would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your manuscript, and I hope you will consider the Journal of [insert favourite topic] again in the future. We wish you success with your manuscript”

It has not been peer reviewed. The editor(s) have unilaterally judged that your paper will not grace the pages of their journal and sent it back to you. We have discussed previously why this happens. Understanding the issues at play may help you come down from the ceiling. But then, it might also make you go stratospheric with rage.

Here’s what to do if you receive such a decision.

First things first

First of all, keep calm. You will need a level head to make a sensible decision on your next move. The next most important thing to do is not react immediately. Do not shoot off a rocket of an email, questioning the credentials of the editor that handled your submission. It will completely kill any chances you might still have with the journal.

If the reply to your submission really is as unhelpful as the example above it may pay to make some further enquiries of the editor. They may come back to you. But then again, they might not.

You basically now have three options:

  1. Argue: It’s called a rebuttal
  2. Go somewhere else: i.e. another journal
  3. Do more work: think like an editor and look at how you might increase the impact of your publication
  4. Don’t do more work: You drop the paper in the bottom draw.

Which option you choose will of course depend on many considerations. It will help if you discuss with colleagues or even with other scientists in your area to get other impressions. Let’s consider each option.

Rebuttal of the decision

You need to be sure that you want to do this. Basically, there is a balance between the time spent in rebutting the editor’s decision and putting a submission together for another journal. If you believe the significance of your paper is such that it really should be published in the journal that rejected it without peer review, it could be worth arguing your point. However, there is the competing view that the impact of the paper will not be harmed if it is in a lower impact journal. If it really is important to a research area, it will get cited anyway. Citations are after all another metric to consider. However, if the impact factor of the journal you targeted is your major motivation, your efforts would best be put into responding to the Editor. Getting a range of advice from other scientists could be really helpful here.

Submit to another journal

This is where you accept the editor’s decision, re-format the manuscript and submit it somewhere else. Just make sure you follow the author instructions. Many editors will consider rejecting a paper if it is clearly formatted according to another journal’s style. It may be helpful to compare your options for the journal choice. I have done this a number of times for clients when it is not clear which journal to submit to. In fact, this is an excellent way of getting consensus between authors on journal choice.

Just note that not all journals are the same and they all have their own policies and quirks. It might pay, for example, to choose a journal that sends all submissions to peer review. You will then avoid the whole issue of this type of rejection.

More research is needed – do more work

If the editors actually gave you some advice further than “thanks, but no thanks” you could be in a great position to step back and consider doing further experiments. Assuming that these come out in support of your original experiment, you might be in with a chance of increasing the impact of your work. You might even be able to submit it again to an even higher impact journal. You basically need to see it from the perspective of the journal. They are much more attracted to ground-breaking work as this might raise their profile. Of course, if you happen to be a PhD student in your final year it might not be possible to do more work yourself. In this case, can you combine work and increase impact that way?

The Bottom Draw – don’t do more work

While I do not advocate this, you basically give up. This could be because you need to (funding) or you can’t see a way forward. The data ends up in the bottom draw of your desk. This is not good as unpublished data can do more harm than good in many areas of science. You really should try to resubmit somehow. If there is anything in your data (i.e. you have actually discovered something), you will find a home for it sooner or later.

Whatever you decide to do, it is wise to be polite in your communications. You can be robust, but keep it polite.

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