Friday, January 9, 2009

What to do when a journal rejects your paper

Stage 1: Get upset.
• Read the reviews.
• Get mad. Kick the dog, snap at your friends and family.
• Blame the Editor.
• Try to figure out who the reviewers are; they are obviously clueless, incompetent, and/or biased.
• Complain to your friends and colleagues.

Stage 2: Look at the reviews again, more calmly this time.
• Wait at least a week and then read them again from a fresh perspective.
• Try to figure out WHY the reviewers did not like the paper.
• Show the paper and reviews to a close friend and colleague for advice.
• Figure out which criticisms are valid and important, which ones are petty and not so important, and which ones are frivolous and stupid.
• Think about whether the original journal was the best place for your paper or not. What journals might be more appropriate?

Stage 3: Decide on a course of action.
• Option 1: Make minor revisions to address the main criticisms, and resubmit to another journal. This is the easiest course of action, but only if you still think the paper is very good as it stands.
• Option 2: Make heavy revisions in substance and structure so that it becomes a different paper, and then submit it to another journal.
• Option 3: Put the paper away for a rainy day. Perhaps someone will be looking for papers for an edited volume, where the standards are lower than for most journals. Perhaps you will feel like attacking the paper again after some time has passed.
• Option 4: Give up.

Just as journals are always going to publish some bad papers, so too are journals always going to reject some good papers. One of the most influential papers ever published in the social sciences (Granovetter 1973) was rejected by a top sociology journal. One of the reviews started, “Of the innumerable problems with this paper, I will enumerate the first eight.” But the author made minor revisions and resubmitted it to another top journal, where it was accepted. Google Scholar lists that paper has been cited 8,378 times. That figure made my jaw drop; the most highly-cited archaeology articles have a few hundred citations (see my post on this).

So don’t get (too) discouraged if your paper was rejected by a journal. This has happened to me several times (the latest one occasioned this post; I am now in the middle of Option 2 and this will be a much better paper). Keep plugging away. Good work will make it to print eventually.

Granovetter, Mark S.
1973 The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380.


MacKensie said...

Thanks for the advice, as always!

After revising the article, you wouldn't consider resubmitting it to the same journal?

ArchAsa said...

Words of wisdom. Perhaps something to hand out as a leaflet to all graduate students (regardless of discipline)? Reviewers have been known to reduce me to tears, even when they haven't rejected my article completely. However, the first reading of comments tend to be very emotional, and some comments might actually not be as bad or as harsh as the first impression suggests.

Of course, some reviewers are just stooopid! ;-)

Checked out your top ten list of cited articles as well - rather surprised to see that Hodder failed to earn a place, otherwise some very sure bets. Could there perhaps be a slight favouring of American archaeological interests reflected in the articles cited the most? The very nature of which citations are registered and counted, and which are not, would of course influence the final outcome.

Food for thought.

Michael E. Smith said...

My survey of the top-cited archaeology articles was very hasty and not systematic. It might be interesting to do this more systematically, but given the nature of the resource (Google Scholar) and software (Publish or Perish), it is impossible to simply search for citations to papers in archaeology journals or to papers by archaeologists. Its a pain.

Michael E. Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael E. Smith said...

To MacKensie- 2 relevant points. First, this was a rejection, not a "revise and resubmit." Second, I decided that the paper in question should go into an archaeology journal, not a general anthropology journal (Current Anthropology). The reviewers really did not comprehend what I was trying to say, and my audience is specifically archaeologists, not other kinds of anthropologists. I just wanted to try for Current Anthropology to generate debate.

James said...

Hi, great post. I've recently received word of rejection from a journal, but not altogether negative by any means. I went through all the phases of Stage 1 and 2 (minus dog kicking, but including snapping at family), and am now finally at Stage 3, Option 1. If this fails, I will move into Stage 3, Option 3.

I do have a question, also pertinent to your posts on peer review. I'm quite new to publishing (and I've never reviewed anything), so perhaps it is already a hackneyed subject, but nevertheless: is there any systematic control to prevent plagiarism by the anonymous reviewers of a paper they reject (perhaps in order to plagiarize it)? It's logical that editors would send manuscripts to other archaeologists working on similar problems, since they would be most able to comment intelligently on it. But wouldn't those same people also be the ones most tempted to incorporate someone else's good ideas into their own work (deliberately or not)? Doesn't the whole peer review system involve a huge amount of trust in the reviewers? Does plagiarism of this kind ever happen? Am I just too paranoid?!? Thanks!

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, the peer review system is indeed built on trust. In some of the hard sciences reviewers must sign statements about using or reporting information from manuscripts under review. But in many ways much of the whole edifice of research and scholarship is built on trust, which is why scholars feel so betrayed by cases of plagiarism and scholarly misconduct.

I always recommend that students read "On Becoming a Scientist", produced by the National Academy of Sciences - it discusses types of ethical and unethical behavior and their implications and context.

Michael E. Smith said...

For a longer and more useful post on this topic, see:

(Not sure how to get active links in a comment...)

Michael E. Smith said...


The paper that led to this post was first rejected by Current Anthropology. Then I revised it and sent it to the Cambridge Journal of Archaeology. It was given a "revise and resubmit", which I have since done, and it has now been accepted by CAJ. Each stage of revision led to significant improvements in the paper, and it will now be published as a much stronger and better paper than the one that made me want to kick the dog (I didn't actually kick him!).