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.