What to do when an academic journal rejects your article
Nobody likes negative feedback but rejection is not all bad. Here is how to see rejection of your article by a peer-reviewed journal as an opportunity
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Most academic activities involve competitive selection and quality control, meaning that you hear “no” more often than “yes”. Trying to get an article published in a peer-reviewed journal is no exception. Of course, it lessens the sting of rejection if you think it is unfair, but that “no” gives you a chance to think carefully about the quality of what you wrote.
If your article follows the standard model in the humanities, it is written by one person and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. The editor then anonymises it and sends it to two reviewers, whose identity is not revealed to you. Crowd-sourced peer review has stayed marginal in humanities subjects. The problem may be that it takes time to review a text-based article properly, so sharing it across many readers is less efficient, despite the increased objectivity of that approach.
Some journals commit to a quick review process, say three months, but others might keep you waiting for a year. This depends on how quickly they can find reviewers who are available at the right time. Eventually you will receive an email telling you the outcome, with or without feedback.
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If you receive a rejection, the first step is to see it as a form of feedback: firm and unpleasant but clear. You have written something with readers in mind, so readers’ responses are your guide. Many people only submit an article after they have discussed it with a critical friend or a mentor, and post-rejection it is all the more important that you turn again to others. They can tell you if there are flaws in your argument, or if you should try another approach.
Rejection without feedback
If you have had no feedback from the editor (and some will refuse to enter into correspondence), then send your article somewhere else, as it might not fit the profile of that journal. When choosing your next target for submission, look carefully at its editorial board. Some people serve on several journals at once, and the point of submitting elsewhere is that you are looking for new readers.
Rejection with feedback
If you have received written comments, read them carefully. Your reviewers are your first, and possibly your most thorough, readers. Some editors ask the reviewer for two sets of comments. One set is for the editorial board, and the other is for the author. This reminds reviewers to be kind as well as thorough. Not everyone is that considerate. If feedback is blunt, remember that these people do not know you.
Request your own feedback from the right people
A critical friend is someone you trust, not necessarily in your area of expertise. They will challenge you safely, in confidence. They are not the social media connection who will leap to your defence in public without reading what you wrote.
You have now reached the rewriting stage.
Look hard at your objectives
Why did you write this article? Is it part of a developing project? Is it an experimental piece? The comments will tell you how it comes across. If they ask for more development, then should your revised version be longer? Or more concise?
Dismantle, then rebuild
Pull apart your plan and lay out its components. I once rewrote an article by keeping the theory and replacing an obscure primary source with one that was better known. It meant that the ideas appealed to more readers because the article was more accessible.
Follow the style sheet
A first submission should follow the journal’s style guide to the letter. This takes time, but it will earn goodwill. Journals discourage multiple submissions (when someone submits the same paper to several journals at once) and using the house style shows commitment.
Revise and resubmit
A “revise and resubmit” is not a rejection. You are invited to act on detailed advice from reviewers who see merit in your work and who want to improve it. When you resubmit your paper, the editor will show it to the same reviewers. Therefore, follow their recommendations carefully.
If in doubt, consult the editor. I have resubmitted an article explaining by email why I could not implement one of the suggestions, and that was fine. Another time, I asked an editor to decide which reviewer recommendation I should follow and which to drop. If doubts remain after resubmission, the editor can ask a third reviewer.
If you view rejection as a form of feedback that gives you time and space to improve your work, you will be on the right track. Try again and you will probably succeed.
Catherine Léglu is vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Luxembourg.
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