Getting rejected from a journal can be emotionally traumatic, but it can also be infuriating when the reasons given appear spurious and even deliberately unhelpful.
Having worked as an editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry prior to taking forensic science posts in the UK and New Zealand, Hilary Hamnett, now a lecturer in forensic toxicology at the University of Glasgow, knows the publishing process better than most.
So how can academics improve their chances of getting published in a high-impact journal?
“The cold fact is that popular journals receive thousands more manuscripts than they can ever possibly publish, which means editors are always on the lookout for reasons to reject your next submission,” explained Dr Hamnett.
“Rejection can happen after months of silence, or can happen in a matter of days during an initial assessment of your manuscript by the editorial office,” she added.
Outright rejection – known as pre-screening or desk rejection – can be good for authors as they can quickly redirect manuscripts elsewhere, Dr Hamnett said.
However, editors also typically rely on the same small number of reasons to press the reject button.
If your paper is not in the scope of the journal, they won’t be able to publish it. Although this might seem blindingly obvious, it’s a very common reason for journals to pre-screen a manuscript. This is because authors assume they understand the scope of a journal and don’t bother to check it before submitting.
It’s easy to get the scope wrong; it can be much more specialised than the title of the journal suggests, and will also change over time. If you’re in any doubt, save yourself time and hassle by checking with the editor first.
You may understand exactly why your work is novel and different from previous work, but don’t assume everybody else will.
Of course, new research is pretty much always based on something already published in the literature. The key is to explain the differences and novelty to the editor and referees in your manuscript and your covering letter.
Even the most elegant and well-designed study may be rejected if the topic is no longer current in the field. Examples include the use of out-of-date experimental techniques, discredited theories and authors relying on ancient reference lists.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t tackle an old problem in a new way, but you may have to work hard to persuade the editor that you have something new to say.
If a manuscript is obviously part of a larger study, sliced into as many publications as possible, it may be rejected on the grounds of unnecessary fragmentation. It sometimes makes sense to split a study up, perhaps Part 1 detailing a theory and Part 2 giving your data, but be careful not to push this too far. The good news is that the editor may still be interested in publishing your work, but after some rewriting and condensing on your part.
Depending on the publishing model of your chosen journal, the editor may not be an expert in your particular field. In these cases, they may initially read only certain sections of your manuscript to get a "feel" for it, and your conclusion will be one of those sections.
Conclusions that are not supported by the data, that simply confirm previously published findings, or that are inconclusive or require further work, are unlikely to generate much excitement in the editorial office.
These are often neglected by authors, but they are an important window into your work for the editor.
Make sure you cite the big shots in your field, but keep references that will be difficult for editors or referees to access to a minimum, such as obscure and non-English-language journals, and unpublished conference papers. Non-peer-reviewed references can also start alarm bells ringing; if you can, avoid citing Wikipedia, ArXiv, newspapers, government reports or personal communications.
Academics hear about impact all the time, but what does it actually mean? The simplest way to describe it is that high-impact work produces a change.
That can be a change in the techniques used in your field, the opening-up of a new sub-area of research, resolving or creating a long-running dispute, challenging existing wisdom or simply getting people talking. If your manuscript is rejected because it lacks impact, or is described as "incremental", the editor can’t see how it will result in a change in your field.
Assuming you have made it over all the pre-screening barriers and your paper has gone out to referees, you can still be rejected, particularly if you don’t respond well to the referees’ comments.
Your job is to convince the editor that you have taken on board everything the referees have said. You don’t have to agree with them or make every single change, but you do need to show that you have understood and considered every comment.