When Your Journal Paper Is Rejected – Colleagues Can Help
You were having a great week – a busy one, of course, full of teaching duties, administrative complications and more wishes than progress when it comes to your ongoing research, but a decent week nonetheless. Then the email message you had been awaiting for months arrived from the editor of the top-tier journal to which you submitted your latest paper, and his or her response to your work was not at all what you expected. Instead of commending you for writing such an excellent article and informing you that it would be published in the very next issue of the periodical; instead of even a less positive but nonetheless workable request to revise certain aspects of the paper so that it could be accepted or at least seriously considered for publication, he or she simply rejected your submission. It was a moment of personal and professional deflation, one in which you began to think that the time and energy you invested in the article might have been wasted, and perhaps one in which you felt utterly alone, as though you were clinging with breaking nails to the bottom of the academic or scientific totem pole.

First and foremost in such a challenging situation is the need to recognise the consoling reality that you are definitely not alone. Rejection from publishers is a far more common experience among authors than acceptance is, and each one of those authors, no matter how confident and experienced, feels overwhelmed to some degree by a wave of disappointment when a rejection letter arrives. It can therefore be helpful to let your colleagues know what has happened and to recruit their assistance as you work to cope with the rejection and ideally turn it into an opportunity for successful publication.

I am not recommending that you and your closest colleagues head out for a night at the pub to rant about the evils of journal editors and commiserate over the foam of too many pints, though it is true that this sort of night out can be incredibly therapeutic. I am also not suggesting that you go directly to your department chair, reveal the rejection letter and solicit his or her help to achieve publication and earn that promotion you desire: that would be utterly foolish. What I am advising is that you do not try to cope with the situation entirely alone, especially if it is the first time you have encountered rejection from a publisher. Sharing the sad news with a few colleagues and mentors with whom you have worked closely and for whose research and writing you have great respect can be immensely helpful and in more than one way.

With or without the foaming pints, for instance, the personal support you will receive is invaluable. Confidence is needed if you are to take a deep breath and objectively tackle the reassessment and revision of your writing that is usually required to transform rejection into acceptance, and even submitting a rejected paper to a different journal without significant revisions requires a certain amount of confidence in your work. Discussing the situation with successful colleagues who respect your research and writing provides just the sort of confidence you will need. Secondly, having educated and knowledgeable scholars read your paper and provide suggestions for improvements can be immensely beneficial. Often other readers can detect in a piece of scholarship errors, ambiguities and other problems with an acuity that the author, deeply steeped in his or her own research, cannot. Such insights are particularly helpful when faced with a rejection in which the editor provides no specific reasons for the decision, and if you share with your colleagues any detailed critical feedback you receive from an editor, their fresh perspectives can help you assess those criticisms more objectively and therefore revise your work more successfully. Just remember to return the favour if those colleagues ever find themselves in a similar situation.