Editors' Advice To Rejected Authors: Just Try, Try Again

Nearly everyone must learn to deal with rejection, and authors of research papers are no exception. Many reviewers and other knowledgeable individuals say the key is not to take rejection of one's manuscript personally, and they point out that papers turned down by one publication often have gone on to enjoy success in others. In fact, according to one observer, several papers that were initially rejected went on to earn their authors the Nobel Prize. The topic is of particular interest to new

By | September 15, 1997

Nearly everyone must learn to deal with rejection, and authors of research papers are no exception. Many reviewers and other knowledgeable individuals say the key is not to take rejection of one's manuscript personally, and they point out that papers turned down by one publication often have gone on to enjoy success in others. In fact, according to one observer, several papers that were initially rejected went on to earn their authors the Nobel Prize.

The topic is of particular interest to newly minted researchers, who may not have had to deal with such outright professional rebuffs before. While immersed in the struggle to obtain grant support and the pressures of performing original research, perhaps for the first time, these researchers may not understand why they need to learn the skill of coping with rejection. According to publishing professionals and academic administrators, the answer is simple: It can improve one's future submissions.

REQUEST INPUT: Pittsburgh's Beth Fischer urgers authors to seek colleagues' criticisms before a formal manuscript submission.
Editors acknowledge that first-time authors can find the whole process very confusing and intimidating. Those authors would be wise to realize that their competition often is quite steep, suggests Allen J. Bard, editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, who holds the Hackerman-Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin. "We can't publish all the sound, interesting papers that are submitted," Bard states. "So we ask: Is it particularly interesting? Does it appeal to a broader interest?"

In other words, writing a good paper in no way guarantees it will immediately be printed. Says Beth A. Fischer, associate director of the Survival Skills and Ethics Program at the University of Pittsburgh: "It's not all that frequent [to] get your first submission accepted on the first try."

Most observers agree that the most important lesson to learn is that rejection happens to everyone. With a limited page budget placing a necessary restriction on what gets accepted, reviewers and editors at Bard's journal begin by asking of a paper "Is it new?" and "Is it true?" and proceed from there. "There are papers that go through the new-true filter, and we still can't publish them all," he declares.

"Some of the most cited papers in the history of science, now widely accepted, were previously rejected by referees."

-- Juan Miguel Campanario,
Universidad de Alcala, Madrid

Graduate students who participate in Pittsburgh's Survival Skills and Ethics Program undergo a 20-step course in writing a research paper. One of the points the program stresses, according to Fischer, "is a piece of advice someone gave us: The person said if you don't get a paper rejected now and then, you're not trying hard enough. You're not trying to get in the best journals you possibly can."

Bard cites a couple of reasons that papers are turned down. For example, some papers simply are not publishable because "there are significant questions about the science." These are referred back to their authors. Then there are papers "that are okay; they're sound papers, but they're minor extensions of a lot of work that's been done before." Reviewers typically tell the authors of these papers that they would be better off submitting them to more specialized journals.

As to how an author should react in either of these circumstances, Bard is hesitant to suggest a specific course of action. "It's an individual thing with each paper," he says.

One editor believes that a major reason many papers are rejected is that their authors do not do their homework on the journals to which they submitted their manuscripts. "I am surprised at how often authors have not properly taken the measure of a journal," declares Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, who is editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and teaches in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

"If an author is unsure, they can often get informal advice as to the likelihood of success from an editor," Cozzarelli continues. "They can give no guarantees, but will often save you time. The acceptance rate of PNAS manuscripts is about 20 percent, but at least half of the papers we receive have no realistic chance of success, and some prior inquiries would probably have revealed that."

ON THE SAME PAGE: JAMA's George Lundberg advises authors to call editors to clarify journal priorities before revising a manuscript.
If a paper is rejected, the reviewer typically lets the author know why, and suggests ways to improve it, according to George D. Lundberg, editor-in-chief of JAMA-Journal of the American Medical Association. "What [authors] should do is to carefully read the comments of the editor and hope that the comments are substantial, and take them to heart," he says.

At this point, the researcher must choose whether to adhere to the review's criticisms and resubmit the paper to the same journal. Pittsburgh's Fischer points out that authors can resubmit their papers without making all of the recommended changes but should be prepared to explain their reasoning for leaving some parts untouched. If the author believes the reviewer misinterpreted the paper, he or she should simply clarify the meaning, not change the paper to please the reviewer, she adds.

Authors who do decide to resubmit their papers are well-advised to assess the papers and the reviews as honestly as possible, states Cozzarelli. He adds that an author should resubmit only if he or she "is convinced of the strength of [the] case. Appeals can be successful, but only rarely."

JAMA's Lundberg urges authors to realize that a reviewer's request for resubmission is by no means a guarantee of publication. "Journal priorities change from week to week, and sometimes additional review after revisions shows new flaws-sometimes fatal flaws-that the first round didn't find." As a result, researchers often get confused over what the editor really wants. A phone call or E-mail requesting that editors clarify their meaning can help eliminate this confusion, says Lundberg.

Cozzarelli believes that scientists can have better luck by sending their rejected papers to other journals. "Rejection by another journal should be irrelevant," he says, noting that many NAS members tell of papers that were rejected here that wound up being published in PNAS. "[NAS president] Bruce Alberts recently told me of such an example," Cozzarelli continues. "A methods paper was turned down by other journals, but he saw that it would provide the technique of choice until the year 2000. The referees agreed with his assessment, and it will be published soon in PNAS."

Lundberg points out that scientists who decide to send their rejected papers here would be "ill-advised" to do this without addressing the first reviewer's suggestions. "That's very unwise," he says, adding that JAMA often uses reviewers who examine manuscripts for other journals. An editor who sees the exact paper he or she recently rejected for a different publication will immediately turn away, Lundberg goes on, "because it makes the editor think the author is unresponsive to constructive criticism."

However, those scientists who are able to answer their critics' questions can find tremendous success. In arguing for peer-review reform (Letters, The Scientist, May 12, 1997, page 9), Juan Miguel Campanario of the Grupo de Investigacion en Aprendizaje de las Ciencias in the Departamento de Física at the Universidad de Alcalá in Madrid wrote that "at least eight articles that would eventually earn the Nobel Prize for their authors were initially rejected outright by reviewers" (J.M. Campanario, Science Communication, 16:304-25, 1995).

Further, Campanario wrote, "some of the most cited papers in the history of science, now widely accepted, were previously rejected by referees." When choosing journals for resubmission, Cozzarelli recommends a conservative tack. "The immediate impact of an article is, of course, influenced by the journal it is in, but I believe that the added value is generally exaggerated. The important thing is just to get the work published in a timely fashion. If the work is good, it will be noticed."

What will help in that regard is to pay attention to the comments of reviewers, whom Cozzarelli calls "the unsung heroes of scientific publishing." Once the initial sting of criticism wears off, he states, it is easier and more beneficial to consider the reviewers' advice seriously. "It may require rewriting or new experiments, [but] I can hardly think of a paper of my own that did not benefit from the critical comments of a reviewer and sometimes saved me from an embarrassing mistake."

Sometimes, though, a review will seem so scathing, so critical, that the author wants to challenge it. The Survival Skills and Ethics Program at Pittsburgh discusses "what to do if you think the decision is outrageous," remarks Fischer. "You can approach the editor about trying to get [the paper] rereviewed."

An additional problem, according to Lundberg, is that editors generally try to be friendly and not insult those who submit papers. That can lead to a failure on the editors' part to be explicit in their comments to authors, who may then be confused on whether their work is being flatly rejected or the reviewer is suggesting ways to revise the paper.

How to tell the difference? "Consult the Ouija board," Lundberg replies. "Try for the fortune teller, and then read between the lines and see what the editor is really saying."

Some authors believe biased, bad reviews are given purposefully because their papers are reviewed by rivals. Cozzarelli says he keeps "an informal log of cases in which an author reports that he is sure that X [the reviewer] sunk his paper for some nefarious reason." He advises researchers to ask, in their cover letters to editors, that specific people not be permitted to review the paper.

STIFF COMPETITION: Journal of the American Chemical Society editor Allen Bard says, "We can't publish all the sound, interesting papers that are submitted."
"Your request will almost always be granted, and it does not prejudice success at all," he declares. "Editors are fairly good at spotting a reviewer that seems overly harsh or uncharacteristically slow. If they suspect that someone is trying to sink a paper for their own advantage, then they will ignore the review and, in the future, the reviewer."

However, Cozzarelli also sounds a cautionary note. Most authors who believe they are the victim of a biased review by a rival are mistaken, he states. Most of the time, the reviewer is a different person from the one the author suspects, which can cause problems when the author complains to an editor. "Remember . . . that if you excoriate X and [the reviewer] was Y, your persuasiveness is mightily dulled," Cozzarelli observes.

Ultimately, Fischer offers, the best way to deal with rejection is to seek help before it ever occurs in any official capacity. "The biggest thing we tell [program participants] is to take advantage of local resources. You can save a lot of time and effort by walking your paper across the hall to your colleague's office."

Bard believes that persistence eventually helps authors to succeed. Almost every paper, he declares, "filters through a set of journals [until] it finally finds the one where it's most appropriate. . . . There are relatively few that are so fundamentally flawed that they shouldn't be published anywhere."

Thomas W. Durso is a freelance writer based in Wynnewood, Pa.

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