Things to Do After Scholarly Rejection

Getting over scholarly article rejection is difficult, but you often have options. Here we help you navigate the process for managing article rejections and considering those options before moving forward.

Updated on May 11, 2022

A researcher reading a rejection letter from a leading academic journal

Imagine this: You've spent hours writing a proposal to get your project funded. You spend endless more hours collecting, analyzing, and interpreting the data. Now it's time to present your work as a research manuscript to the journal of your choice and share it with the rest of the scientific community.

But then tragedy strikes. You learn that the editor and reviewers of that journal deemed your study unworthy of publication. As an academic, you should know by now that rejection is a part of growth. Even so, it stings every time we face it.

At first it may seem unacceptable, unfair, and excruciating that your manuscript, - prepared with blood and sweat - was rejected for publication. You may feel outraged. You may blame the system, because your colleagues and peers strung heaps of praise for the final piece; yet the reviewers found several flaws and decided to outright reject it. This feeling is totally normal, but you also should know that most – if not all - researchers have faced journal rejection. You might be surprised to know that many Nobel laureates are among them!

So, what do you do after your first article rejection?

After receiving a rejection letter, it is helpful to allow yourself some time to accept the decision. After a few days, with a fresh mind (and perhaps lots of caffeine), revisit the letter. Pay extra attention to each point put forward by the editor and the reviewer(s). Although peer reviewers can be subjective, they can be extremely helpful. You may have missed out on several important aspects that have now been brought to your attention by knowledgeable peers in your field.

Tip: In a systematic way, jot down the changes or recommendations provided in the rejection letter. It helps to have a hard copy (or soft copy, as suitable) of your manuscript open in front of you. Next, identify the suggestions that you agree with and those that seem irrelevant to you, using different-colored pens or fonts make this step easier.

Determine why your article was rejected.

As per the decision of the editor and the editorial team, the manuscript is either sent to the reviewers for peer review or is deemed unsuitable for publication prior to peer review. Below I have summarized 10 common reasons why an article is rejected by editors and reviewers. I also include ways to avoid such mistakes.

  • (1) The article does not meet the aims and scope of the journal. It may be difficult to understand the exact scope of the target journal from its name alone; therefore, ensure that you always read the aims and scope on the journal website. It will save you time and trouble in the long run. The editor may feel that your manuscript is irrelevant or unimportant to the subject matter. This is okay. You can simply evaluate other journals that are more relevant to the topic and resubmit your manuscript.
  • (2) The article either lacks originality or novelty or is obsolete. It is important for your research to add the new and/or novel content to the existing base of knowledge in the journal and in your discipline. Overall, your study should advance the existing field of research.

Tip: Perform a thorough literature search on your topic prior to writing your manuscript. This will familiarize you with already published reports and enable you to maneuver around the topic, perhaps, by making changes to the methodology, by adding more factors that could be analyzed, or by simply enrolling a much larger study sample. You could also change the classification system for defining parameters. For example, the tumor, nodes, metastasis (TNM) and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) systems are both used to stage cervical cancer. If a previous study has already applied one of the above, you could make yours unique by applying the other. Literature searches will ensure your research stands out from other findings in previously published articles.

  • (3) The article's central theme is lost. It is very easy for a reviewer (or any reader) to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and data in a research manuscript. Eventually, the reviewer could lose the fundamental aims and objectives of the research topic.

Tip: From time to time, keep reiterating the ultimate aim of the study to your readers, and essentially to yourself, so that you stick to its focus.

  • (4) The article's methodology cannot be reproduced. It is useful to keep reminding yourself how this research will benefit the scientific world and fellow researchers. Particularly, while writing the methods section, bear in mind that in the future, another researcher may want to validate your results or replicate your methodology. The strength of a methods section is ultimately determined by its reproducibility. Do not hesitate in adding extensive details about how you carried out each procedure.
  • (5) The article does not meet the formatting requirements of the target journal. Although this may not be a reason for reviewers to reject your manuscript outright, your research paper could still be sent back for major revisions. Prior to submission, ensure that your paper includes key information, such as the title, author names and affiliations, keywords, references, and tables and figures (and their captions). Ensure that the main text and abstract meet the structural and word count requirements specified by the journal.
  • (6) The article requires professional English language editing. Regardless of whether English is your native language, it always helps to get your manuscript edited by a professional for language, structure, and readability. You could also opt for a service where editorial professionals format your paper as per the target journal's requirements and make extensive changes to ensure a formal tone and subject matter correctness. An editor may also be able to highlight gaps in your manuscript, which may save it from being rejected in the future.
  • (7) The article's study design, statistical analyses, or data interpretation have major gaps. Regarding the study design, you should always be clear about the type of the study (retrospective/prospective, observational/interventional, etc.) conducted. You should also note the inclusion and exclusion criteria, adherence to the ethical requirements of the journal, and the statistical analyses carried out. If statistics are not your strongest suit, reach out to a colleague who excels in this department. Have them examine your statistical analyses and interpretation, perhaps over a cup of coffee.
  • (8) The article's conclusion is not consistent with other aspects of the study. At times, papers are rejected because the data does not support the conclusions claimed in the study. Or perhaps the study's conclusions tend to overlook major parts of the existing literature. If your results are not consistent with those previously published, be transparent and mention this in the discussion section. Try to explain why this may be the case. For example, it could be due to the difference in methodology or, perhaps, the geographical location of the study participants.
  • (9) The article does not use its limitations to its benefit. The point of a scientific paper is not to always display positive (or expected) results. The point is to be honest about your results and show how and why things should be done differently in the future. In the discussion section, clearly write the limitations and strengths of the study just before the conclusions. Also draw strength from your limitations by mentioning that future studies should take this into account.
  • (10) The article is highly plagiarized, figures are unclear, or references are outdated. Your study's rationale should align with the ongoing scenario in the literature. For example, if your research is about short implants, the definition of a short implant should not be outdated. In the 1990s, implants ≤ 11 mm in length were considered short; however, in recent times, implants up to ≤ 8 mm are considered short. Therefore, please avoid citing papers from over 30 years ago unless absolutely required, such as when describing the history of a concept. Be sure to paraphrase all information and cite the appropriate study when using a quote. Lastly, figures and tables add immense value to your masterpiece. Be sure to use and construct them with care.

Now that you have determined why your article was rejected, how do you move forward?

Your manuscript has been rejected even though you ensured all the above steps were fulfilled; this could simply be because your study does not resonate with the editor or reviewer(s). It could also be that they have recently published a study on the same topic. It is futile to dwell on the fact that you are now heartbroken. So instead, remind yourself that there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Your options after manuscript rejection?

  • (1) Make the recommended changes and resubmit to the same journal. This is the most ideal option if your study has been accepted with major changes (i.e., the editor encourages you to make the recommended revisions and resubmit the article). However, if your manuscript has been outright rejected, with no mention of major revisions and resubmission, it is best to respect this decision and move on.
  • (2) Make the changes and submit your manuscript to a different journal. Personally, I would highly recommend this step. Although the decision of the reviewer(s) and editor feels infuriating, their advice is almost always helpful. It is best to go through the comments and make changes that you believe would help improve and enhance the quality of your manuscript.

Tip: Be sure to meet the formatting and other requirements of the new journal prior to submission.

  • (3) Make no changes, evaluate other journals, and submit elsewhere. This is the easiest way to deal with a rejection, but it may not be the most ideal one. If the editor and reviewers have found flaws in your study, chances are the same flaws could be picked on by the editor or reviewer(s) of the new journal. Besides, the comments and suggestions are for your own benefit. Therefore, it is best to address the concerns raised in the previous review and increase your chances of acceptance in the new journal.
  • (4) Appeal the initial rejection. If the rejection letter seems arbitrary and unfair, even after giving yourself time and performing a thorough evaluation of the comments, you have the right to appeal this decision.

Some resources favor appealing a rejection while others advise researchers to steer clear of this option. A good approach is to reach out to colleagues and peers for their advice. Weigh all your options before deciding to appeal. Drafting the perfect letter is crucial. Avoid emotive and unprofessional language and ensure that you provide objective reasoning as to why this decision is unjust. Some believe this puts a researcher on the blacklist of an editor or journal, but you never know. Lauterbur's manuscript was only published after he had appealed a rejection. This published paper led him to winning the 2003 Nobel prize in Physiology!

AJE offers a FREE letter template for rejection appeals. Download it here.

Final Thoughts

It is normal for any individual to overlook the flaws in their own work. Peer review plays an important role in highlighting these flaws with the intention to improve your manuscript before it reaches your target audience. It can sure feel burdensome. But as a researcher, you must stay determined. Remember, this is merely a setback. It does not equate to failure. If there is one thing we have learned from scientists of the past, it is the importance of persistence and resilience. So try, try again (and again) until you succeed!

Making a connection with journal editors - and providing high quality, relevant research for their journals - are the keys to publication success. Let AJE's staff of editorial experts help you succeed through our English-language editing, manuscript formatting and journal recommendation services!

Getting Your Research PublishedProductivityOvercoming the English Language Barrier in Academic WritingAll About Journals
Table of contents
FacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy linkEmail
Join the newsletter
Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more

See our "Privacy Policy"