Scientific publication is an iterative process. Manuscripts are written, revised, and edited several times. Authors gather input from collaborators, colleagues, and peer reviewers. In a perfect world, this carefully crafted final product would be immediately ready to share. Still, evidence suggests that 20% of papers are rejected without review, and approximately 40% of papers are rejected after peer review (see our companion article on time spent in the peer review process).
Given that rejection is inevitable, even for Nobel laureates, researchers should focus not on avoiding rejection but on what their options are after rejection. Every authors has a number of options after a manuscript is rejected by a journal. As noted above, some rejections occur before the paper is sent for review. In such cases, remember that your time is important. Find a new journal that fits your work and move on. If you have received reviews of your manuscript, that information is very valuable. Even if that journal will not publish the material, you now have ideas for ways to improve the paper. Here are the most common options for next steps after rejection:
1. Appeal the rejection
The journal should have a publicly described policy for appealing editorial decisions. Appealing a rejection is within your rights as an author, but base your appeal on logic and not emotion. If a legitimate misunderstanding or error led the reviewers to recommend rejection, outline your points to the editor without belittling the reviewers or being argumentative. Appeals based on the scope of the journal or the perceived impact of your work are unlikely to succeed.
2. Resubmit to the same journal
The journal may reject your initial offering but invite you to resubmit later after addressing the reviewers’ concerns. If you are strongly interested in publishing in that journal, this option may be your top choice. Remember that some journals will inform you that they are not interested in accepting any future versions of the manuscript; you should respect this decision and try a different journal.
3. Make changes and submit to a different journal
The third option is by far the most common. Carefully consider the comments you received from the reviewers, work to improve your manuscript, and submit the manuscript to another journal. Be sure to adjust details like the cover letter, reference format, and other journal-specified details before resubmission.
4. Make no changes and submit to another journal
While this option is very easy, it’s not a good idea. By refusing to acknowledge any of the changes that the first set of reviewers suggested, you are basically negating all the effort expended in that first round of review. Chances are that some of the suggestions would improve your manuscript, even if some were mistaken. New reviewers are likely to pick up on several of the same issues; you now have a chance to address them ahead of time. And on a more practical note, your manuscript may actually be reviewed by some of the same people at a new journal. If you haven’t made any efforts to change the paper, be assured that their recommendation will not change!
5. File the manuscript away and never resubmit it
It can be easy to decide that your paper simply isn’t worth the trouble of resubmission. Still, while it is easy to let a paper go, it’s not best for the research community. Your data might be very valuable to someone else, either to provide the missing piece to a puzzle or to head off fruitless avenues of research. As hard as it is to believe in these days of complete media saturation, scholarly publishing may yet suffer from publishing too little, not too much. If you don’t want to argue for your article’s “fit” to a particular journal, consider PLOS ONE or PeerJ if you’re in the biomedical sciences. Finally, you can post your work to a site like figshare or Dryad, where it will be citable and freely accessible.
This is not an exhaustive list of options following rejection, but it covers the most common responses. Did we miss any? Do you have any other thoughts about resubmission of a manuscript? Write to [email protected]. Best of luck with publishing your work!