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How to deal with rejection in academic publishing

Rejection can certainly be discouraging, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of a project. It is important to move forward after your work is rejected and there are some steps you can take to avoid rejection altogether.

Overcoming disappointment is often one of the first things an academic author must face after a rejection. Dannielle Joy Davis, an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Law at Alabama State University and a new co-editor for the journal Learning for Democracy, recommends setting aside a finite amount of time to feel disappointed before moving on and taking steps to resubmit. “I always send [a rejected paper] back out to a refereed venue and do not dwell on disappointment for more than 24 hours,” she said.

After conquering your disappointment, you must decide whether or not to resubmit your work to another journal. Tara Gray, the director of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University, and author of Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar, suggests objectively evaluating whether the costs of revising the project outweigh the benefits, rather than making a decision based on your emotional reaction to the rejection.

“When you get the rejection feedback, it feels devastating,” Gray said. “But when you try to respond one step at a time, usually you can respond reasonably and well. I would never reject a project based on reading bad feedback. I would reject it only upon trying to make those changes and finding they are insurmountable.” Gray said she always resubmits when her own work is rejected.

Davis urges writers to persevere and never give up on their manuscripts. In her experience as a writer, co-editor and reviewer, she has never come across a project that should be abandoned. “Authors must persist in the face of rejection and not take rejection personally,” Davis said. “Remember, every good manuscript has a home. It is our job as authors to find that home and to continue to polish the work while searching for it. Persistence is key in the publishing process.” Davis has never given up on a rejected project. Her strategy of persistence has paid off, earning her more than 20 peer-reviewed publications and a recent book contract.

One way that academic authors can potentially avoid the disappointment of rejection is to request pre-submission feedback in order to identify and fix problems early. Gray is a strong advocate for this strategy and works with three groups of readers for her pre-submission feedback. She asks non-experts, such as family members or friends, to read her work and look for issues in clarity and organization. She also asks people in her field that she trusts to read her work and comment on issues related to content, methodology, and theory.

In addition, Gray contacts the scholars that she has cited the most often and/or the most heavily in her manuscript to elicit valuable additional feedback. “I generally get about a 50% response rate from these experts,” Gray said. “I contact them and ask them for feedback on how I am using their work. That tends to be the hook that gets them to want to interact with me more. I also ask them for just a quick read—just 20 minutes of their time—to look for the biggest problems they see. Some of them have been enormously helpful to me.”

Gray asserts that pre-submission feedback can be extremely helpful in avoiding rejection and can help ensure that a project is worth pursuing in the early stages of the work: “If you’ve gone through a half a dozen experts and non-experts before you submit, you won’t be working on many projects that need to be abandoned.”