Understanding the decision from your journal publisher
The big day has arrived. You look in your In Box and there is an email from a journal editor. You submitted your manuscript over 60 days ago and have been patiently waiting for their decision. The big day is here. You click on it. There is likely one of four decisions.
- Reject/return without review.
- Revise, and (of course).
Good news no matter what the decision is! You are moving forward. Here is some advice for understanding their decision and what it means to you:
Decision: Reject/Return Without Review
Reject and return without review has increasingly become a common decision as some journals struggle to deal with an increase of the number of manuscripts being submitted to them. The publishing staff may make this decision. The manuscript may never have made it to the full review system, so this decision may come quickly.
A journal chooses this option for one of several reasons. First, some aspect of the format is outside their stated parameters. The manuscript may be too long or short, have too many tables or figures, may be missing a key element like an abstract, or so on. Closely adhering to the Guidelines for Authors will reduce this possibility.
Second, the topic is not of interest to its readers, or it does not fit its mission. Some authors will send an article to some pretty far afield journals. Understand what a journal wants and do not submit if your work does not fit their interests. This saves everyone time and effort. Prestigious journals make their decision on the breadth of appeal, the impact, or the glitziness of the research.
Third, there may be other reasons such as they have published a lot or very recently on a topic or only accept submissions from a specific group of people (members, certain geographic regions).
If you receive this quick decision, count your blessings and move on. It does not have to do with your work. It may have had to do with how closely you followed their Guidelines for Authors. Either way, move onto the next journal on your list.
This decision is the one everybody dreads. If you receive this decision, do not let it become a major issue. Albert Einstein had papers rejected from journals. Over half a dozen Nobel Laureates had their seminal work rejected by peer review journals. It happens. Try to learn from it and move on.
A key factor in understanding this decision (as well as a revise decision), is whether the journal has given you feedback with their verdict. Unfortunately, there is no standard that journals apply. Some may give no information. Some may give broad rationale. Still others may give extensive feedback.
Many journals may stick to broad feedback for a rejection, such as “adds nothing new to the field” or “poorly written.” Journals may shy away from giving too much feedback fearing that it may provide ammunition to debate their decision.
Let us assume you have received some feedback from the journal. Take a deep breath and realize this is only one event in your part of a long and successful research and writing career. Read all the comments twice. Then let them sit for a while, perhaps a day.
After that, revisit them and honestly assess their feedback. Is there validity? This decision represents the feedback from this journal only, not from your entire profession.
If you disagree with them, perhaps ask a trusted, experienced colleague to read the paper (again) and the comments and give you their thoughts on their validity. Go through the comments line by line with your colleagues to understand. Even if you agree with the decision, feedback from a colleague might be helpful in deciding where to go next with your publication plan.
Really thinking about the journal’s feedback, whether for rejection or revision, is a key part of the authoring process. Most journals want to receive great, flawless papers. They are not looking to reject papers. You need to step aside from your ego and from the time invested in the work and consider the feedback.
If you agree with the comments, set a plan for addressing those issues that were highlighted. You will need to go through the editing and follow the review process again to ensure there are no small mistakes they have crept in. Most times, reviewer feedback improves your work.
Rejections can occur for a variety of reasons. As mentioned, three of them are “not of interest to the journal’s readers,” “adds nothing new to the field” or “poorly written.” Others are “too narrow,” “too broad,” “poorly researched or flawed methodology.” There are many more. Each one of these reasons can send you on a different course.
Some cover your choice of journals and the market. These are more easily addressed. Some can be problematic such as “poorly researched.”
Some large publishers have a decision/option called reject and transfer. In this case, your article has been rejected (likely because the content is not appropriate for the journal). They may offer an alternative journal within that publishing house that might be suitable. They normally give you an option with a few days to decide, if not the article becomes a straight reject. Before embracing this option, review the new journal and its particulars very closely.
Might there be a time when you cut your losses and move onto a new project? Maybe. But do not jump to this after some negative feedback or a rejection. All authors experience setbacks at one time or another. Create a plan. Think long term. And concentrate on quality work and making a difference.
Submitting your (hopefully) improved work to the next journal on your list might be a better fit. Whatever your next step, do not give up on this manuscript and do not give up writing and publishing.
Requests for revision might be the most common decision you will receive over your entire career. So, congratulations if you received this decision.
Requests for revisions mean the journal will reconsider the article with changes. This decision can be split into two categories: revise with minor changes and revise with major changes. Let us look at them separately.
All things considered, revise with minor changes is an acceptance! While not technically true, few authors (let alone few first-time authors) get a straight acceptance on their initial writing efforts. Having a journal be interested in your work and only request minor changes is great news.
If this is the decision you receive, get busy making the changes that were requested (assuming you can make them and that you agree with them). Resubmit your manuscript and count your blessings.
The second type of a request for revision is one that requests major changes. This is a very common decision. And it is not a reject!
As discussed in the previous section on rejection, journals will provide details on the major changes they are requesting. They may be a few broad points. They may be a few pages of detailed commentary, and/or they may include the manuscript with actual notes or changes within the document. Once again, read all of them carefully. Twice. Sit with the comments and let them settle in.
When you come back and reread them, make sure you understand them all and what the revision request specifically means. If you have any doubts about what is intended, go back to the editor with your questions. In a positive and constructive fashion, repeat what was requested, and ask for clarification. Make sure your wording is clear and not that you are disputing the request. When in doubt, be direct in your purpose.
On rare occasions, there may be conflicting requests within the revision comments. Once again, go to the editor and provide conflicting requests and ask for clarification.
Finally, some writers will disagree with the reviewer’s comments and want to debate or rebut them. Move on and consider submitting to other journals. There is little likelihood that the journal and the reviewers will rethink their position. Save your energy and plow it into something more positive. If you do want to rebut the feedback, do so in a clinical point-by-point manner giving citations for your claims.
If you received a decision of revise with major changes, then you have three options. The first one is to hunker down and start to rework the paper and make the changes. This will require time and not just amending a few sentences and adding a section or two. Think of this as a major rewrite or rework. Best would be (if you support their position) approach it as a significant rethink of the project. Likely these positions will improve the work and be worth the effort. When you are done, resubmit the work to the same journal.
The second option is to pick and choose which changes they suggest that resonate with you. Make these changes, improving the work, and keeping true to your vision of the project. All-in-all, if you received a revision decision, it is better to go back to that journal because you have invested time in the work, as has the journal.
The third option is to bypass the journal that gave the revise decision and simply move onto the next journal on your list and submit it there. There may be a two-fold reasoning behind this option. You may not believe the suggested changes make the manuscript better. Or you may believe in the opportunity cost; that is the time and effort the changes require would not make it more acceptable to the next journal on the list.
In making these decisions, the key factor is being open to the changes requested by the journal. Do not take them personally. Be objective about whether the changes are valid and might make your work better. Use that as the jumping-off point to determine your course of action.
If you move on from the journal that gave you feedback, there is a question of whether you need to notify that publication and withdraw your work. Most journals want you to do this for reasons of record keeping. Many authors do not do this. They may feel they are “keeping their options open.” If you truly are moving on, why not withdraw the manuscript?
If you are resubmitting your manuscript to the journal that gave you the revision decision, you will need to communicate with the editors about your revisions. Most authors will provide a cover letter with the revised manuscript that alerts the editors as to its circumstance. This letter acknowledges the revision, notes the date of the original submission, and when the decision was sent to you, and then briefly summarizes the changes you have made. Some journals ask authors to address each requested revision in a letter. Other journals do not require this since the whole manuscript will be re-reviewed. Query the editors as to which they prefer.
Some journals will often put some time limit on revisions. If you wait too long to resubmit, you might need to submit the article again as if it were a brand-new submission. Sometimes this is unavoidable; in such cases, the cover letter should still note that this was submitted before, that it had a decision to revise, and what revisions were made. If nothing else, this advertises to the editor that you were open to their feedback and acted on it.
The Holy Grail: acceptance. If you received a straight acceptance, congratulations. This is a rare occurrence, particularly for new writers. Assuming you have chosen a reputable and established journal, then sit back and enjoy the moment.
Some acceptances come with some changes that must be made. These changes are different from the scope or number associated with revise with minor changes. These minor changes are usually focused on mechanics such as fixing a few references or dropping an item such as a table. You might submit these items, or the editors might be able to facilitate them before publication.
There is little for you to do before the editorial process takes over with a decision of accept. Get started on writing your next article!
John Bond is a publishing consultant at Riverwinds Consulting. He just released a new book: The Little Guide to Getting Your Journal Article Published: Simple Steps to Success. He is also the host of the YouTube channel “Publishing Defined.” Contact him at email@example.com.