Whereas grant criteria tend to be clear, transparent, and consistent the criteria for having one's article or book accepted for publication is far more variable. Journals that have pretensions to being top tier often have a high rejection rate. But pretension is not sufficient to explain high rejection or failure to publish rates. Longer, more established general area journals tend to attract more submissions, which creates the opportunity and necessity to accept fewer papers. Most academic journal editors are volunteers (though the benefit, it is said, is paid out through career growth and advancement in one's home university - that's a debatable point). As volunteers they will have variable amounts of time they can or desire to expend on reading and reviewing work and mentoring authors who might need some closer direction. Some journals are run as fiefdoms while others act as collectives and then some are publishing arms of academic societies or commercial publishers. All of these factors (and many more) contribute to a high degree of variability in journal selection criteria and their rejection rates.
A lot of the other items on how to navigate rejection and/or revise & resubmit letters focus on feeling better and self-validation and then get back to work. Rejected authors are told to make reading the rejection letter profitable. Then there's the take a deep breath and then go back to work approach. There are also instructions to pay attention to best fit - did you send the paper to the right journal in the first place? One can also find very nice discussions of a kind of cascade-style submission process: if first choice says no send to second choice and so on. All of these approaches normalize failure as simply the first step toward success.
This piece is a bit different. I don't fundamentally disagree with colleagues who talk about how much it hurts to get rejected (it does) or that one should just keep trying and eventually someone will appreciate your work (someone out there most likely will). I think this kind of advice is generally helpful. I often advise my graduate students to accept every suggested revision to their theses or dissertations that the committee offers (unless it fundamentally disrupts their voice or core principles). In my own practice I typically take every revision suggested by an editor and the reviewers they selected and incorporate them: not always, but about 99% of the time.
In this post what I'm intersted in is (1) parsing out the different genres of rejection/revise&resubmit/minor revisions that one might experience, and (2) understanding when an author needs to invoke a principled 'no' and reject the editors suggestions cart blanche.
The easiest rejection letter to receive is the one that straight out says we will not be publishing your paper. They might say, as one editor did to me, that after reflection (and reviewing) the paper doesn't really fit our format.
Although the reviewers and I found the content of the paper thought-provoking, I am unable to accept it for publication in [this journal]. This is a definitive rejection, without the possibility of revision and resubmission. Because [this journal] is a selective journal, we can only accept a small proportion of manuscripts that are submitted. We must turn down many submissions such as yours that have considerable merit and may well be publishable elsewhere.The editor dealt out the definitive rejection in three solid pages plus the four separate reviews (which ranged from one that was exceedingly negative and detailed to one that was highly positive but short on content). That paper did eventually see the light of day and was published in 2013 (Standing on the Shore with Sabaan).
My principal reason for turning down this paper is unrelated to its content, After reading the paper, I have concluded that it is not appropriate for the “research article” section of [this journal] and perhaps should not have been sent out for review. With rare exceptions, research articles in [this journal] examine a delimited empirical case in the context of relevant theory and comparable situations. Your essay, though based, on some ethnographic work (as well as “insider” knowledge) is primarily a thoughtful discussion of some important general anthropological questions. Although this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, your essay does not fit any of the sections of the current version of [this journal] and would best be placed in another journal. (Editor. 2012)
Most outright rejection letters are not quite so detailed as above. I think the editor wanted to show me the respect of a detailed reply. I was anticipating the sort of response I got from the reviewers. Yet I still found the editor's excruciating explanation of why the content was not up to par (even though that was not the reason cited by the editor to reject the paper) a bit hard to stomach. It was a technically thorough and unimpeachable mini essay on all the flaws of my paper that left little doubt that this paper deserved a quiet burial in an unmarked grave. I suspect that had I been a graduate student or just starting a job, I may have come to the conclusion that an academic career was not for me.
I find that there are two basic kinds of rejection letters. The first (as discussed above) are direct and unambiguous - "we're not accepting your paper." The second are a variant of the revise and resubmit letter. In most cases a revise and resubmit letter is straight forward. Completing the required revisions might take some time, but the outcome will be positive if one can actually make the revisions. The other kind asks for revisions but they are the kind that makes completing the revisions to the satisfaction of the editor almost impossible.
Earlier on in my academic career I received a long revise and resubmit letter from a the editor of Studies in Political Economy (SPE). I was a graduate student at York University at the time and my paper detailed aspects of the Prince Rupert Fishermen's Co-op. It involved a class analysis of the Co-op and the fishermen who belonged to it. The editor's letter was direct and supportive. Included with the letter were three named reviewer's reports. Two of them (by Patricia Marchak and Barbara Neis) provided specific instructions and suggestions for improvements and revisions. Neither of which called for reconceptualizing the paper or adding new research. They accepted my approach (while pointing out areas they disagree with my analysis) without expecting me to mirror their own approaches. The third review by Wallace Clement was a single paragraph stating the paper wasn't publishable in SPE. He pointed to a misquote of his work. He also suggested the paper might be more appropriate for a journal like BC Studies. I doubled checked the misquote and found that I had correctly attributed the quote to him, but had listed the wrong page number. My graduate advisor (Margaret Critchlow Rodman advised that I send him a letter, apologize for incorrectly citing his work, and express my thanks for his engagement. I did all that as well as following the suggestions from Marchak and Neis and revised my paper. The paper was then sent back and ultimately was published in Studies in Political Economy #38, 1992.
These established scholars demonstrated an ethic of care that provided a neophyte scholar with the space and capacity to learn from their review. They took the work seriously enough to go beyond merely saying the paper was full of holes. Instead they provided detailed and doable suggestions that built on the strengths of the paper (rather than identifying all of the paper's weaknesses). The reviews by Marchak and Neis stand out in my mind after nearly 30 years of academic publishing - few reviews since have been as detailed or framed so constructively. I strive to meet their standard of intellectual engagement in reviews I am asked to prepare.
While the SPE revise and resubmit letter was a sincere offer, there are times where the revise and resubmit is akin to a rejection letter. This kind of revise and resubmit is very much a "this is so flawed we won't publish it and the likelihood of ever publishing it is low, but do feel free to try to revise it, if you really want to" kind of response. Everyone gets one or two of these over their careers. Sometimes the editors are very sincere in their detailed and voluminous effort to demonstrate how inadequate our paper is and how, with a modicum of effort, we might be able to nudge it into the acceptable category. Other times it's as though they haven't the gumption to just say "tough luck, we reject the paper."
As an author and recipient of these letters we need to be able to figure out if it is really worth our time to make revisions or to move on to a different journal. That's a a hard call to make.
I appreciate the honesty of an editor who once advised me that though I was invited to revise and resubmit their decision was essentially a rejection. They invited me to consider revising and resubmitting, but they also made it very clear that the reviewers comments would have to be "thoroughly addressed" (Editor-b 2012). However, the reviewers comments and suggestions were mutually contradictory and the editor provided no clear direction as to which of the reviewers' comments they would prioritize. Furthermore two of the four reviewers took issue with my core argument (that anthropologists should stop using Indigenous communities as their source of data and laboratories to test external theories on). To address the reviews in full would have required a fundamental change to the paper that involved me backtracking on a core principle of Indigenous research. This rendered revisions essentially impossible.
The paper in question had already been reviewed by the same journal with the same decision: rejected, but you can revise and resubmit. Two of the reviewers saw both versions of the paper - one approved the revision, the other didn't. Consistent through the review process with all but the journal that ultimately published the paper was an unease with my Indigenous critique of anthropology. Some might ask why send a paper that is likely to provoke to a series of settler controlled journals in the first place. After all, they have a vested interest in the continued extraction of data from Indigenous peoples. Fair question.
I thought the discussion was an important one to held within the covers of a mainline anthropology journal. Clearly the detailed (and lengthy) critical reviews of the paper (about 15 in total from three differnt journals) demonstrated that fellow anthropologists had an awful lot to say on the subject of decolonizing their practices. But their engagement stopped short of thinking it should be published in an anthropology journal. The debate remained embargoed until I was able to secure publication of Standing on the Shore with Sabaan in Collaborative Anthropologies (2013).
Most of the papers that I have published have involved revisions, sometimes genuinely minor - other times fairly significant. Most of the papers that have been rejected by one journal have ended up published in another venue. Working in the Woods (2001) was soundly rejected by BC Studies before being published by American Indian Quarterly (BC Studies also had took a pass on Standing on the Shore with Sabaan). My piece on Pine Mushroom harvesting in BC was rejected by the Journal of Anthropological Research before it became a chapter in Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management (Nebraska 2006). And so it goes - what is rejected one place can indeed end up in print somewhere else.
Standing on the Shore with Sabaan (as discussed above) caused me to reflect upon the ways in which our peer review system works and the discretionary control wielded by editors. Three different journals either outright rejected the paper or required revisions that would have fundamentally dismantled the core argument of the paper. The fourth journal I offered it to published it as a reviewed commentary.
My take away lesson is that for writing that fits within the general framework of a discipline one need merely meet basic standards (one should strive for more of course). Writing that disrupts, upsets, or provokes has to be written at significantly higher standard; but even that doesn't guarantee publication. Writing styles are not set in stone - they are structured by trends and fashion. Cast your eyes back over the decades of academic publishing and you can see the changes in style. My point is that being part of a change in style or approach can mean one's voice remains silenced. Consequently most writers stick to the middle ground because of it. In this sense rejection can be a kind of validation - we pushed the right button!
As a writer one needs to think very carefully about our audience, our message, and the venue through which we wish to publish. There will be compromises and the question becomes what compromise is one willing to accept. Humility is also part of the picture. We need to consider the possibility that our message is wrong, flawed, or presented in a manner that our intended audience won't pay attention to it. It is far easier to believe that we are right instead of listening to one's critics. Sometimes though, even after consideration of our critics, one realizes that there is a fundamental principle at play. In those cases an author should have the courage of their convictions and continue to press on. It's no guarantee that one's paper will get published, but some principles are not to be violated.
Sometimes getting published involves moving outside the mainstream academic venues. This will have a cost if a writer is intent on being an academic. Sometimes we can manage to meld different voices and genres. Expressive forms today include digital video, podcasting, blogs (like this one), and social media. Some of us who have managed to remain afloat in the academy are also trying to change the measures that are used to evaluate and assess voices that might otherwise be silenced. So while rejection is all part of the game, it doesn't need to be a game ender.