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A large portion of academics will at some point in their career send submissions of their work to academic journals, and for those on the tenure track, being successful at publishing may be the most important factor that determines whether they receive promotion and tenure. Yet few will have any knowledge of the thought processes that editors go through when deciding whether to accept or reject a manuscript or to ask the author to revise and resubmit it. Thus, as an academic who has served for over six years as an editor of a major scholarly journal in my field, I’d like to share the following advice that you should keep in mind when approaching and working with an academic journal.
Always take the revise/resubmit option if offered. Editors often have to console novice scholars who have received a “reject, encourage resubmission” decision and have focused only on the “reject” part of the decision. It is important to remember that a conditional acceptance after the first round of external review is exceedingly rare—especially for top-tier journals—and if one is given an opportunity to resubmit, then authors should view that as good news. Even when the revisions you’re asked for are daunting, it is almost always in your best interest to attempt a revision instead of starting over with a new journal.
At a basic level, it is a numbers game. The acceptance rate for a revised manuscript is much higher than for initial submissions. Also, an editor will almost always send a revised manuscript back to at least one, if not all, of the original reviewers. Therefore, you are starting with reviewers who are familiar with the manuscript and can see its improvement over time. Finally, that the editor allowed an opportunity for revision indicates that they see value in your research and are hopeful that the manuscript will ultimately be published. Given that they make the final decision, the fact that the editor has a positive disposition about the revised manuscript from the outset increases the likelihood of success.
Follow the editor’s lead—and learn to read between the lines. When you receive multiple comprehensive reviews, along with a detailed editorial decision letter, trying to wade through all of that feedback can seem overwhelming. It is important, then, when given the opportunity to revise a manuscript, to prioritize the revisions. Always start with the editor’s synthesis and specific recommendations. Remember, they know who the reviewers are and whose recommendations should be prioritized. In other words, if an editor does not explicitly note a suggestion made by a specific reviewer, then it may be something that you can argue is not essential. On the other hand, if the editor explicitly notes something to fix, then it is in your best interest to do so.
This prioritization is also important when composing the response letter that will accompany a revised manuscript. This letter can take many forms—a narrative, a chart, a table—but it should pick apart individual recommendations made by both the editor and each reviewer and explain how you did or did not address them. You should know that you do not have to agree with every suggestion made by the editor or reviewers. But if you disagree with a specific suggestion, you should explain why and not just ignore it.
One additional note about this response letter: it should be anonymized. This letter will likely accompany the revised manuscript when sent to the reviewers, so you should not include any identifying information in it, nor should you submit it on university letterhead. Submitting a identifiable response letter is a red flag to an editor that an author is a novice at scholarly publishing. Also, if the editor does not catch the lack of anonymization and sends the manuscript to the original reviewers, who then alert the editor to the breach in anonymous review, your revision will be sent to a completely new slate of reviewers, which hurts your manuscript’s chances of acceptance.
In addition, do not just accept the editor’s comments at face value; how they write the decision letter often says as much as the editorial decision itself. This ability to read between the lines is particularly important for “reject, encourage resubmission” decisions. Does the editor seem enthusiastic about the possibility of publishing your manuscript, or are they just giving you a shot because it might have some potential? Are they minimizing a reviewer’s suggestion without coming right out and saying it (because they may not want to offend the reviewer)? Picking up on these subtle hints can help with both the revision process and tempering expectations of success.
Don’t get hung up on reviewers’ publication recommendations. Editors should take reviewers’ publication recommendations with a grain of salt, and you as the author should also recognize the inherent subjectivity behind such recommendations. Some reviewers will never conditionally accept something on the first round of external review, no matter how good the manuscript is, whereas other reviewers will recommend that a manuscript be accepted only to subsequently provide a litany of complaints about the quality of the manuscript. Therefore, it is a pointless endeavor to try to make determinations about the quality of your manuscript based on these publication recommendations, nor should you prioritize the suggestions of reviewers who recommended “reject” or “reject, encourage resubmission” over those who recommended “accept with revisions.”
Instead, focus on the reviewers’ comments. If their editorial suggestions align, despite differing publication recommendations, then you should make every effort to remedy those concerns. This advice holds even if the manuscript is rejected. Many academic disciplines are relatively small, and subfields within disciplines can often be exclusive. Therefore, it is not unusual for the same reviewer to be selected to review the same manuscript by different journal editors. If that reviewer does not see that you have attended to the suggestions made at the earlier journal, your chances of success with the new submission are diminished.
Don’t take rejection as evidence that a manuscript is fundamentally flawed. Economist Richard Freeman noted, “Everyone has a ‘good’ paper rejected at one time because of a vicious unfair stupid referee, and everyone has a ‘bad’ paper rejected at one time because it deserves to be buried. Neither are quite as devastating as a teenager being rejected in some passionate one-sided romance, but you still can’t forget them.”
Indeed, rejections sting, and it is not uncommon to want to completely give up on a manuscript after it has been rejected. Doing so, however, is shortsighted. Editorial decisions are imperfect predictions, and many editors adopt the philosophy of only giving an opportunity to resubmit if the manuscript has a clear pathway to publication. Therefore, it is entirely possible that a rejected manuscript can be salvaged and published elsewhere.
Freeman also acknowledged that you can, in fact, get some relief from a rejection: “the certain knowledge that the editor and referees are blind baseball umpires, members of The Three Stooges, or incompetents in even more drastic ways.” Freeman obviously made that comment tongue-in-cheek; while it soothing to believe that everyone who recommended that your manuscript be rejected is a moron, the reality is that they probably noticed some fundamental flaws in the work that you need to remedy. A good rule of thumb is to put negative reviews in a drawer for a few days and then reread them with fresh eyes; often they appear more reasonable once your initial emotions have waned.
Even if you are convinced the editor and reviewers got it completely wrong, it is unwise to just take the rejected manuscript and submit it to another journal without engaging in some revisions based on the feedback that you’ve received from the original journal. Yet, authors have more leeway here to ignore comments perceived as “incorrect” than they do when revising and resubmitting. In choosing where to send the manuscript next, if the editor from the first journal offered suggestions, they are worth considering. Editors tend to know the field and what types of manuscripts are appropriate for different journals.
As a rule of thumb, once a journal rejects a manuscript, it makes little sense to submit it to a more prestigious journal. It is fine, however, to take a chance with a journal that is on equal footing with the one that rendered the reject decision. If, however, the manuscript is rejected from the second journal, it is likely time for you to submit it to a less prestigious journal.
In general, a manuscript should not be considered a “failure” until it has been rejected by three journals. Even then, do not give up hope! It is still possible to find a home for the piece, although you’ll probably have to significantly rework it.
As a final note, both editors and authors should know that editors do not always get it right. To err is human, and I am sure that over the years, I have misread manuscripts and made decisions that were too harsh or too lenient. The process of coming to an editorial decision on a manuscript is difficult, influenced by a variety of factors and inherently subjective. Yet, when implemented correctly, an editorial decision represents a good-faith, thoughtful effort to do what is best for both the journal and the author.