Afraid that your paper gets rejected?

#65: Are you afraid your paper gets rejected?

What is the worst thing that can happen to your paper? Getting rejected? Oh yes, this is a scary thought and you don’t want it to happen to you. But being frightened of the process and scared of the outcome of peer-review doesn’t bring you anywhere. If you let the fear of rejection stop you from submitting your paper, it will never get published. Let’s find out what you can do to ease your fear of rejection.

Getting a paper rejected seems to be the underlying mega-fear of academic authors–the experienced and the inexperienced alike.it. In the many discussions we had with researchers in our paper-writing courses on their experiences and problems with writing for a peer-reviewed journal, rejection fear is very prominent and seems to overshadow everything else. 

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1. How it feels to get a paper rejected

Not good! But also not so bad. Some people might suggest that getting rejected is part of the learning process when you write papers for journals, that it is part of academic life, and that you should get used to it. Not sure that’s the most helpful advice. 

First of all, it does hurt to get your paper rejected and, yes, you will take it personally. There must have been something wrong with your submission that caused the rejection–either your research, the way you wrote the paper, or the audience and the journal were not a good fit. We’ve had papers rejected ourselves. This was no fun, and it was not just a trial-and-error exercise to see what’s coming out. We always submitted our manuscripts with the intention of having them published because we thought the work was good enough. But it was not always so, and we felt really disappointed and discouraged. It is not a great motivation boost to read the rejection letter of your paper. 

Second, when we worked later as Editors for the journal “Landscape and Urban Planning”, we never forgot how it felt to receive a rejection letter from a journal. Nonetheless, we had to write and send these letters to authors ourselves. We did this with the best intention to judge them fairly based on the advice we received from our reviewers, and to make sure that good work gets published. But not all work could get published, and we had to make a choice. And in every selection process, there will be positive and negative outcomes, and as an editor, you might make mistakes in your judgement. 

Thus a rejection is not just something that happens and you should just get over it, but it is certainly also not the end of the story of your paper. In our blog post #42 we discussed in detail the options you have, should your paper get rejected, and there are many options. 

2. Why you are afraid of getting rejected

It turned out that in our courses students were inundated with the experiences of other researchers. They heard from colleagues, supervisors, and friends how hard it was to get papers accepted in a certain journal. They probably all had their difficulties in getting a paper accepted, and it can easily feel like it is just a difficult process. As a consequence, you’re becoming afraid of it as well. It is like going to the dentist. If friends tell you that a certain treatment is unpleasant and very painful, you’ll likely be more scared of it than you need to be. In truth, the treatment will probably go very well and there is no reason to be scared of it at all.

You also probably recognize that there is a certain weakness in your paper which is rooted in the set-up of your project. You’re afraid the reviewers will pick-up on it and make it a huge problem. In reality, the reviewers will simply ask you to clarify the impact of the limitation and discuss it more thoroughly in the paper. 

Are you afraid of getting rejected because you are entering new territory? You’ve never written and submitted a journal paper before, and you worry that your work will never satisfy the journal’s standard? 

You’re probably also not entirely sure how this whole peer-review thing works, and what exactly journals, editors and reviewers are looking at. For you, it’s like a black box that—because it is unknown territory—is terrifying by definition. You feel powerless and out of control once the paper is submitted. 

Maybe you were in a situation where you wrote your paper with three or four co-authors but you never got any proper input or feedback from them. You assume they lost interest in the paper because they didn’t think it is high quality. Thus, you question the quality of your submission to a journal from the start.  

There are many reasons why you might fear rejection. The list goes on and on . . . 

3. Why it helps to overcome rejection anxiety

We understand the many reasons you have to be afraid that your paper will be declined by the journal. We learned ourselves from our own papers, and we experienced it with the papers of the thousands of students we worked with, that being afraid of rejection does more harm than an actual rejection does.

While it is necessary to become aware of the anxieties that you have regarding getting a paper published, it will not help to let your actions be hijacked by the anxiety. Sure, you should know what you’re afraid of and why, but if it is your goal to get a paper published in a journal, try to manage the anxieties. 

If you’re not going to submit your paper because you’re afraid of rejection, that won’t help you either. A paper that isn’t submitted can’t get accepted and published.

We’d like to encourage you instead to work on a paper and submit it to a journal when it’s finished. At least you should try. If you haven’t tried you will never know the status and the quality of your work because you will not get any professional feedback on it. 

4. How to reduce rejection anxiety 

It might be helpful to consider peer-review not as a pass or fail process. It’s a quality control where experts in your field give a judgement on your work that informs the journal’s editor about its suitability for publication in their journal. But there is a lot of grey between the black and white decision of reject and accept. 

The reviewers’ efforts also have to be seen as an attempt to improve the quality of your paper. They aim to help you publish a better paper. They’ve got great expertise, and you can benefit from their advice to get your paper into a journal. A change of attitude towards peer-review can help you to better understand the comments you receive from reviewers. 

In our post #52, we listed 25 common reasons why papers get rejected by journals. When you study this list, you will see that many of the reasons for rejection can actually be addressed by you before you even submit to the journal. Thus, with proper preparation, you can minimise the chance of getting rejected from the start. How reviewers and editors judge your paper is in your hands. 

Conclusion 

Getting a paper published in a journal means a lot for your career development, your degree, and your confidence. And it says something about the quality of your work and the way you work. So there is something at stake. When you are new or less experienced in the process of getting papers published, it is natural to be afraid of something going wrong, and that all your hard work would be for nothing. 

We see four lessons to be learned here: 

  1. If your paper gets rejected, carefully analyse the reasons for rejection. It most likely does not mean the end of your paper. You’ve got several options of where to go from here (see our post #42 for more). 
  2. Many of the reasons for rejection can be avoided. Check our post #52 to get an overview of common reasons for rejection. Then, carefully prepare your paper from the start and it will be less susceptible to rejection risk. 
  3. For you to successfully overcome your fear of rejection, take our “Rejection anxiety test” to identify what your breakpoints are and what you need to work on. 
  4. If you need help with writing your paper, don’t wait for someone to come and offer you support. Take action now and look for a helpful mentor, or join our next paper-writing course where we will prepare you for all the steps to minimise rejection risk. Sign-up to Paper Writing Academy, we can help you. 

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