#42: My paper got rejected! What now?

Receiving a rejection letter from a journal editor is no fun. You submitted a paper in the hopes of getting it published, but after a few weeks the journal declines your paper. What are your options now? Will you ever get it published? Is this the end of your paper? No, it doesn’t have to be! Read on to uncover which options are still available to you.  

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If you get a rejection …

“We are sorry to inform you that the editors feel that your current manuscript is not suitable as a research paper for our journal.”

This is a quote from a rejection letter that we used for our journal while working as Associate Editors. We had to send copies of these letters to authors because journals have good and valid reasons for declining papers that they receive. Of course, we were aware that the authors receiving these letters were not happy about the news! 

The rejection often comes as a very short letter, sometimes only one sentence. But when you read that short phrase, it can make you feel so miserable. For weeks you have been working on your paper, rewriting, editing, and revising it, many times over. You had exchanged paper versions with your co-authors, and by the end you were proudly submitting a paper that you thought was really good and should be published. 

Then, you read the editor’s decision and it felt as if somebody punched you right the stomach. Ouch! Rejection! No major revision or resubmission offered. What now? Has all that hard work been for nothing? Do you have to throw out the paper? Immediately you think this isn’t fair! Or, maybe they just mixed up the papers at the journal, or the reviewers misunderstood your paper, or perhaps they didn’t read it at all? 

While this could all be possible, it is very unlikely that it happened in your case. We do not know the exact reasons for the editor’s rejecting your paper, but you have to face their decision now. The editor usually provides further explanation in the rejection letter on a separate sheet or by including reviewer reports. 

Facing a big rejection is comparable to facing serious illness, death or even the loss of a loved one and it can spiral the rejected author into the five stages of grief by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Kübler-Ross 1969, Venketasubramanian & Hennerici 2013). In stage 1, the author is in denial of the rejection- it did not, could not have happened, right? The second  stage, anger, makes you want to express your frustration about the decision- the reviewers are clearly ignorant! Stage 3 is bargaining, you think there is a way to renegotiate this decision- maybe I’ll resubmit it unchanged and a better editor will see it! Stage 4 is depression, everything about your academic career is terrible after the fact that you got rejected. Stage 5 finally brings acceptance of the decision and you begin to look for a way forward. If you feel yourself going through the grief-cycle, make sure you arrive as soon as possible at the acceptance stage and don’t dwell in the early stages too long. 

It’s important for you to realise that a rejection letter does not automatically mean that your paper is doomed to fail or has no chance of being published anywhere. Not at all! You have several options of how to proceed from here. 

The CACHE approach

We suggest you follow our CACHE approach (= Cool down, Analyse the letter, Consider options and HEad on!). Your paper is not dead, it’s simply on hold, or in your cache waiting to be repurposed! But, you have to make a bunch of decisions now. For a quick overview, check out our free decision tree “My options after being rejected” and follow the CACHE steps detailed below: 

STEP 1: Cool down!  

At the time you probably feel that the best thing to do with the rejection letter would be to rip it into thousand pieces and flush it down the toilet, or use it to light your next barbecue. It’s out of question, the editor and the reviewers were clearly unqualified to deal with the contents of your paper. The journal would be better off sacking them immediately to make sure they never neglect a paper like this again. If you ever meet them in person, you would definitely tell them what you really think of them! They’d better watch out! 

Well, well, well, we totally understand these type of feelings, but this reaction doesn’t help. While it can be good to release steam with a few choice complaints (see stage 2 of the grief-cycle above), alone in your office, there is an even better approach: Cool down! Do something else now to distract yourself and most importantly: sleep on it one night. We’ve gotten rejection letters ourselves. We know it hurts. We also know it looks a bit better the next day. Your life is not at stake, nor is the fate of your research or even necessarily your paper! 

STEP 2: Analyse the letter!

OK, so the next day, take the letter out and read it again. Try to find out what the editor is really saying in the letter. Are there any hidden signs that could point to a resubmission? Every word has a specific meaning, so look closely. What did the reviewers actually say about your paper? 

Read all comments one more time and try to summarise for yourself what the main reasons for the rejection could be (whether you agree with them or not). It helps if you write them on a separate sheet in your own words. This way you can identify the reasons for rejection and will better understand what options are open to you. 

STEP 3: Consider your options! 

Eventually, after you have been through all the stages of grief and completed steps 1 and 2 above, you will be able let go of all the anger, depression, frustration and “I know better” feelings. This is the moment where you should try to be neutral and consider your options! You will have to make several decisions and based on these, you’ll have at least six options on how to proceed with your paper.  

Decisions you have to make: 

  1. First, decide objectively whether you have fully understood the editor’s decision. Note, this is not about whether you like it, agree with it or accept it, but whether you can follow the arguments of the editor (with the help of the reviewers’ comments). If you have not understood the decision, ask them politely for clarification. See our posts #32: How not to react when you receive review reports and #34: 7 features of a good response to reviewers for suggestions on how to communicate.  
  2. The second decision is then to determine in a neutral way whether you consider this decision justifiable. Again, it is not about whether you like it but whether you think the peer-review process had some issues that prevented your paper from being assessed in a fair way. 
  3. Third, decide whether you are in a position to address the suggested changes made by the reviewers of your paper. Here, you’re required to make a realistic assessment of what the reviewers asked you to change, how extensively and under which conditions it would be  possible and worthwhile for you to do it. 
  4. The fourth decision is whether or not you would like to make the suggested revisions. We don’t mean if you’re in the right mood for doing extra work on your paper (of course you are not) but do you consider the revisions at least helpful so that you wouldn’t be impairing the quality of your paper by amending it along their suggestions. The number of the suggested revisions you actually end up implementing would still need to be looked at in the revision.  

Based on the decisions you made above, you will now be at the point of considering what to do next for your paper. To revise or not revise, that is the question. The decisions you’ve made thus far offer you at least six options for what to do with a paper after rejection.

Options you have: 

  1. Resubmit a revised manuscript to the same journal: If you have improved your paper and addressed the issues that caused the rejection, you are welcome to resubmit the paper to the same journal. It will be treated as a new paper and will have to go through peer-review again. Occasionally, editors discourage authors from resubmitting to them as they consider the paper the wrong fit for the journal. 
  2. Submit a revised manuscript to another journal: If you got the impression that the journal that rejected your paper wasn’t the right outlet anyway, consider a more suitable journal. Make sure to address the reviewer comments as well as possible anyway. It could be that although you submit to a new journal, one of the reviewers chosen by the new journal has already reviewed your paper on behalf of the first journal that rejected you. 
  3. Submit the unchanged manuscript to another journal: If you think that the paper you submitted was fine in principle or that you cannot address all the suggestions made by the reviewers, you might want to submit to a new journal. 
  4. Publish your work with another outlet: Probably the review process with the journal has brought up the idea that your paper is not suitable for journal publication at all, or it would require so much additional effort to do so (which you may be unable or unwilling to invest), look for another publishing possibility. This could be a conference publication, a book chapter, a post on a scientific blog or a paper on a preprint server. 
  5. Discard the paper: Consider this option if you think your work wasn’t good enough to be presented to other researchers or because you no longer work in the field of the paper and don’t feel qualified or able to bring the paper to a publishable level. One option for sure is to do more work on the paper topic and then consider writing a new paper. Giving up and abandoning the paper is our least recommended option. 
  6. Appeal: If you feel that the journal’s editorial or peer-review process has not been up to international or ethical standards, you can send an official appeal to the journal, the advisory board, or simply protest the decision directly to the editor. You could also ask the editor to reconsider the decision and request new review reports from additional reviewers. But be warned, don’t take this option just because you don’t like the editor’s decision on your paper, but only when you think there was clear procedural misconduct involved. 

STEP 4: Head on! 

Try not to only consider the options you have. Make a decision, pick one of the options and work on your paper to get it published. If your work is worthwhile and performs good science, you will find a journal or another outlet ready for it. Don’t give up – face it head-on! 

Conclusion: 

Even if your paper was rejected by the journal of your choice, this usually is not the end of the road for your paper. You still have many other options in front of you to get it published and read by an audience. We’re not trying to say that everybody has to be rejected as if it would be part of the cycle of science! But if it happens, it is not the end of the world, or even your paper. Follow our CACHE-approach, make key decisions and go for one of our suggested options with your paper. Even better, check out our guide for how to avoid rejections in the first place, with “5 strategies to avoid initial paper rejection”. 

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