#121: How do you prevent paper rejection?

Whether you’re a newbie or a more experienced writer, rejections can happen to everyone, and the fear of receiving a negative response from the journal is omnipresent. But you can do quite a lot to prevent your paper from rejection and we’ll tell you how to do it. In 10 steps, we’ll explain what you can do to avoid paper rejection.

“Why should I submit a paper to a journal? The chances of it getting declined are higher than for its acceptance!” This remark from a former student in one of our paper-writing courses expresses the feelings of academic writers (particularly first-time authors) very well. 

Yes, the likelihood of receiving a rejection is statistically high if we take all submitted journal papers into consideration. But the reasons for rejection are broad and variable. Some papers are written very poorly, or present faulty or low-quality research, which in the eyes of the author’s peers are not suitable for publication. Often, a rejection has to do with the quality of the research that’s being reported in the paper. Check our post #52 “Why papers get rejected: 25 reasons you can avoid!” to get an overview of common reasons for rejection.  

Nobody can guarantee the publication of your next paper in a specific journal. But if you conduct your research thoroughly and according to the standards in your field of research, you can indeed substantially reduce the risk of getting rejected. Just follow the 10 steps we describe here:  

1. Focus on a clear and relevant research question

A good paper aims at making a contribution to its field of research. The contribution is best described when you explain to your readers (reviewers and editors are also just readers of your paper) the specific research question you address. Every paper needs a research question that provides a golden thread connecting all parts of the paper and guiding the readers through. Make sure you focus on a question that is of interest and relevance to your peers. Be specific in formulating the aim, and avoid remaining vague. 

2. Pick the right journal and meet its requirements

Don’t go for the first journal that comes to your mind when you think about your paper. In all fields of research, you’ll find a wide range of journals that may look similar to each other, but take a closer look and you’ll see they are not. Journals are very specific and address a highly-specialised audience. They also have clear requirements that should be met when submitting a paper. You may write a superb paper, but if you submit it to the wrong journal, you still might get rejected. Clearly identify the readers of your paper and which journal addresses them best. Check our post #91 Find the right journal for your paper following these 8 steps to learn how to pick the right journal and avoid your paper getting rejected because it is out of scope. 

3. Be exact in describing your methodology 

A journal paper is not a piece of fiction. Your readers expect a detailed description of the methods  used to come to your findings and conclusions. Don’t compromise on detail in reporting your methodology. The method section describes the scientific craftsmanship and expresses the robustness and replicability of your findings. It’s the backbone of the credibility of your scientific work. 

4. Not only present but discuss your results

It is tempting to fall in love with your research results and forget that for the findings to provide value, they need to be seen in a context. Don’t assume that the results alone will convince the readers. They require an explanation and interpretation from you.  Only then can the actual benefit of your work be assessed. 

5. Be original and avoid recycling and plagiarising 

It is essential that you leave no doubt that your paper presents new research, and that you’ve indicated clearly when you refer to previous work from yourself or others. Not everything in your paper has to be new, but the main focus of the paper should present original work. It is not good to reuse a lot of your previous work and rewrap it for this paper. Show that you have enough new material to present. Whenever you use other sources, clearly provide references to them. See our post #96 Plagiarism and how to avoid it for more details. 

6. Present a message to take home

Although one main aspect of a research paper is to report on the research that you did, it is not the purpose in itself. Keep in mind that you started out with a research question, then you describe how you addressed it, what you found, and what it means. But don’t stop there–tell the readers what they can learn from you and your research. They want to know what the exact contribution and benefits of your research are. 

7. Write a clear and focused Abstract

Of course all sections of your paper should be clear and focused, but for the Abstract, it is essential not to overlook this requirement. Although you might write it last, it is the first section that editors, reviewers, and readers will look at. Having read your Abstract, they start building up an opinion on your paper, and you want them to get a positive impression of it from the start. Therefore, have a look at our post #1 and find out How to write a paper abstract?

8. Ask a colleague to read your paper before submission

Having worked on your paper for probably several weeks, you’ve likely lost the big picture, and you will miss mistakes and areas that require clarity. Therefore, before you submit your manuscript to the journal, make sure you give it to a colleague who’s not a co-author and ask them for comments and advice. You will be surprised how many good suggestions you will receive to help make your paper better and increase your chances of making it through peer-review. 

9. Edit the paper before you submit

A paper is not only a research report–it’s a text that’s being consumed by your peers. The clarity and readability of the text substantially impact the reader’s opinion of your work. A text that is hard to read doesn’t invite further reading. It might look like a small task, but editing the manuscript with regard to language, clarity, consistency, and completeness takes extra effort and can’t be accomplished in half an hour. So take the time to thoroughly edit, as it will greatly decrease the chances of your paper being sorted out after a first quick read by the editors. 

10. Take reviewer comments seriously

When your paper passes the first hurdle of the editorial assessment and is sent to peer-reviewers, you’ve reached an important milestone. Now you can expect that after a couple of weeks, the reviewers will come back to you with suggestions for improvements or requests for changes. Although you’ve made an important step towards publication already, the reviewers’ assessment is still a big hurdle that needs to be overcome. Have a close look at what the reviewer comments include and decide how to respond to each of the comments. The formula is simple: the more suggestions you’re able to implement, the greater your chance to make it over this hurdle. Check our post #32 for How NOT to react when you receive review reports.  


Editor decisions on paper acceptance or rejection are not arbitrary–they have good reasons to  support or decline a paper. They always try to keep the readers’ interest and benefit in mind. Many authors who submit papers do not know or care about the journals’ requirements for a publishable paper, and are surprised when they get rejected. If you follow the 10 steps described above, you can actively prevent your paper getting rejected. For further details, you can study our free expert guide “Five strategies to avoid initial paper rejection” to understand what else to do to avoid paper rejection in an early phase of peer-review. 


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