Peer Review and You: How to Bounce Back from Rejection

15. September 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics. For more advice on mastering the peer review process, see our related post on Peer Review 101.

Dear Prof. Artal: I am a postdoc working in physics in an eastern European country. I published several articles in high-impact journals during my Ph.D. thesis. However, the first article I submitted from my new research was rejected. I am disappointed since I believe the research was good (in fact the best I ever did). Moreover, the reasons for the rejection were not convincing. I feel very depressed and I am even thinking about quitting my research career. What can I do? Alexander, Kiev, Ukraine.

Research papers, together with conference presentations, are the major outputs in research activities. No research is actually complete until it is published and accessible to the whole scientific community. In addition, careers, grants, reputation and promotions depend on the number and quality of the publications… so if a paper is rejected, it can feel really miserable.

But perhaps Alexander would be relieved to know that every scientist had some rejected papers in his or her career. So, first of all, this is not the end, but actually something quite normal. You can be even more relieved to know that there are well-known and important discoveries that were initially rejected! Relax.

I am in a good position to address Alexander’s question. First, I am a scientist with long experience collaborating with editors and reviewers on my own work. I also serve as editor for two international journals, so I have had to deal with other scientists and, yes, sometimes I must reject their papers.

You need to recognize honestly the importance of your research. This is something you can learn from your mentors, and do not be shy about asking your colleagues. In many cases, reviewers and editors are right; perhaps you overestimated your own research. If this is the case, ask for advice and recognize the situation. Plan more experiments, rewrite the paper or add a new model to complete the paper.

In most high-quality journals, you will receive at least two reviews, and most likely you will be asked to revise the manuscript. It is also common in some journals to have a direct rejection based on the large number of manuscript they receive. This argument is quite subjective and difficult to change, so if this is the case of your rejected paper, perhaps the best option is simply to resubmit it to another journal.

If you firmly believe the reviews were incorrect, write the editor an appeal letter. In it, you need to demonstrate point by point every detail of the review that you contest. If you are right, the editor should reconsider the decision and eventually your paper may be sent to different reviewers.

It is true, however, that in some cases the communication with journals may be quite frustrating for the authors. I can share with you a recent (and bad!) experience that I had. We prepared a manuscript on a topic I believe was quite novel and that provided interesting results with potential applications. The paper was sent to one of the top journals in ophthalmology. We were asked to revise the manuscript on three occasions with very detailed description of every minor change.

After a year and a half of making painstaking revisions, I received a letter from the editor telling me that the paper was rejected because the priority of the paper was low for the journal! You can imagine my reaction. I felt as bad as you may be feeling now. This is in my opinion an example of a bad editorial behavior. If a rejection is to be made on subjective criteria such as space and priority, it should be done as soon as possible.

Address every comment. Of course, it may happen that a paper is rejected after a revision if the authors are not able to address the reviewer’s comments. One typical mistake from some authors is to perform no revisions or only very minor ones, ignoring important comments from reviewers. You should always take very seriously any revision requests, and apply the same level of dedication or even more than in the initial preparation of the paper. Prepare a letter where every change and every argument is clearly listed. You do need to address every comment in some way; if you elect not to make a change, state the reason why. Most papers are greatly improved by the revision process, so take advantage of that.

It’s not always about the science. What can be even most frustrating is when rejections are based on the order in which competing research is submitted to a journal. Several years ago, in a study performed during one of my former student’s Ph.D. thesis, we measured the change with age of the aberrations of the cornea. We showed that corneal aberrations increase slightly with age, and that the lens exhibits a more significant change. We reported this first in a conference, but another group followed our idea very quickly, replicated the study and submitted a paper before that we did. A few months later, our work was rejected because the journal already had a similar paper on the topic. This happens sometimes, and it feels bad when it does. In any case, our study was finally published in another
excellent journal and has been widely used and cited since then.

Don’t be too anxious concerning papers. In particular, try to be calm when addressing reviewers and editors. Be firm, but not aggressive. Hopefully the research will be finally published, but if not, it won’t be the first time.  Every scientist could tell you a similar story about their own rejected manuscripts.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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