How to reject a rejection

For a junior scientist, it can be a major blow when their manuscript is rejected. They have poured many months to years of their time into this project, have submitted the paper where they think it belongs, and the editor puts an end to their aspirations by rejecting the submission. However, more experienced scientists, in particular those with editorial roles at major journals, know very well that many a rejection is not final. Often, a rejection is only the first step in an ongoing negotiation with the journal, one that frequently ends with the eventual publication of the article. To level the playing field between the junior and the more senior scientists, here I’ll reveal this secret to the world: How to reject a rejection.

There are basically two strategies that you can pursue, appeal to the editor or resubmit anyways. In the following, I’ll briefly discuss the mechanics of each option and then give my opinion of which option should be used when.

Appeal to the editor

An appeal is a request to the editor to overturn the decision. Typically, a successful appeal will change the decision from “reject” to “major revision”, i.e., it will buy you the right to revise and resubmit. Some journals have complex and formal appeals processes while others handle appeals more informally. In all cases, you will initiate the appeal by contacting the editor and explaining why you believe the reviewer criticisms were either unwarranted or can be fully addressed in a revision. The initial contact to the editor could consist of just a brief email explaining the main issues, or it could be accompanied by a detailed point-by-point response to the reviewer comments.

How a journal handles an appeal depends on the journal’s policies and procedures as well as the specific appeal request you are making. The journal may send out your original manuscript to another reviewer, they may send your point-by-point response to the original reviewers, or they may involve one or more editors who didn’t handle the original submission. They may also ask you for more information, such as a detailed point-by-point response to the reviewer comments (if you haven’t sent one yet) or a revised manuscript draft.

An appeal can be a long, drawn-out procedure, in particular if you initiate it with just an email to the editor. The editor may take a week or two to respond to your original email, asking you for a detailed point-by-point response. Once you submit that, the editor may have it reviewed by multiple people (the original reviewers, new reviewers, or other editors), and this process may take as long as a typical review would take. After all this time has passed, the editor may then tell you that they need to see a revised manuscript before they can make any sort of decision. The revised manuscript will then again have to be re-reviewed, of course, and this review process will likely prompt further requests for revision, even in the best-case scenario that the appeal is ultimately successful.

Resubmit anyways

As an alternative to filing a formal appeal, you can also just go ahead, revise your manuscript, and resubmit. This will have to be under the guise that you have sufficiently revised the manuscript to the point where it can now be considered a new submission. The unethical way of doing this would be to change the title, change the abstract, and hope the editor won’t notice. I do not recommend this approach. The ethical way to proceed is to submit as a new submission but state clearly in the cover letter that an earlier version of this paper was previously reviewed and rejected. You should also submit a detailed response to the reviewer comments. The journal submission system may not have a special option to do so, since it thinks you’re submitting a new article, but you can always just upload your response as a supplemental file and point to it in the cover letter.

Which option is preferable?

Given the two options of either appealing or resubmitting anyways, most people would intuitively choose to appeal. Resubmitting without prior approval feels wrong and somewhat sneaky; most people need to know that they are welcome to resubmit before they feel comfortable doing it. Further, the act of appealing feels right: The reviewers were stupid, the editors didn’t get it, and I want to protest!

However, if you consider the two options from the perspective of the editor, you’ll see that filing an appeal is almost always the worse option. The appeal, by its very nature, creates an adversarial relationship with the editor. You’re telling the editor they were wrong and need to change their decision. This adversarial relationship can make the editor negatively predisposed towards you. An appeal only makes sense, in my opinion, when the reviews were truly biased or otherwise off (e.g., contained unprofessional ad-hominem attacks), so that there is no way you can revise the manuscript to address the reviewer comments.

If you’re going the “submit as new manuscript” route, you’re putting the editor in a position where they are more likely to be positively predisposed towards you, even though it may not seem that way. First, note that you’re in effect asking the editor for a favor, namely the favor of connecting this new submission to the history of the previous submission and to use (some of) the previous reviewers. And asking somebody to do you a favor is a great way to get them to like you [1]. Second, you’re providing the editor with a submission that is easy to handle. The editor already knows which reviewers to invite, which issues to look out for, and so on. So, as long as you appear to have made serious efforts to address the prior criticisms, the editor will likely be willing to go along and at least send the paper back out to review.

How well does this work?

What are the chances of success? After having read this post, will you now be able to publish all your work in Science and Nature? No, of course not. Appeals and uninvited resubmissions frequently are unsuccessful. However, they succeed often enough that you should at least consider going this route from time to time. If you never resubmit a rejected article you’re leaving money on the table. You can be certain that any PI who routinely publishes in high-profile journals does a lot of appealing and resubmitting of rejected articles.

But won’t the editors just get annoyed and put you on their blacklist? I think that’s unlikely, unless you become really obnoxious, e.g. by appealing a failed appeal or by not putting an honest effort into revising your manuscript. Remember that editors fundamentally want to work with you and want to give you a positive decision. They’re not editors because they enjoy handing out rejections all day. They are doing this thankless, poorly remunerated job primarily because they want to advance their field and their community [2]. Thus, they’d much rather handle a good paper they can accept than a bad paper they have to reject.

Finally, you should know that many editors reject papers that they expect to be resubmitted. My own rule is that if the reviewers have pointed out a potential major flaw in the work, one that may require a substantial rethinking of the entire paper, then I’d rather reject than ask for major revisions. I do this because to me calling for major revisions creates the expectation that the paper will be accepted after the revisions have been made. And I don’t want to string authors along, make them revise, and then reject at the very end of this long process [3].

Notes

[1] This is called the Ben Franklin effect, after Ben Franklin, who asked a rival legislator to lend him a rare book.

[2] Yes, this statement applies even to paid, professional editors.

[3] This doesn’t mean I never reject revised manuscripts. It just means I try to make my initial editorial decisions such that rejections after revision are rare.