When an academic journal rejects your article


Most academic pursuits involve competitive selection and quality control, which means you hear “no” more often than “yes.” Trying to get an article published in a peer-reviewed journal is no exception. Sure, it lessens the sting of rejection if you think it’s unfair, but that “no” gives you a chance to really think about the quality of what you’ve written.

If your article follows the standard model in the humanities, it is written by one person and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. The editor then anonymizes it and sends it to two proofreaders, whose identity is not revealed to you. Participatory peer assessment has remained marginal in humanities subjects. The problem may be that it takes time to properly review a text-based article, so sharing it with many readers is less effective, despite the increased objectivity of this approach.

Some journals engage in a quick review process, say three months, but others may make you wait a year. It depends on how quickly they can find reviewers available at the right time. Eventually, you will receive an email telling you the result, with or without comments.

If you receive a refusal, the first step is to see it as a form of feedback: firm and unpleasant but clear. You wrote something with readers in mind, so reader responses are your guide. Many people only submit an article after discussing it with a reviewer friend or mentor, and after rejection it is all the more important that you reach out to others again. They can tell you if there are flaws in your argument or if you should try another approach.

Rejection without return

If you haven’t heard back from the editor (and some will refuse to match), then send your article elsewhere, as it may not fit that journal’s profile. When choosing your next submission target, consider their editorial board carefully. Some people work in several journals at once, and the point of submitting elsewhere is that you are looking for new readers.

Rejection with feedback

If you have received written comments, read them carefully. Your reviewers are your first readers, and perhaps your most comprehensive readers. Some editors ask the reviewer for two sets of comments. One is for the editorial board and the other for the author. It reminds reviewers to be kind and thorough. Not everyone is so caring. If the comments are direct, remember that these people don’t know you.

Ask the right people for your own opinion

A critical friend is someone you trust, not necessarily in your area of ​​expertise. They will challenge you safely, confidently. It is not social networks that will defend you in public without reading what you have written.

You have now reached the rewrite stage.

Look carefully at your goals

Why did you write this article? Is it part of a project in development? Is it an experimental piece? The comments will tell you how it goes. If they ask for more development, should your revised version be longer? Or more concise?

Disassemble then rebuild

Separate your plan and present its components. I once rewrote an article keeping the theory and replacing an obscure primary source with a better known one. This meant that the ideas appealed to more readers because the article was more accessible.

Follow the style sheet

A first submission must follow the graphic charter of the journal to the letter. It takes time, but it will gain goodwill. Journals discourage multiple submissions (when someone submits the same article to multiple journals at once) and using house style shows commitment.

Revise and resubmit

A “review and resubmit” is not a rejection. You are encouraged to take detailed advice from reviewers who see merit in your work and want to improve it. When you resubmit your article, the editor will show it to the same reviewers. Therefore, carefully follow their recommendations.

If in doubt, consult the publisher. I resubmitted an article over email explaining why I couldn’t implement one of the suggestions, and that was fine. Another time, I asked an editor to decide which review recommendation I should follow and which to drop. If doubts remain after resubmission, the editor may request a third reviewer.

Try again

If you view rejection as a form of feedback that gives you time and space to improve your work, you’ll be on the right track. Try again and you will probably succeed.

Catherine Léglu is vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Luxembourg.

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