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Why was my manuscript rejected, and what can I do about it?

Release Date: May 23, 2016
Category: Scientific Manuscript Writing
Authors: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S., Michelle S., Ph.D., E.L.S.

It can be immensely frustrating when, after many years of research and effort perfecting your research, figures, and manuscript, you receive a rejection letter from your selected journal. Sometimes, this decision comes very quickly. Other times it may take weeks before you hear from the journal, only to receive a long list of negative reviewer comments. If this happens to you, you have several important decisions to make. Should you make the suggested revisions and resubmit (if the editor will allow it)? Should you submit to a new journal, with or without additional revisions? What journal should you submit to now? Here, we will provide some tips for handling your next manuscript rejection, and discuss your options.

Why was my manuscript rejected?

Decisions about which articles get published are typically made by the editorial board at the journal. For most journals, manuscripts are rejected at one of two steps in the review process. The first level is an editorial rejection. This type of rejection typically happens quickly—within 1‒2 weeks of submission—and is made by the journal editor. Editors reject manuscripts at this stage for one or more technical reasons:

  • The manuscript is missing essential elements or sections required by the journal. Essential elements or sections are typically described in the Instructions to Authors.
  • The manuscript subject falls outside of the Aims and Scope of the selected journal or is not likely to be of interest to the readership of the selected journal.
  • The English is inadequate for peer review.
  • The manuscript is scientifically incomplete and/or lacks a significant, novel contribution to the field. The experimental approach may not adequately or convincingly answer the posed question(s).
  • The article has poor scholarship. That is, it is not adequately referenced, it ignores or fails to address important literature within the field, or the references are outdated.
  • The journal suspects that sections of the document may be plagiarized.

The journal editor may provide additional information in their response letter explaining a specific reason that the manuscript was not considered for review. This information can be very helpful to consider when choosing another journal.

Some journals, particularly very high impact factor journals, receive far more submissions than the journal has room to publish, causing otherwise high-quality research manuscripts to be rejected due to space limitations. In this instance, there may be no technical reason why your article was rejected, simply that other articles took precedence over yours, either because of impact or readership interest.

If your manuscript passes the first level of scrutiny, the journal editor will to send it to 2‒4 peer reviewers. If your manuscript is rejected 3‒6 weeks after submission, the editor most likely based this decision on the reviewers’ comments. Some of the reasons that reviewers recommend manuscript rejection include:

  • They identify flaws or defects in the experimental approach or analysis. These can include:
    • o Lack of appropriate controls
    • o Inadequate description of procedures/methodology for sufficient reproducibility
    • o Inappropriate methods to answer the intended question
    • o Incorrect statistical analyses that are not consistent with those used in the field.
  • The authors state unjustified conclusions (e.g., flawed logic leading to an unjustified conclusion, insufficient data is provided to support the conclusion)
  • The manuscript lacks sufficient novel content to advance the field in a valuable way.
  • The manuscript fails to cite important, relevant literature.

What do I do next?

It is obviously very frustrating to wait anxiously for 6 weeks or more, only to receive a rejection letter. However, the peer review process, at its heart, is intended to augment scientific publications by elevating their quality to a level that stands up to scrutiny. Once you recover from the frustration of rejection, it can be helpful to consider the feedback you have received as an opportunity to improve your research. Even if your reviewers did not use the kindest words, their ideas likely still have merit. Your strategy moving forward will depend, in part, on the response you have received from the editor and whether you have reviewer feedback to consider. Each case is unique, but the following general approaches can be used if appropriate:

  1. Ask the editor for insight. Although it sometimes feels like the editor is an obstacle standing between you and publication success, editors actually share a common goal with you: to publish quality science that advances the field and establishes knowledge. If the editor did not state a specific reason for rejection, you may be able to request additional information through a simple email or phone call. Most editors are happy to discuss your manuscript with you and explain your rejection. Is some cases, this effort may reward you with a second consideration; however, many journal editors may simply reply that there is not enough space in the journal for all submissions. Unfortunately, sometimes journal confidentiality policies restrict editors from providing you with the reason your paper was rejected. For example, they may not tell you if they are currently entertaining a manuscript very closely related to yours, which was submitted first. Although the editor cannot disclose this information to you, they might encourage you to submit the manuscript to another journal without delay. In that case, you should not hesitate to select a second journal and submit promptly.
  2. Appeal the rejection. In some cases, you may be able to reply to the journal editor and ask them to reconsider the manuscript. This will not be successful in all cases; however, if you feel that a particular reviewer was wrong or unjustified, you may be able to politely build a clear case explaining why the editor should reconsider your manuscript. This effort may convince the journal editor to take a closer look at your manuscript and the reviewer comments. Exercise this option with caution: appeals take valuable time and carry with them some risk of creating friction or animosity with the journal editor, especially if the appeal is poorly handled. Make sure that your argument is valid and polite and that the effort is worth your time and that of the editor.
  3. Submit to a new journal, with or without revisions. If you received reviewer feedback, the comments may reveal areas of weakness in your manuscript. The reviews may even alert you to mistakes in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before sending the manuscript to another journal. Correcting the issues identified by reviewers at one journal may reduce weaknesses that could resurface at a subsequent journal. Addressing as many of the reviewer comments as possible will improve your chances of publication at the next journal. If the reviewers or editor identified language problems, carefully proofread your manuscript again and ensure that it is as polished as possible. You may wish to consult with BioScience Writers for a professional revision of your document (Academic Editing Services).

    You also now must select a new journal that is appropriate target for your manuscript submission. Again, reviewer or editor comments from a previous submission may help you identify alternative journals that are a good fit for your manuscript. Your own publication goals may guide your decision, as well. For example, if you need to publish your manuscript quickly, you may choose to submit to a journal with a lower impact factor but higher acceptance rate or a faster time-to-publication. Alternatively, you may choose a journal with a scope that is better suited to your article.

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Most importantly, don’t get discouraged when you inevitably have a manuscript rejected from your selected journal. Everyone has received a rejection letter during their research career. There are many journal options, and you will eventually find a perfect fit for your manuscript.

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