Should you appeal when a journal rejects your paper?

Image: Asim Saeed via flickr.com CC-BY-2.0

Everyone who publishes in science gets manuscripts rejected. And I do mean everyone: take, for example, Higgs (1964) and Akerlof (1970) – both were initially rejected, but ended up central to their authors’ Nobel prizes. So when a manuscript of yours is rejected, it will sting; but you’re in good company.

When you are (inevitably) rejected, should you appeal the decision? A recent post by Chloe Tuck on what to do after rejection offers some interesting and surprising advice. There’s a lot of useful information in the piece, but one line really caught my eye:

 For the authors, appealing is always worth it.

Actually, I think that for authors, appealing is rarely worth it. Before I explain my advice, let me note two things. First, my reasoning is entirely pragmatic; it has to do with getting one’s work published expeditiously in an appropriate journal – not with whether or not everything that happens to a manuscript is “fair”. Second, this is my opinion, uncontaminated by any actual data.

Appealing a rejection is often one’s first instinct: to look at the reviews or the decision letter, seize on something that’s incorrect or that seems unfair, and to explain to the Editor-in-Chief just how the process wronged you. This seems especially right when you’ve just received the rejection letter and your emotions are (quite naturally) running high. I’ve done this myself (to my later embarrassment).

But it seems to me that for an appeal to be a good idea (from the author’s point of view), at least four things have to be true all at once:

  1.  There must be a genuine, objective wrong – not just something poorly phrased that you took offense to, an arguable point with which you disagree, or the kind of tough and debatable decision editors have to make all the time. If a reviewer said you write like a drunken bureaucrat, that’s unprofessional, but it doesn’t make the decision wrong. What might make the decision wrong? Clear evidence of conflict-of-interest or bias, a demonstrably incorrect statement of fact, or something similar. These things happen, of course, because reviewers and editors are human (just like all of us) – but they don’t happen all that often.
  2. It must be a sizeable wrong, and the major reason for rejection. A reviewer might be laughably wrong about one point in your paper, but it won’t matter (and an appeal won’t succeed) if the point is a minor one. And appealing even the most egregiously unfair process won’t help a flawed paper, because the fix at best is further review that will only confirm the flaws.
  3. The must be significant value in being published in the particular journal. If you don’t appeal, you will of course send the manuscript somewhere else instead – likely, to a journal that was your second choice. There are lots of journals, and I’ve never seen a manuscript for which only one offered a suitable home. You went, I assume, to your best option first – but how much better was it than your second choice? Enough to merit the work of a careful and thoroughly documented appeal, and the risk of editors seeing you as a difficult author?
  4. The handling of the appeal must be (about) as fast as review at a new journal. A common misconception is that a successful appeal means the rejection is overturned and the paper is accepted. This is possible, I suppose – but it’s much more likely that a successful appeal leads to further review (perhaps with one review discarded and a new one sought to take its place). This may not be much faster than a de novo review process at a new journal; and if there’s an administrative process involved in judging the appeal before the new review is sought, it might actually be slower.

Could all of these four things be true for your rejected manuscript? Of course they could. But it’s pretty unlikely. It’s yet to happen to me, and I’ve had dozens of manuscripts rejected over my career*. My best guess is that rejections that are real, serious wrongs (points #1 and #2) might happen perhaps a couple of times in a prolific career – and ones that are worth appealing (additional points #3 and #4) are less frequent than that.

Now, as I said, my thinking here is really just about what’s best for the author. It’s worth pointing out that occasionally, appealing a rejection may be worthwhile even if it isn’t in the authors’ own best interests. I have in mind cases where there’s a wrong with a broader social dimension: for instance, one that points to systemic problems with the journal or with the social structure of science. Add-A-Male-Author-Gate springs to mind (in the unlikely event you don’t know about that, here’s a summary). I admire the authors of that paper because they pushed their appeal even though it would probably have been faster to simply send their paper somewhere else**. In doing so, they did science a real service.  Such cases, though, are (I hope) genuinely rare.

So: should you appeal your rejection? Probably not. Most of the rejections you’ll get are reasonable enough (even if it takes some sober second thought to see it). Even if you’ve genuinely been wronged, an appeal may not succeed, risks gaining you a reputation as a difficult author to deal with, and will probably take longer than just submitting the manuscript elsewhere (after revisions, of course!). Does this advice make me a milquetoast? Maybe, and please push back in the Replies. But usually, I think, it’s just better to move on.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) December 10, 2015

This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.


 

*^All but one of which was ultimately published, although my most-rejected paper was bounced by six different journals first. The exception I wrote as a grad student. It took an important problem and addressed in a terribly misguided way; thank goodness it was rejected.

**^That appeal was successful (of course!), but even so the resolution was to replace an absolutely horrible review with a new review process; as of this writing, the manuscript is not yet published.

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Should you appeal when a journal rejects your paper?

  1. jeffollerton

    Hmmm, I don’t think I’d agree that all four of these criteria need to be true all at once. There’s often a good reason for submitting to a particular journal, and initially formatting for that journal then having to re-format for a different journal can involve a significant amount of work. So I think that points 1 and 2 are sufficient grounds because, although peer review is flawed, it’s the best flawed system that we have and deserves to be held accountable to authors. Allowing a reviewer/journal to get away with a shoddy review doesn’t help the system.

    If I recall correctly I’ve appealed against decisions (including rejection without review) maybe half a dozen times in 23ish years of submitting to peer reviewed journals. About half of the time the editor has accepted my argument and sent it for re-review, and all were subsequently published. The one which was particularly satisfying was a paper that was initially rejected because, in a very, very short review, the reviewer claimed that the question we were addressing wasn’t of any interest. That paper is now the most highly cited paper (by a considerable margin – more than double the second ranked) in the journal during the period 2010 to date. It was by no means the most innovative and ground-breaking bit of research, but it addressed a basic question rigorously for the first time, and I knew there was an audience for it.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, it sounds like you’re arguing that for you, #3 and #4 always hold, leaving only #1 and #2 in question. Fair enough – I would think of the 4 criteria as questions you need to ask yourself, and you have. I would probably have different answers (reformatting, in particular, for me is maybe 40 min of work, and I (perversely) kind of enjoy it.

      I’m zero-for-one on appeals, by the way. Hard to have a much smaller sample size. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Correct – about 10 min for the References, 10 for the rest of the MS, and a new cover letter. Although I must admit I’m ignoring the pain-in-the-butt of fighting with another version of a journal’s online submission portal 😦 And this would be different, of course, if I was having to convert for a methods-last journal or some such.

          “Something like” RefWorks etc. is indispensible, Jeff. You really ought to try again…

          Like

          Reply
  2. Jeremy Fox

    Spot on, Stephen.

    A bit of anecdata: when I was an editor at Oikos, I received a few author appeals. All of them were totally groundless and I dismissed them immediately. My impression from speaking to the Managing Editor at the time was that my experience wasn’t unusual and that most author appeals were groundless. So based on my own experience, I suspect that Jeff’s batting average of 50% successful appeals is unusually high.

    That isn’t to say 100% of appeals are groundless. As Jeff notes, one reason for appealing is if a review is unprofessional (say, by being so short as to indicate that the reviewer didn’t read the paper carefully).

    You missed one reason to not appeal: if you routinely appeal rejections, you get a bad reputation, and one which might well cause some reviewers to think more negatively of your next ms.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      With my “editor” hat on, I’ve dealt with only a couple, and my small sample would tend to back up your observation that too many appeals are mostly vitriol, little solid case. Which does not mean, as you say, authors shouldn’t please their GOOD cases!

      Like

      Reply
    2. jeffollerton

      “when I was an editor at Oikos”

      Funny you should mention that journal 🙂 You’d not need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that it was the one I was referring to. The review was a shockingly unprofessional one, dismissing the work in a few lines that made it clear the reviewer had not understood the work.

      “if you routinely appeal rejections, you get a bad reputation, and one which might well cause some reviewers to think more negatively of your next ms”

      But that would only happen if reviewers were told by editors that the author(s) had appealed, which shouldn’t occur, right? Appeals ought to be confidential between authors(s) and editors.

      Like

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Fox

        As an editor, I can’t recall any of the reviewers I invited ever providing such an unprofessional review. Had they done so, I would’ve just ignored it, because otherwise the authors would rightly have grounds for appeal.

        Re: getting a bad reputation if you regularly appeal rejections: People talk, including about stuff they technically shouldn’t talk about. If you act in a way that quite rightly will earn you a bad reputation (such as by routinely appealing every rejection you get), you can’t rely on anonymity preventing you from earning the bad reputation you deserve.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
        1. jeffollerton

          Yes, it surprised me too, especially coming on the back of two previous reviews that had been very supportive and asked for a few changes.

          Regarding the second half of your reply, I will mentally insert “one” for “you” 🙂

          Like

          Reply
  3. Staffan Lindgren

    Interesting discussion. I have appealed twice I believe. One was because the editor rejected in spite of two positive reviews because I worked in industry, implying that I was trying to get free advertising. The paper described something that did not work! The second was when one reviewer figured that similar work had been published on a different species in the same family, but with a completely different life history. Both appeals were successful.
    In 12 years as an editor I handled one appeal, and in that case the paper had 2 positive, but superficial reviews, and after about 5 months of trying to get a 3rd review I gave up and based on my own review rejected the paper (flawed design). In my rejection, I then explicitly explains the author’s right to appeal, which the author did. The paper was eventually published after a complete rewrite based on a decision by the editorial board to allow resubmission after revision.
    My experience is that the vast majority of reviews are careful and helpful, so the best approach is to put the reviews aside, calm down, and then address them. And that should be regardless of whether appealing or submitting elsewhere. Submitting to a different journal does not mean that the same reviewers won’t get it, and resubmitting as is may just piece them off if they do!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Staffan – your last point is extremely important. Even the most misguided review should be seen as an opportunity to reach more readers more clearly, with the side benefit of preparing you for the non-trivial chance that the 2nd journal will use the same reviewers as the first!

      Like

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Fox

        Yup: it’s not rare for rejected mss to go back to some of the same referees when resubmitted to another journal. And there are good reasons for that. So even from the narrowest, all-I-care-about-is-getting-my-paper-published-as-fast-as-possible-so-I-can-get-another-line-on-my-cv perspective, it is a bad idea to respond to a rejection by just ignoring negative reviews and resubmiting to another journal without revising.

        https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/rejected-mss-often-get-the-same-referees-when-resubmitted-to-a-different-journal/

        Like

        Reply
  4. Eric Lamb

    I have appealed once in 15 years (unsuccessfully). We had a paper sent out for a second round of review after revisions. Reviewer 1 had seen it previously and sent in a 1-liner that their (quite extensive) comments on the first version had been successfully dealt with. Reviewer 3 (a new reviewer) had some relatively minor technical comments, but indicated that they thought the paper would be low impact. Citing the statement about low impact the editor then rejected the paper.

    We appealed on the basis that the editor had clearly felt initially (since they asked for a revision) that the data were appropriate to publish in the journal, and reversing that decision four months later on the comments of 1/3 reviewers was an abuse of our time and effort.

    We were unsuccessful in our appeal, but we felt better after venting our frustration. The paper came out about a year later elsewhere.

    Like

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Friday links: an evolutionary biologist’s apology, plankton art, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Bob O'H

    I’ve just had to handle an appeal, so while I was at it I sent this on to our managing editor, for when he write a blog post about the same subject. I handle 3-5 appeals a month, and yes most get turned down, but not all. Sometimes, I hope, even when I reject an appeal it can be useful, because I have to be more careful about the justification, so I have to clarify what I wrote in the original rejection.

    I pretty much agree with the post and comments. jeffollerton’s point about things 3 and 4 is perhaps a bit too far – I think there’s a balancing test that has to be used – is the hassle of the appeal & re-review worth the effort?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. jeffollerton

      Sure, absolutely, it’s a judgement call across all of those things. With my editor-for-two-journals hat on I can say that I’ve not had to deal with an appeal but I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

      Like

      Reply
  7. Miriam Richards

    I’m batting 2 for 2 on appeals – but both were rather clear cut cases. In both cases, there was clear unfairness. The second one was based on a truly contemptuous review that described us as “incompetent” because we did our bee observations in May, rather than in February (in eastern Canada, so you have to really wonder what the reviewer was thinking and whether s/he knew how to use an atlas). Fortunately, the editor agreed that doing observations of bees in snowstorms was unlikely to be useful and the paper was eventually published – with a figure proving that bees come out of hibernation in spring! In general, I agree that appeals are not worth the trouble.

    Like

    Reply
  8. Ruth Hufbauer

    As an editor, my experience with appeals is they have come from very well known senior men exclusively. Very difficult for me. I would be interested to know how many men and how many women have appealed decisions, and at what stage in their careers.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That is brilliant. Unfortunately, I would have to reject their rejection of rejection on the grounds that it is not original (i.e., I’ve seen that joke any number of times before) – but I love the additional irony of now being able to reject the rejection of rejection!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  9. Pingback: How to handle an idiotic review | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  10. To appeal or not?

    Hmmm. Any thoughts on appealing after a first round of three strong reviews all recommending publication, a revision, followed by two glowing reports from two of the original reviewers saying “publish!”, and an editorial rejection saying that despite the enthusiasm of the reviewers, the editors felt that their feedback had not been sufficiently addressed?

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, to be honest (and wearing my editor’s hat), I would guess that the reviewers’ comments weren’t adequately addressed. It’s easy to see a positive review and miss the fact that it also includes important criticism. But, of course, it’s also possible that the editor messed up. We’re human! [EDIT: and I should have said… it can sometimes happen with inexperienced reviewers that they send mixed messages, perhaps downplaying the importance of a change because they know it’s important to be constructive. It’s the flip side of reviewers who are overcritical because they think their job is to savage everything. It’s a hard balance to get right, and one of the most important jobs of an editor is to recalibrate both kinds of review.]

      Like

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Squirrels, serendipity, and the reach of a blog | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  12. Pingback: How to handle a useless review | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  13. Pingback: The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s