How to write, and read, a (manuscript) rejection letter

Several months ago, I wrote about how to write, and read, a job rejection letter.  I know a lot about those.  I also know quite a bit about manuscript rejections (as most of us do).  I’ve received so many I’ve lost track, and I’ve written as many or more as an editor.  Just as with job rejections, there are better manuscript rejections and worse ones.  Today I’ll suggest a few ways to steer the ones you write, and the ones you read, towards the “better” category.

Writing a rejection letter

The key to writing a good manuscript rejection is really the same as for a job rejection: be as kind as you can be.  (Actually, it’s hard to think of a situation in life for which “be as kind as you can be” isn’t a good rule.)  You’re writing the letter to reject a manuscript, but keep in mind that you’re rejecting this manuscript for this journal – you aren’t rejecting the author, or the author’s science in general, or even this manuscript for all time.  So begin by pointing to some of the positives.  It’s pretty rare that I see a manuscript that I can’t find something positive about.  Is the work novel? Is the system promising? Is the discussion thought-provoking?  Does the study build appropriately on the author’s previous work, or tackle an obvious gap in our understanding?  Say so.  You will, of course, also point out the shortcomings of the manuscript (not of the author, of course) – but there’s time to get to that.

When you do come to outlining the reasons for rejection, keep in mind that almost every manuscript is eventually published somewhere, in some form.  True, as an editor, the only job you absolutely have to do is communicating a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  If at all possible, though, don’t just identify flaws but point to ways in which those flaws might be addressed in a future submission.  You don’t need to write a novel about this, and it isn’t your job to rewrite the manuscript.  But including a few pointers does two things: you’ll make a contribution to the progress of science, and you’ll help the authors see your decision to reject something other than the guillotine.

So far I’ve suggested ways to be kind, but it’s equally important to be vigorously honest.  By “vigorously”, I mean that you shouldn’t understate the manuscript’s.  It’s tempting, in being kind, also to be milquetoasty; but that doesn’t do the authors any favour.  In fact, if anything, you need to slightly exaggerate the work the authors have ahead of them.  That’s because it’s entirely human for the authors to read your letter in a way that minimizes that work (see Reading a rejection letter, below).  This is the balancing act: to point clearly to the problems and prevent authors from thinking they’re smaller than they are; but to do so while being kind and pointing towards improvement.  Imagine putting some flesh on these bones:

“The current analysis isn’t correctly interpreted (and probably can’t be) because of problem X.  The question is very interesting, though, and seems likely that with a completely new analysis, the manuscript might be of great interest, especially to journal Y”.

When your letter is written, review it.  Remember as you do so that it will be read by a human being, someone just like you, with a touch of imposter syndrome quite possibly fed by a few other recent rejections.  Would you be OK receiving this letter?  You wouldn’t like it, of course; nobody ever likes rejection – but would you be crushed or offended?  If you would be, the author might be too, and so you probably aren’t quite done.

Reading a rejection letter

Getting rejected isn’t fun, but there are ways to make it profitable.  There are also ways to make it much worse.  To avoid most of these, when you get the letter, read it through – but then do nothing else with it.  Don’t scribble notes on it, don’t immediately start reworking the manuscript, and above all, do not write the snappy comeback that you so very much want to write.  Put the rejection away for a couple of days, and then read it again with a little more perspective.

Read what the rejection letter actually says, not what you want it to say.  Don’t minimize the magnitude of the shortcomings the editor and/or reviewers have identified.  An editor who suggests it needs “complete reanalysis” is not suggesting that you simply drop a few outliers; “thorough rewriting” doesn’t mean excising a couple of comma splices.  I’ve suggested above that the letter writer be vigorously honest with the author; as an author, you need to be vigorously honest with yourself.

Do you think the editor’s decision is just wrong?  It might be, of course – but so might you; and human nature is pushing you strongly away from realizing it if it’s the latter.  Think twice, and set yourself a high bar to convince yourself, before concluding that a criticism is mistaken.  If the decision really is wrong in some way, you may be tempted to appeal the rejection.  I’ve written elsewhere about this; the short version is that I think it usually isn’t worthwhile.  If you do appeal, though, do it carefully and dispassionately.

Finally, it’s true that a rejection letter closes the door for your manuscript at Journal X.  But this is a delay, not the end of the story, for your manuscript: nearly every rejected manuscript finds a new home in some form.  That means you can harness the rejection letter as a way to make your paper better when it eventually appears in Journal Y (or in journal Z, or for that matter, in a journal well On Beyond Zebra).  Take this seriously.  It’s a bad idea to just reformat your references and submit elsewhere the next day.  Partly this is because karma almost guarantees you’ll just get the same reviewers again.  But also, there’s (almost) always careful thought behind a rejection.  Think carefully about each criticism, just as you’d do after an invitation to revise and resubmit.  Even a criticism that’s genuinely mistaken is an opportunity to forestall future readers making the same mistake.

To summarize: letter writers, be vigorously honest, but constructive and kind.  Letter readers, don’t think of a rejection as a verdict, but rather as another way to make your work better.

And when I get my own next rejection letter, I promise to re-read this post before printing the rejection out and setting it on fire.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) September 25, 2017

 

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13 thoughts on “How to write, and read, a (manuscript) rejection letter

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    Twice I actually thanked the editor who rejected my manuscript, for the consideration and suggestions given. Wonder how common this is… In one of these cases I completely rewrote the manuscript afterwards and made it much more interesting, and in the other case there wasn’t much room for improvement (and I also didn’t feel like working on it) so I submitted it to a smaller journal, where it was accepted.

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  2. Pingback: Como revisar um artigo para uma revista – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  3. Pingback: How to Write, and read, a (manuscript) rejection letter – Stephen Heard | Samuel RP-J Ross

  4. Peter Apps

    Given that rejections sometimes seem to be based on the reviewers’ and editors’ tastes (witness that reviewers especially very rarely agree on what is right or wrong about a paper), whether they were having a bad day, or whether the journal has space, I often wonder whether sending the same paper, unmodified, to the next journal on the list is such a bad idea.

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    1. Drew Kerkhoff

      I would encourage you to exercise caution with this strategy, because the community of potential reviewers is sometimes quite small (depending on your subdiscipline and MS). If the same reviewer receives your MS from a second journal and you have not taken their critique seriously, they may take a negative view of your efforts. I have experienced this both as a reviewer and as an editor, and it can make for an uncomfortable situation. Most reviewers take the job pretty seriously, so at least *consider* their perspective on your work. Unmodified resubmission is sometimes the right choice, but it can be risky.

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Agreed, Drew – in the post I suggest that “karma almost guarantees you’ll just get the same reviewers again”. As an editor I’ve also dealt with this – and I can tell you, a reviewer can be in such a high dudgeon that nothing else is going to get through.

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        1. Lin

          Wait. I always think it is the responsibility of the reviewer to say that they’ve reviewed the manuscript submitted for another journal therefore they should excuse themselves?

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          1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

            I’ve certainly indicated, in reviewing, that I’ve reviewed the MS before. I don’t think that’s a conflict of interest, although I would definitely not be comfortable concealing the fact! If suggested changes were not made, then the editor should know – and of course may judge that those requested changes were unreasonable. At least, that’s how I’ve approached it.

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  5. devinbloom

    I am not a big fan of editors (including myself) suggesting the authors submit to a specific different journal in a rejection letter. It is all too common for a rejection from a top tier journal to suggest submission to the lowest tier (apologies for lack of better description) taxonomic journal. It’s really not our place as an editor to decide where the authors send the manuscript once it leaves our desk. For all we know, the authors might re-write the manuscript and publish in an even better journal! I did exactly that with one of my best papers. In the more likely case the authors need to submit to a lower profile journal, let them come to that conclusion on their own. They likely already get it.

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      1. devinbloom

        Thanks for sharing that post, Jeremy. The comment thread had some many fascinating and mind boggling stories! A paper moved to a new OA journal because of a large back log (thanks, I’ll patiently wait for my Ecology paper), a paper rejected from Ecology Letters because there was a similar paper in review (really?..!!! that’s a terribly justification) only to circle back and get accepted. I think the comment that when reviewers clearly “don’t get it” you should try moving up the ladder is spot on. That is exactly what I experienced and we went from MPE to PRSB.

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