It happened to me again, a few weeks ago: a manuscript I’d had high hopes for came back from the journal with a decision of “reject, but with an invitation to resubmit”. It’s better than a flat-out reject, to be sure, but disappointing nonetheless.
There’s a widespread belief – almost a conspiracy theory – that journals use “reject, but resubmit” as a device to cheat on their handling time statistics (by which we mostly mean time from submission to first acceptance). After all, if a manuscript gets “revision”, the clock keeps ticking from the original submission; but “reject, but resubmit” means we can pretend the resubmission is a brand new manuscript and start the clock over. Clever but deceptive move, right?
Except that isn’t really why journals like “reject, but resubmit”; or at least, I don’t think so*. I’m not so naïve as to argue that journals don’t compete on speed: many do. (They should stop. Peer review, done properly, takes some time – longer than most authors want it to. Journals competing on speed produce lower-quality papers while encouraging authors to expect ever-faster unreasonable turnarounds.) So maybe some journals shave their stats by using “reject, but resubmit” for papers that could have been given “revision”. But most journals, I think, have better reasons. Two of them.
First, time-from-submission-to-acceptance statistics only make sense if they measure journal speed, not author speed. If a manuscript needs not just revision but a complete overhaul, it makes no sense at all for that overhaul time to be weighed in the journal’s speed stats. As an editor I’ve seen “reject, but resubmit” manuscripts come back in less than a month – but I’ve also seen them come back after 18 months. This variation has nothing whatsoever to do with the journal. Now, I realize I just argued journals shouldn’t compete on speed. Perhaps you’ll think I’m being inconsistent – but I do care about speed stats. It’s just that I think as poorly of a journal that’s too fast as I do of one that’s too slow.
Second, and far more important: “reject but resubmit” is a signalling device. It sends a message to the authors that what’s needed for a manuscript to be accepted is not just revision but major rethinking – perhaps a whole new analytical approach, perhaps a completely different orientation. Yes, most journals have a “major revisions” category they could use. But here’s the thing: there’s a strong tendency for authors to minimize the amount of work they believe is needed. That’s not a condemnation of how evil or stupid authors are (I know perfectly well I have the same tendency). It’s just normal human psychology: every author leans to thinking they’re right about things, and toward believing small changes are all that’s needed. That’s partly because they’re invested in the work they’ve already done, and partly because (of course) they wrote what they thought was best – and they probably still think so. The result: if you tell an author “minor revisions”, you’ll get superficial tinkering; if you tell an author “major revisions”, you’ll get minor revisions. If you want really major revisions, you have to send a strong message. “Reject, but resubmit” is an attempt at that message.
Seen this way, “reject, but resubmit” isn’t a conspiracy or a cheat. It’s an inevitable outcome of human psychology interacting with signalling theory. Authors who decode the message correctly understand that their resubmission really is welcomed – provided, of course, they’re willing to put in the work. And remember that nobody is better off if authors underestimate the work needed to pull a manuscript into shape. If the revision is accepted, the authors and the journal publish a paper that could have been better. If it’s rejected, revision has been a waste of time for authors, editors, reviewers, and journal staff.
Of course, people like conspiracy theories. So if I’m taking one away from you here, I’m sorry. Have another – here are Nine Utterly Ridiculous Conspiracy Theories. They’re fun.
© Stephen Heard November 20, 2017
There’s more about decoding, and responding to, editorial decisions in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. Editorial decisions can seem mysterious (at least, early in my career they felt mysterious to me). Understanding them, though, can make your publishing life a lot easier. You’ll find this material in Chapter 23.
*^I’m an Associate Editor for two journals: The American Naturalist and FACETS. Neither of these journals’ Editors-in-Chief, and none of their staff, saw or commented on this post, and they may not agree with it.