Why journals like “reject, but resubmit”

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.

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23 thoughts on “Why journals like “reject, but resubmit”

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    I could have used this essay along about July of this year, though it wasn’t a paper for a journal. Excellent advice for any writer facing a request/demand for revisions or a rewrite. (Although at least journals don’t, apparently, send the request for a major rework along with a short hard deadline by which to have it done. It’s the deadlines I find killer, not the request to do the work to make it better.) Get your head in the right game–the making it better game–and then do it.

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    1. Chris Mebane

      Many editors are open to extending deadlines if asked, but I doubt many authors know that it’s completely reasonable to ask. Kind of an interesting dance between journal and authors. Authors are not powerless. The journals don’t want to lose good papers, especially after editors and reviewers they have invested time into them and have given an encouraging initial decision. A polite note explaining that to thoroughly respond with new analyses, revisions, and verifications will take another month or whatever will likely get a positive response. Giving a specific date by which you can get it in rather than “more time”. (The editor has to reset it to a specific date in the management system). Better to be upfront and ask for more time than risk introducing mistakes or rough writing in the rush to meet a template generated deadline.

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  2. Jonathan Losos

    You make many good points here, but fail to talk about some of the insidious consequences of “reject and resubmit” as opposed to “major revision with no promise of acceptance.” In particular, younger or more inexperienced authors often only see “REJECT” and don’t realize that this decision is an invitation to revise and resubmit. Second, at most journals, when a revision is received, it is usually, if at all possible, sent back to the same reviewers, and the reviewers often feel compelled to re-review it. By contrast, when a manuscript constitutes a new submission, the same reviewers are less frequently used. That, of course, has the consequence of shifting the goalposts for the poor author.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point about goalpost shifting. As an editor I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I agree it’s unfair to keep moving the goalposts. On the other hand, though, sometimes I’ll realize that one of the 1st 2 reviewers wasn’t all that helpful, and take the opportunity to bring in someone better. That might be thought of as “moving the goalposts into the right place”!

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      1. Emilio M. Bruna

        Just ducking in quickly to say that you nailed it, or at least “it” as we see it at Biotropica. Major revisions = we see this MS being accepted…it may take quite a bit of work, but it we think it will get there. RWR = this MS is unacceptable. But a new one that takes into account the suggested overhauling in structure, analysis, etc. might be. Of course, we don’t know, though, because we haven’t see the results, but we’re intrigued enough to take a chance. We use language that (we hope) makes it clear that we really hope the authors will send it back to us.

        But to Jonathan’s point – the new MS number doesn’t affect the reviewer choice. It’s linked via the editorial system to the original MS number, plus we ask people we have RWR to send a cover letter detailing the changes in the “new” MS in response to the original reviews. It goes – with rare exceptions – to the same Associate Editor, Subject Editor, and (if possible) Reviewers. Don’t know about other journals, be we do that because it’s…logical.

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  3. cinnabarreflections

    My interpretation is simply that the “reject, with invitation to resubmit” is clearer. In my experience as a former subject editor for several journals, many authors interpret “major revision” as “accepted after major revision” and get rather cross if their paper is rejected after resubmission. If the word “reject” is there, there is no room for misinterpretation.

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  4. Alex Bond

    Except that some journals *do* game the system – https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/the-1-day-paper/
    Royal Society journals were particularly bad at this (though I think since being called out the practice has improved).
    The idea that reject/resubmit implies a major overhaul is a nice thought, but in my experience not universally true (or even true in the majority of cases). It’s been a while since I read your book section on decoding editorial decision letters, though.

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    1. Chris Mebane

      I think if you look closely at journal speed claims, they are talking about time to first decision. That is, time from when author hits submit to when they get the first provisional acceptance or rejection. So it includes editorial office processing time, time to assign to an editor, time for the editor to chase down/cajole reviewers, receive reviews, make their own decision, write decision letter. This time to first decision may be many months less than eventual publication after batting revisions back and forth.
      .
      The way journals game this is through desk reject decisions without ever going to review. These can be done in a few days if the EIC decides it’s out of scope or unlikely to fare well. Enough of these greatly offset the ones that linger for months, so often the journals time claims are pretty meaningless IMHO.

      As far as Reject and Resubmit decisions, as an AE I’ve come to avoid them. It seemed like the manuscripts seldom came back around in markedly better shape, and the R&R decision just gave authors false hope and editors/reviewers a repeated headache. As an author, I felt burned after having a manuscript in play for two years at a reputable mid-tier ecology journal before getting rejected. After getting a R&R initial decision, it was finally euthanized after the 3rd round of review. At that point it was probably worse than when I started, having tried to revise it to appease 6 reviews that appeared to have been from 5 different people plus the AE reviews. I did benefit from the criticisms, and had eventual smooth sailing elsewhere, but if I get another R&R limbo offer, resubmitting won’t be a foregone decision.

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        I’ve had better experience as an AE with R&R provoking major change, but I’ll admit it’s not universal. I have to work hard to avoid using it as a cop-out… if I really think it’s not likely to get fixed, I agree that giving R&R is just offering false hope. I need to remind myself that a straight reject doesn’t doom a paper either. After all, a good fraction of my own have survived at least one reject to appear, improved, elsewhere!

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    Shameless self-link:
    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/tell-me-again-what-major-revisions-are/

    tl;dr: I hear what you’re saying but in practice I agree with the earlier commenter that “reject with opportunity to resubmit as a new ms” is a confusing signal, especially to graduate students. I say that while also admitting I’m unsure what brief standardized signal would work better.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that there are multiple aspects of the editor’s decision that journals might wish to convey to authors in a brief, standardized way. Here are four:

    -how “big” are the needed revisions, in the sense of the amount of time and effort they’re likely to require (or perhaps in the sense of how different the revised ms will be from the original ms)
    -are any of the needed revisions essential, meaning that the ms will be rejected without them
    -how likely is a revised ms to be accepted
    -whether a revised ms likely would be sent out for further external review.

    The trouble with the terms “minor revisions” and “major revisions” is that they lump together all four of those things, even though those four things really are different and needn’t covary. I confess I can’t really think of a small number of decision categories, each with a brief descriptive title like “minor revisions” or “reject with invitation to resubmit”, that would clearly convey all possible combinations of those four aspects of the editor’s decision.

    One possible solution is for journals to stop trying to convey information beyond the bare minimum with their official categories of decision. Maybe the only categories should be “accepted”, “rejected”, and “revision invited; final decision deferred pending revision”. The latter would lump together anything other than “accepted” and “rejected”: “minor revision”, “major revision”, “accepted pending minor revision”, “reject with invitation to resubmit”, etc. To find out exactly what the revision invitation means (e.g., is it likely the revised ms would be sent back to the reviewers), you’d have to read the editor’s cover letter. Which would be written in such a way as to make crystal-clear what revisions the editor considers essential, so that authors can’t play games with trying to “do the minimum”. “Rejection with final decision deferred” means “Your ms is not accepted yet, and it won’t be accepted until I, the editor, am completely satisfied. I have given you as much detailed advice as I can as to what revisions I want to see, but it’s up to you to satisfy me.”

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I agree that there’s a lot to unpack in decoding a decision, and like you I’m happiest when the editor’s cover letter contains lots of information. Your points 1 and 2 are the key ones, to me. I’m less sure that, as an editor, I want to tell authors the answers to 3 and 4 – partly because the answers are likely dependent on what they do in their revision! I think that’s why the Am Nat, for instance, uses the stock phrase “your revision may be subject to further review”. As an author, when I revise, I ALWAYS assume there may be further review, and that the reviewers will see my response. (Early in my career I had not learned this. The results were not good: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/the-dumbest-thing-i-ever-said-to-a-reviewer/)

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  6. Manu Saunders

    I agree with your second point, but also think some journals do just do it for the handling time! Not sure about the first point – most of the ‘reject but resubmit’ decisions I’ve received have given me a deadline to resubmit the new ms by….I’ve always taken it literally, but is that just a token thing to make me hurry up? 🙂

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  7. Brian McGill

    There’s right ways and wrong ways to use revise and resubmit. One wrong way is to use it to game time stats. Another wrong way is to basically say we don’t have a clue what we’ll do in the long run but we want to get this out of our queue so we’ll give you a really vague signal (which often is ultimately about time stats). A serious fraction of journals do use this in one of those two ways.

    Any author who treats major revision as an entitlement to acceptance deserves to find out they are wrong (they’re wasting lots of volunteer peer reviewer time), so I don’t think author’s (misinformed) expectations around major revision is a good reason either.

    But used with good intentions as a signal, I agree that it is a helpful signal. I typically issue a revise and resubmit if I’m not sure whether I would want to do that level of work or move on to another journal if I was an author. A good decision about revise and resubmit should tell you what exactly is required to go forward (typically a new analysis or major rewriting of specific sections).

    In my experience, properly issued revise and resubmit decisions are usually taken up by authors and 60-70% of the time the paper was indeed massively overhauled and eventually turn into an acceptance after another round or two. 30-40% of the time the authors don’t really believe it and put in only a major revision amount of work and get rejected. I interpret that as being a useful signal.

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    1. Artem Kaznatcheev

      I typically issue a revise and resubmit if I’m not sure whether I would want to do that level of work or move on to another journal if I was an author.

      I think this is an important point, and I was going to jump into the comments (a year late, just saw this post) to suggest something along those lines as a third reason for “reject, with invitation to resubmit”. In a way it is kind to the author, and opens options for them: if there is no work bandwidth for a major revision or if the authors are convinced that the paper is mostly alright then they can use this signal to try a different journal. This seems especially useful when a given paper doesn’t fit perfectly with any particular journal. So in some ways, it can act in the opposite way of Stephen’s second point: instead of motivating more revisions than a “major revisions” signal, it could motivate fewer revisions but with a submission to a different journal.

      The danger with the above (i.e. if authors take a “reject, with invitation to resubmit” as a signal to make minor or no revisions and submit elsewhere) is that it can waste reviewer time. Although this seems to be no more than an outright reject, since people often respond to that in a similar way. In these cases a “desk reject, with invitation to resubmit” can work (taking only editor time and not reviewers), and I’ve seen it used. But maybe that signal means something completely different: a polite desk reject?

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  8. Pavel Dodonov

    So, something from my own limited experience: in 2015 we sent a software paper to Methods in Ecology and Evolution. It went through three or four rounds of revision, each of them giving us three months to sent the revised version, otherwise it would be considered as a new submission. No major rewriting of the software was ever required. Now the paper is published, and its publication history says it was received in November 2016 – which is the date the final version was received, not the date when the first version was submitted. Doesn’t this seem strange to you? 🙂

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  9. SB

    I have experienced this before. Once, this happened at the 3rd revision. So, when it got eventually accepted, the date of submission and acceptance were only a week apart! Same thing happened to my colleague, who tried to change this in the galley-proofs, but the journal refused.
    More strangely, I have also had an instance where I got three “major revise”. But, the handling editor did not take any action for two months. Neither send it back to referees, nor give a decision. Will be interesting to see what the next decision is, if and when it arrives!

    Many journals put up their speed-stats on their webpages. On one had, they say average (median) time to first decision is <1 month. On another, they say they reject a 50-70% right at the door. If I put these numbers together, it tells me that if an ms gets to past the front desk, it will take about 4 months. Yet, the published papers tell a different tale about the dates.
    BTW – what does the journal gain by gaming the speed-stats? Son't most researchers see through this anyway?

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  12. SN

    I am a beginner in this field of publishing articles. I wrote my 1st research paper during my MSc and submit it to an IF (Taylor and Francis) Journal on 9 Sept 2017 and the decision came on 11 Jan 2018 (4 months & 2 days) as “Reject & Resubmit”. There were two reviewers of my article. Both have contradictory reviews. One of them remarked “minor revisions” and quoted that my work is excellent. However, the other one “Reject” it by saying it Poor. Therefore, I revise my whole work again according to their instructions and improve it. After major amendments, I resubmit my research paper on 2nd April 2018 (2 months and 22 days). From that resubmission to till date, it’s been (4 months and 8 days) as today is 10th Aug 2018, Still, the status of my Paper is “Reviewer invited-pending response”. This status appeared right after resubmission and didn’t change after that. I have sent 2 reminder emails to the editor after 3 months of resubmission and he didn’t respond. Then I sent an email to the editor in chief after 4months of resubmission, he didn’t respond either. Now the status of paper is not changing and the journal is not responding. From initial submission to till date, it’s almost a year (9 sep 2017 to 10 Aug 2018). My Msc degree is being delayed because of this publication. I don’t know what to do now. I am afraid that my paper might be misplaced or anything like that. Can Anyone Help?

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