Rejection is a reality for scientists, and a major responsibility of journal editors. Researchers performing good science—well controlled studies with solid methodologies that produce clear, reproducible results that advance scientific knowledge or extend scientific findings—can find themselves struggling to be published. A selective journal with a relatively high acceptance rate of 20% will be sending rejection letters for 80% of the submitted manuscripts. Some scientists take rejection in stride, either moving the manuscript to a journal where it will be more competitive or taking the reviewers’ and editors’ concerns to guide experiments or revisions that make the scientific message stronger or more reflective of the data. Others consider rejection very personal, launch argumentative appeals, or criticize the evaluation process or competence of the editors and reviewers. A better understanding of the various reasons for rejection may help authors cope with it effectively, reduce appeals, and make the publishing process seem less adversarial.
Fast, Easy, Obvious Rejections
There are many reasons that a manuscript may be rejected without in-depth review (Figure 1). One of the fastest ways to have a manuscript rejected is for the submission to be outside of the topic or topics covered by the journal. Even if within the topic area(s) of the journal, manuscripts may also be quickly rejected if they do not use the type of experimental approaches used in studies published in the journal. For example, some journals publish studies based on experimental data acquired from field research or “wet lab” research. In this case, submissions that are solely computational or theoretical studies may be quickly rejected. Another example is a study that uses low throughput methods (Western blotting, pull-down assays, immunofluorescence, or in vitro assays of activity) to analyze a pair of proteins would be inappropriate for a journal devoted to proteomics. Both scenarios, manuscripts that are outside of the topic or methodological approaches in published content of the journal, represent the basis for “out of scope” rejection. These are not rejections worth appealing.
Another fast path to rejection is a manuscript that does not meet certain criteria, such as a submission that does not meet a journal’s data availability requirements. Consider a drug discovery manuscript that does not include the structure of the newly discovered drug. Some journals will not consider manuscripts that do not provide this information. In this case, the manuscript should be submitted to a journal that does not have the same requirements. Alternatively, to make the manuscript competitive, the missing data or analysis could be added or the data made available in a public repository. This is not a rejection that can be successfully appealed.
Manuscripts that are far from the format or breadth of those published in the journal are also likely to be rejected. An example would be sending a manuscript with only a single piece of data (one figure or table) to a journal that publishes detailed mechanistic studies. One example from my days at Science Signaling was a manuscript that reported the concentrations of various metabolites in blood samples of human subjects. This study was not competitive for a journal focused on the mechanisms of cellular and organismal regulatory biology. The breadth of the study can simply be too limited for consideration. The opposite can also be the basis for rejection. In this case, editors would reject a manuscript that far exceeds the length, such as the number of data elements (figures and tables), permitted or recommended in the instructions to authors. If the editors cannot see how the article will fit within the journal’s specifications of the publication format, then this can be a rationale for rejection. Consider a journal that publishes manuscripts with no more than 4 data elements and a published page limit for the PDF of 6 pages. Submission of a manuscript with 15-20 main text data elements and as many or more supplementary data elements is unlikely to be considered competitive. For journals that receive many more submissions than can be evaluated by the editorial staff or boards, manuscript or publication assistants may even pre-screen submissions to ensure that they meet the journal’s specifications before the manuscripts even reach the editors for evaluation. These format- or breadth-based rejections cannot usually be successfully appealed.
Even apparently good manuscripts—scientifically sound and journal appropriate—may be rejected. These rejections can seem arbitrary or capricious to the authors, especially if the manuscript does not receive in-depth peer review. All journals have editors, either professional staff editors or academic editors, who manage the manuscript evaluation process. Each editor has a finite number of manuscripts that he or she can manage within the time allotted for performing the editorial duties. Thus, journals that receive far more submissions than the editors can evaluate in a reasonable time frame must be highly selective about those that are sent for in-depth peer review. The alternative is very slow evaluation times and unacceptable delay in getting scientific findings peer reviewed and published.
Academic editors have other responsibilities: They have their own labs to run, grants and manuscripts to write and review, students and post-doctoral fellows to mentor, internal meetings and external conferences to attend, and classes to teach. Professional editors also have other responsibilities beyond manuscript evaluation and managing peer review. Some tasks that professional editors may perform include participating in internal meetings, attending conferences, performing outreach, assisting in journal marketing, checking press releases, tracking the relevant literature, coordinating special issues or collections, evaluating usage data, and writing content.
With the plethora of responsibilities for both academic and professional editors, it is easy to see how a journal with a very high submission load must limit the number of manuscripts that are sent for in-depth review. Otherwise, the manuscript evaluation process would take too long, and publication of any articles in the journal would be delayed. These types of rejections fall under the category of “not competitive” or “not high enough priority.” The basis for such a rejection may be as seemingly trivial as poor writing or presentation, the journal has already published articles with stronger or more physiologically relevant data on the topic, a publication in another journal compromises the novelty of the findings, or the manuscript needs to include a particular type of analysis or data to be competitive. Sometimes editors provide information about what would be required for the manuscript to be competitive. If English is not your primary language or if writing is difficult for you, then working with a professional editor or writer can increase your chances that the manuscript will not be rejected because of poor presentation and will pass the first hurdle and be sent for in-depth review (see services for authors).
Rarely, these types of non-competitive rejections can be successfully appealed. However, it is often better and faster for an author to submit to a different journal rather than engaging in an appeal. Appeals generally are not high priority for editors, especially those at journals with very high submissions. Thus, waiting for an editor to reconsider a rejected manuscript that has been appealed often only delays the inevitable. When a rejection of this type is successfully appealed, this is a good indication that the cover letter, title, and abstract did not effectively present the study. The appeal correspondence did a better job of conveying the value and importance of the study than did those elements of the manuscript. Those 3 parts of a manuscript are essential to convincing the editor to proceed with the manuscript. Make sure those are accurate and effectively communicate why the study is an important advance (see “Writing Tips: First Impressions- Titles, Abstracts, and Cover Letters“).
Fatal Flaw Rejections
Rejections that most authors find easier to understand are those related to the science presented or methodologies used. Some submissions have a clear and obvious technical flaw that is recognized at the initial evaluation phase. Such flaws may include missing essential controls, inappropriate application of a method or use of a reagent, or inappropriate statistical analysis. Inappropriate data manipulation is also grounds for rejection. In biology, this would include images that inappropriately processed, unlabeled splicing of data, or unacknowledged and unjustified re-use of data in multiple panels or figures. When any of these flaws are noticed at the initial evaluation, the manuscript is generally rejected without review. Ideally, the editor provides some information about the fatal flaw in the rejection letter so that the study can be improved. Authors should not “shop” a flawed manuscript to multiple journals and waste editor, and potentially reviewer, time. Rejections based on technical flaws should not be appealed. The science underpinning the study must be fixed before the manuscript is considered elsewhere.
Limiting the Chance of Rejection
In summary, rejection can happen for many reasons. Assuming the science behind the study is good, these tips will reduce the chances of having a submission rejected without review:
- Check the scope of the journal
- Check the format of the journal’s articles
- Check for similar studies in the journal
- Read the criteria for review or the reviewer instructions, if they are available
- Read and follow the instructions for authors
- Get feedback from colleagues before submission
- Get professional help preparing your manuscript
Understanding that journals with high volumes of submissions and relatively small editorial staff (professional or academic) will tend to have a higher bar for manuscripts to be considered competitive. This is often why publication in such journals is so desirable, because they are highly selective.
Cite as: N. R. Gough, Rejected without Review: Knowing When to Appeal. BioSerendipity (1 May 2018) https://www.bioserendipity.com/rejected-without-review/.