appealing journal rejections
[The following is a guest post from Joe Gibbons, assistant professor at San Diego State.]
One of the best kept secrets in the world of journal publishing is appealing a journal rejection. In the 4 or so years that I have been actively trying to get my work published, I have successfully appealed two desk rejections and three reviewer rejections. What makes this surprising for me are the shocked looks I get from colleagues, some junior faculty and some more senior, many of whom did not think it was possible to appeal rejections. Certainly it is not the norm, but if my brief experience is any indication, it is a viable option for some.
The key is the nature of rejection. Plenty of us have gotten that rejection where you felt you could deal with the reviewer comments or you got a boiler plate reason from the editor as to why your paper was not sent out to reviewers at all. It’s no big secret that many reputable journals are inundated with submissions. I have enough managing editor friends and mentors with editing experience to know that they have to learn to make snap decisions to deal with the backlog. While I am sure most of these are calls are the best ones, the bar for quality publications should be high, I have encountered more than one decision on my work that I found to be hasty.
For the following, I lay down some ground in the art of the appeal based on my own experiences:
- Thoroughly…no…exhaustively read the reviews. This should include the following substeps:
- Ensure no ‘head shots’: fundamental flaws with your methods or core argument that are not fixable or would lead to a completely different paper if revised.
- Gauge the waters with the reviewers. How positive were the reviews? I find that at least one very positive review is at least some call for appeal… provided of course no other reviewer identified a head shot. For the more lukewarm reviews, keep your eyes peeled for lines such as “this would make a good contribution to this journal…BUT” or “this article makes interesting arguments…BUT.” This means they are open to your paper, but it needs work. Sometimes you also just get the cranky ones who have nothing nice to say, but nothing too mean either.
- Did the reviewers offer sound advice on how to fix the paper? I find that if I can point to specific areas where the reviewers tell me how to fix the paper in the appeal that it goes a long way with the editor. There are all kinds of reviewers out there but there are some truly marvelous people who can distance themselves from personal biases and offer objective suggestions on what to change about paper.
- Did the reviewers just not get what you are doing in the paper? As someone who frequently publishes in multidisciplinary Urban and Demographic journals, I often get people from the lands of Public Health or Urban Policy who have their own ways of doing things and are not fans of people who do otherwise. Sometimes there is not much you can do about these situations. Other times, however, you can try to argue why your approach is similarly valid to their approach. Oftentimes just offering more explanation on your approach should do the trick. Also, entertain the possibility of incorporating their approach, provided it does not compromise what you are doing.
- In writing your appeal to the editor, strike that fine balance of deferential and assertive. You want to strongly make the case that your paper is worth reconsideration without setting the editor off: “They think they know better than me?!” Rely heavily on the evidence. Make the case that the reviewers like you, or at least think you are redeemable. Point to the places where they thought you could fix the manuscript. Argue that that these changes should sufficiently fix the paper. Make it clear why you think their journal, of all the journals out there, is the best home for this manuscript. This point is especially important for the desk rejections. At the same time, make it clear that you respect the editor’s authority and will accept whatever decision they ultimately make.
- Don’t be afraid to follow up. Again, editors and managing editors are busy people. It should not come as to much of a shock if your appeal falls through the cracks. If you hear nothing in two weeks, email them and ask politely if they have had time to consider your response. For reviewer rejections, time is somewhat of the essence here as you want to get the original reviewers.
- Hope for the best, expect the worst. Failure is the close companion of an academic. Sometimes you can make the best argument in the world to see it fall upon deaf ears. For example, earlier this year I had my paper rejected by a respected ASA topical journal. I had a reviewer who really did not like my methods and framing at all and tore the paper apart. I felt that they offered little substantive reason why my approach would not work. I appealed to the editor pointing out what I would change and got a ‘tough luck’ response. There are people out there who are confident in their views and will not bend. Pissing them off by pushing further will only hurt you in the long run. If you get a hard no, or they keep ducking your emails, take a deep breath and move on.
- Be appreciative either way. Even if you know for sure it was ridiculous for your paper to get rejected in the first place, remember once again that the editors and managing editors are very busy people doing the often thankless task of identifying quality research to share with the world. Thank them for taking the time to consider your request.
Good luck out there! As Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” So take your shot if there is a chance you will make it!