"I am sorry to inform you" or how to deal with paper rejection

So, you're shocked and hurt, then furious, then at total despair. Now - once you're done making faces and literally expressing your emotions what do you do?


One of the ultimate goals of each scientist is to publish their scientific ideas and discoveries, to contribute to the scientific community's knowledge. However, on the path to the aimed publication there are commonly two main roadblocks: an editor and a few referees acting as judges. Today, the accepted/rejected ratio is low (1/3) and can get even lower as you step up the impact factor ladder (@Nature it can get as low as 1/100!). Looking at these statistics and with the "publish or perish" looming overhead, a scientist might ponder how to deal with the blow of a rejection, especially if he/she are past the first and the second ones?

Believe in your research. Prof. Lynn Margulis

Believe in your research. Prof. Lynn Margulis

The Prof. Lynn Margulis story

Early in her scientific career, late Prof. Lynn (Sagan) Margulis (1938-2011) had many of her scientific papers rejected, more than any researcher would consider as an ok number. Her ground breaking endosymbiotic theory paper, which suggested that eukaryotic organelles have evolved from the symbiosis between multiple prokaryotic organisms, has been rejected by no less than 15 journals, until it was finally accepted by the Journal of Theoretical Biology. Prof. Margulis kept submitting her revolutionary paper again and again because she knew she's right and believed in her hypothesis.

Keep your emotions at bay

Let's face it – most scientists believe in their data and assumptions and thus expect that their paper will be accepted with only minor revisions at worst case. Thus, when the letter from the editors hits your email with the negative response, count to 10 and breathe deep. The decision might be frustrating and enraging, but remember that in most cases the decision is not a personal but a professional one (and in many cases the reviewers' comments improve the next versions of the manuscript).

Keep an open mind

When first receiving a rejection letter, whether the paper was rejected at the editor's or at the reviewer's door, it is better to read the letter again when you're passed the anger/frustration/disappointment stage. Looking at the critics from a professional perspective will enable you to open up to the comments and see their role in improving your manuscript. Read the critical comments and for each comment answer the following questions:

  • Is this comment correct and relevant? Have the referee got to the bottom of the experiment/claim?
  • How much weight this comment has on the overall rejection decision?
  • Assuming this comment is correct and in place, can I supply data/claim to defer it?

Once you outlined the major rejections it is time to evaluate how much improvements the manuscript requires. You might want to get the advice of a colleague, which will look at the manuscript objectively (it is best to consult with a colleague before submitting the manuscript).

Keep your team posted

Assuming this work is done by your students (and other collaborating students), best you update them on the current status of the work by forwarding them the rejection letter. Sharing this will both give them a sense of appreciation and involvement, and in addition it will give them a glimpse of what is expected of them (assuming the comments are reasonable and correct). If your work involves a collaboration, it might be worthwhile meeting everyone over coffee and discussing the rejection letter, the implications, suggestion for improved experiments and deciding who's doing what. You might even consider asking a new collaborator to come along and generate data that will strengthen the manuscript and your claims, and your co-authors should be updated on this step as well.

Should I write a rebuttal letter?

Every rejection can be appealed by a rebuttal letter to the editor. Consider that such letter is often rejected. Even so, if you feel that some of the comments you received are not relevant, or that the experiments that were required shift your focus off the manuscript topic, you might want to consider a rebuttal letter. Notice that if the same line of comments is common to all or most of the reviewers, then you might want to reconsider whether your own assessment is correct. You may also choose to share you rejection letter on this Paper Rejection Repository so that others may learn from your experience. You can browse this repository to get an idea on policies of various journals for rejection of manuscripts, and read the comments of reviewers on the work of other researchers.

Should I consider a different set of suggested reviewers?

When submitting a manuscript to a journal you will need to supply several names of reviewers. Eventually it is hard to know whether the comments you received in the rejection letter are from your own selected reviewers or from the editor's pick. You can, however, analyze the comments nature and determine which niche it fits in. For example, let's say you supplied the names of a cell biologist, a geneticist and a biochemist to the journal and on scrutinizing the rejection comments you see that many comments refer to your "poorly performed and misanalysis of confocal results…". From such a comment you will know that a cell biologist specializing in confocal microscopy was one of the judges and that next time you submit your manuscript you might consider choosing a cell biologist with a slightly different background (assuming the comment is petty and is not justified).
Here are a few more suggestions for dealing with rejection by Dr. Ron Milo @ The Weizmann Institute of Science.
Did you experience a very harsh rejection letter? Or maybe a rejection letter that improved your manuscript? Please share with us and the readers.