There are generally three types of outcomes for journal articles.
- Acceptance with no changes or very minor revisions.
- Revise and resubmit - this is very common, and is still a positive response, but you have a bit of work ahead of you.
- Rejection - don't let rejection bruise your confidence. Think of it as a tough learning experience that will eventually serve you well.
If your work gets the first outcome, then that's fantastic. However, it's more common that you'll receive an invitation to revise, or that your work will be rejected. Both of these outcomes offer you a valuable learning experience.
Revise and resubmit
If you're asked to revise and resubmit, your next task is to systematically work through the reviewers' comments. Keep in mind that some comments will be:
- helpful and will improve your article
- more issues of personal style
- confusing (e.g. poorly explained)
- showing that the reviewer didn't understand or misread your work
- ones that you will disagree with, and
- contradicting each other.
So what do you do about it?
- Read the comments a few times, so you understand what you're dealing with.
- Give yourself some distance if you are annoyed (experiencing a range of feelings: embarrassment, disappointment, etc. is very normal regardless of your level of experience).
- Go back and read them again in a more constructive frame of mind.
- Decide which of the previous categories the comments fall into - because that will affect what you do next.
When you've had time to consider the feedback, it's useful to draw up a full list or table of the feedback points and identify which are the most important and difficult changes to make. As you work through the feedback, keep note of your changes and your responses to the reviewers' feedback.
With helpful feedback, get in there and make the changes - but do the most difficult changes first. If you first spend time polishing up minor issues, then later realise that one of the major changes is to delete or rework an entire section, then you will have wasted some time. Doing minor changes towards the end can give you a greater sense of satisfaction as you polish it up to resubmit.
If the reviewers have made comments about your writing style, consider their views carefully. In some cases it may be better to do it their way, especially if it makes your own writing fit the tone of the journal better. If the style changes suggested are minor, you may wish to reject them.
If you are confused by the feedback, use your best guess if it's minor, or seek clarification from the editor if it's about significant points.
If the feedback is misdirected, look at it from the reviewer's perspective. Can you see where the confusion arises? Can you clarify to avoid others making the same mistake? Give it to someone else to see if they can see it.
If you disagree with the feedback, seek a second and third opinion. If you still don't agree, put in writing the reason for your disagreement, and then consider it for a while. It's best to be absolutely sure, level-headed, and clear about why you disagree than to respond rashly.
If the reviewers provide contradictory advice, is there a middle ground? Is one reviewer more detailed, coherent? Use common sense and your judgment here.
As you work through the feedback, keep careful notes. These will make up your reply to the editor and reviewers. If you can/are willing to only make some of the changes (but you have done all of the ones flagged as necessary for resubmission), list your changes, and explain reasons for not complying with the others.
If you just can't bring yourself to make the changes because they would compromise your work, go back to the drawing board. Is there a different journal that would be more suitable for your work? Should you use a different approach to writing up your research?
Although it is disappointing, rejection can provide valuable feedback on how you go about doing and writing up your research. If needs be, clarify precisely why the paper was rejected. It may be that you have simply approached the wrong journal, and if so, try another journal (reviewers may well suggest more appropriate journals to approach). It may also be that you didn't follow the conventions of journal article writing. If so, consider what these conventions are in your field, and consider how to use them in your own work. Finally, it may be that you need to revisit your research approach. In the long run this can strengthen your research. Seek advice from your supervisor/s and colleagues, and seek out constructive feedback.
The thesis whisperer has a range of posts on feedback and rejection which give helpful tips about how to view and consider the process of working in academia.