Dealing with harsh journal rejections?

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In our newest “how can we help you?” thread, a reader asks:

How do you deal with very critical rejections at journals, the sort that claims that there is almost nothing good in your paper?

I have submitted a draft to 3 places so far, the first two are top ones, and I got mixed reviews recommending acceptance and rejection (which also contains encouraging comments). Then I submitted to a third one, not so top, as the possibly last try. To my surprise, the two referee reports are very negative and criticize everything I said that they selected as “superficial” “mistaken” “not minimally novel” etc. While I try to take in everything the referees say, it is painful to do that. Do you have such experience and how do you deal with it? Also, do you know why less top journals can give much more harsh reports? That seems counterintuitive. (In the early rejections, even for the negative part the referees only say something like the arguments are not as decisive as the author seem to think, not utterly dismissive.) Thanks a lot.

This is a great query, and I’m very curious to hear from readers. Here are my thoughts and experiences…

First things first: it is entirely normal to receive very critical comments from journals, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the actual quality of your work. I’ve heard that everyone gets comments like these, including well-accomplished senior academics. To take just one example, my spouse’s dissertation supervisor, Paul Spector, is one of the most influential academics in his field (he’s been cited nearly 100,000 times and received a lifetime achievement award). Yet, a couple of years ago, he told us that he had recently received a journal rejection that contained the classic dismissal, “This paper is nowhere near publishable. It must have been written by an inexperienced undergraduate/graduate student.” Naturally, he sent the paper off to an even better journal and it was accepted. My dissertation supervisor at Arizona told me similar stories. He told me that he had one paper rejected at like 9 journals, but then sent it to a top journal and it was accepted straightaway. He also told me, back in the days when you actually had to mail off hard copies of papers to journals, that he would already have additional copies of the paper in an envelope addressed to the next journal he planned to send the paper to, so that when he received absurd reviewer comments, he’d just send the paper off again immediately.

I’ve had similar experiences myself, and sadly, inflammatory reviewer comments appear to be comparatively common in philosophy. Funnily enough, sometimes I’ve even received brutal comments paired with uniformly positive comments by another reviewer (e.g. one reviewer saying, “This is worthless” and the other saying more or less, “This must be published!”). Experiences like these suggest what my dissertation supervisor’s strategy implies: journal reviews are such a crapshoot that you shouldn’t get too hung up on what this or that reviewer says. If the content of a negative review strikes you as justified and useful, then by all means, improve the paper! But, if (as can be the case) a review seems wrong to you or absurdly harsh, try not to get too hung up on it. Just send the paper out again, see what happens, and don’t give up until you are convinced the paper is too flawed to publish.

How, then, should deal with very critical rejections? Aside from just sending the paper out again (or revising it if I’m convinced that the reviewer has a point), I’m not sure that I have any particularly good strategy other than trying to cultivate a “tough skin”, as it were. Whenever I receive a decision email from a journal, I’m immediately gripped by fear of even opening it. If I receive positive reviews, that’s a wonderful surprise. But, if I receive brutal reviews, I’ll often just close the email for a day or two and come back to it when my ego has recovered a bit. Then, I’ll try to see if the brutal reviewer(s) have a point, and if so, I’ll revise the paper. To be fair, sometimes they do have a point, and so, months or years later when I do get the paper accepted, I’ll be thankful for the role the comments played in improving the paper. But that doesn’t make it any easier to grapple with reviews like this when you get them. Sometimes I wish that journal editors would edit out unnecessarily harsh language or tell reviewers that it’s unacceptable to write stuff like that–but, in the meantime, I just try to suck it up, as it were, and forge on.

Anyway, that’s all I got. What about you all? How do you deal with harsh journal rejections? Also, do any of you share the OP’s experience of lower-ranked journals having meaner reports than higher ranked journals? Any theories as to why that might be?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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