What To Do When Your Article/Book Is Rejected For Publication

Briefly, and as I see it, there are three options the scholar has after receiving a negative review or rejection: 

  1. They can ignore it (which I recommend only in very specific cases)
  2. They can incorporate the review in a revised version of the article/chapter/book
  3. They can abandon the project (or their career) entirely
Which option you choose will depend on your personal and professional goals.

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I never enjoy reading negative comments. I like reviews that sing my praises. The sing-songy reviews, however, do little to improve my writing, perspective, or knowledge with respect to my topic. Therefore I always appreciate a balance (tell me something good I did, then tell me what would make it better). 
But balance is not always what I get. I have to remember that reviewers are reading my submission and giving feedback out of their responsibility to their discipline and to the scholarly community. It is thankless and generally anonymous volunteer work. Reviewers have just volunteered 2-10 hours of their free time to read your article or book and make recommendations, offer criticisms, and so on. It is understandable if they are a little cranky.

I have gotten heaps of negative reviews. The number of negative reviews or outright rejections I have received is probably 5-10x higher than you are expecting. Sometimes the reviews make me laugh. Other times they make me want to give up academic writing forever. I’m not exaggerating, either. 

You probably don’t need my examples of negative reviews or how they made me feel. You’re reading this because you have received one or more of them yourself. Here’s what you can do:

One: You Can Ignore The Criticism

This option is generally the one that undermines the peer-review process, and I therefore only recommend it in specific circumstances.

  • You don’t really care about the quality of your writing or your grasp of the material or research design; you only want to get published. No criticism from me here. Academics live in a world that often emphasizes quantity (e.g., number of publications) over quality (readability or importance of those publications). If your article/book is rejected, and all you care about is the bottom line, then ignore the comments and send the entire unrevised draft on to the next journal/publisher.
  • The reviewer doesn’t know what they are talking about. Like we authors, sometimes reviewers misunderstand what they’ve read or offer misguided advice. Many times I have been told I don’t understand a particular author, and that I have no business writing about them. In one instance, the author in question was a friend of mine who had read my manuscript and made suggestions, which I had incorporated. Therefore the criticism was akin to saying that this author didn’t understand themselves. This was an example of a criticism that made me laugh. (I shared the criticism with the author, too, who became irate.)
  • The reviewer knows what they’re talking about, but you think that a correction would hurt the overall contribution. I am often accused of writing in an unscholarly or casual way. In a philosophy journal that accepted my paper for publication, one reviewer was very adamant that jokes are not allowed in philosophy articles. I get that. But I also write using humor, which I think is useful for handling topics that can otherwise become boring or feel like drudgery. There is no rule that says that an author, in response to reviews, cannot say something like, “I understand Reviewer 2’s suggestion that ____, but I worry that following said suggestion will do more harm than good.”

Two: You Can Incorporate The Suggestion(s)

In most cases, this is the option that I would recommend to a scholar—especially if the scholar is at the beginning of their career or new to publishing. Of the many thousand suggestions that I have followed in my books or articles, only once or twice have I felt like my writing had not improved. In order to incorporate suggestions, it might be necessary to take a break to settle down after reading a review. It may take a few days before you are able to read the review without becoming defensive. However, this might be a problem specific to me!

As a young professor, I once read the results of a review and became furious. I went for a run during which I repeated versions of the phrase “what do they know” out loud and to myself. Then I forgot about it for a few days. When I returned to the review, it wasn’t nearly as threatening as I had remembered. The reviewers, it seemed, had offered helpful and balanced reviews of the work I had submitted. I made their corrections and, later, realized that I better understood the publishing process, my discipline, basic writing style, basic formatting style, and so on. In other words, incorporating suggestions did not only improve that one contribution; it also improved my writing and my perspective.

Three: You Can Abandon The Project/Your Career

I am only partially joking with this final suggestion. I believe that any article/project/book is capable of being rehabilitated for publication. I mean that. But as an author you have to decide if you are willing to put in the work (or pay the fee) in order to see it through to publication. 

At the beginning of your career, your books and articles will probably require a lot of rehab before they're ready for the press. This is to be expected. Everybody goes through this. By going through the process, you are learning and growing as a scholar. I sincerely believe that anybody can survive this process and see a project through to publication. I do not, however, believe that doing so is in every scholar's best interests. You will have to decide that for yourself. Poor reviews might be a sign that a significant change needs to be made to how you conduct research, what you write about, and so on.

I would estimate that about a third of my articles and books have been abandoned. A few of these were rejected by journals/publishers. Others—particularly more recently—didn’t need the reviews at all: I decided myself that I didn’t have the time/patience/interest to take those projects where I felt they needed to go. Consequently, I have a rather large digital refuse pile. But I like this as a sign of where my creativity had taken me, and where my discernment kept me from getting lost.