The rejection that wasn’t


I remember when I got the reviews back from the first big paper that I submitted. I was mad to have to deal with a rejection after such petty reviews.

Then I showed the editor’s letter to my advisor. He said, “Congratulations!” It turns out it was not a rejection, but a minor revision. Who would have thought that a request for a minor revision would have had the word “reject” in the decision letter?

I think editors are more clear about their decisions nowadays. That incident was a while ago. That was an actual letter. Which arrived via postal air mail from another continent.

More recently, in 2007, I got another rejection I found annoying. I inadvertently unburied the decision letter last week, when I was forced to clean up my lab before the holidays (because work crews need all surfaces clear for work being done in the building). Here’s what the letter said:

Enclosed is your manuscript entitled “Moderately obscure stuff about ants” and the reviews. Based upon these reviews, in its present form the manuscript is not accepted for publication in the Journal of Moderately Obscure Stuff.

Significant work/re-write will be needed before the manuscript can be resubmitted.

The reviews were not bunk, but were simply prescriptive and didn’t require massive changes. I realize now, years later, here is another rejection that wasn’t a rejection! I was fooled again! This was a pretty straightforward “major revision.” This paper still is sitting on my hard drive, unpublished, and down low in the queue. I just forgot about it because I was occupied with stuff that was more interesting at the time. The coauthor on the paper, who was a postdoc at the time, now has tenure. So there’s no rush to get this paper out to enhance his career.

The moral of the for authors is: If you’re not an old hand at reading decisions from editors, be sure to have senior colleagues read them and interpret them. When in doubt about what you need to do for a revision, it’s okay to ask the editor.

The moral of the story for editors is: We need to be careful to construct decisions so that there is no doubt that less experienced authors will be able to understand if a revision is welcome, and if so, what needs to be done to make the revision acceptable.

13 thoughts on “The rejection that wasn’t

  1. Terry – thanks for this post. I’ve found the same thing, even as a somewhat seasoned author. Just this month, I had a paper rejected, and when I expressed my disappointment on Twitter, a different associate editor at the journal came back & said “Oh, but you can always resubmit!” (see the conversation here:

    I’m a big fan of the British Ecological Society’s guidelines (; under “Peer Review”) that clearly lays out what the possible decisions are, and what they mean.

  2. This isn’t just a problem of the past. I’ve seen this several times while publishing my dissertation work over the last few years. It’s especially confusing when you are not only early-career, but also a sole author. For example, my Proc B paper in 2010 the editor wrote: “I am writing to inform you that your manuscript…has been rejected for publication in Proceedings B.” I forward that back to my PhD advisor saying “Bummer” and he responded saying “Congrats.” I made the suggested revisions, resubmitted and was in print about 6 months later.

    I’ve been told that journals do this as a trick to somehow increase their rank–a higher rejection rate makes them look prestigious. I don’t know if it’s true. But it’s definitely frustrating.

    Brandon Barton

  3. Just got a similar letter yesterday. My guess is that it’s part of a game trying to show short decision times. For example, in Proceedings B you usually see that a paper was received less than a month before it was accepted. If you wonder who’s the genius that wrote a paper that is accepted so fast, don’t bother: the manuscript was probably “rejected” a couple of times, and then “resubmitted” (=revised). In my opinion it’s an annoying and misleading practice.

  4. This is actually a strategic trick that editors use. The problem they face is that lots of authors aren’t happy about making the requested changes. If the outcome is framed as “accept if changes are made”, then you get into long arguments about what should happen if some of the changes are not made. But if the outcome is “reject unless changes are made”, the editor is in a stronger position to insist on changes.

    • This matches my understanding of why things are phrased so strongly/negatively. And I have to say as a frequent reviewer/editor, there is 5% or so out there who really push the limits on ignoring the requests to make revisions that ruin it for everybody else.

    • Yeah, anecdotally that’s my experience as well. The increasing use of “rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms” and “major revision” is a way of ensuring that the authors do indeed make the revisions the editor wants to see made, even if those revisions are straightforward to make and leave much of the ms untouched.

      Personally, I hate the increasing use of “rejection with invitation to resubmit as a new ms”, whether as a way of artificially reducing the journal’s mean handling time or as a way of forcing authors to revise the ms in the way the editor wants. As a handling editor, I used that decision only very rarely, and then only when I really did think the ms needed to be totally reframed and refocused. So that any revision really would be a truly new ms, not at all recognizable as having arisen from revision of some previous ms. Indeed, I didn’t even much use formal designations of “major” or “minor” revision either, precisely because they’re ambiguous. Is a “minor” revision one that’s easy to make? One that’s optional and not essential to make? One that only changes a bit of the text or a single result? Those are all quite different things! Instead, I simply made clear in my cover letter to the authors what concerns of mine and the referees were essential to address, which were just “food for thought”, etc. Whenever possible, I also indicated how I wanted to see the concerns addressed (what new analysis did I want to see, what previous work did I want the authors to cite and discuss, whatever). And I stated explicitly that, while I would not invite a revision unless I thought it was possible to address my concerns, it was up to the authors to address them, and the ultimate fate of the ms depended on their ability to do so.

  5. I’m well acquainted with the phenomenon that ‘accept with revision’ is disappearing. This mostly has to do with the need to show quick turnaround times, because the cycles of revision on an accepted paper will add to the ‘time to print’ clock that matters so much to authors nowadays. I suppose it also could cajole authors, though I don’t use it for that purpose.

    What I’m talking about is when you can’t even tell if you have the option of resubmitting after making revisions. Or how major the major revisions need to be. (Redoing experiments? Or just new analyses? Or changing the angle?) As a subject editor, I make it very clear which changes need to be made, which reviewer comments can be overlooked, and which things merely need explanation in a cover letter versus actual changes in the MS. Most editors are good about this, in my own experience, but sometimes I get one that isn’t too clear.

    • RE:What I’m talking about is when you can’t even tell if you have the option of resubmitting after making revisions.

      Wow, that is strange. If I got a review that didn’t mention the possibility of resubmitting it would never occur to me that it might not be a flat out reject.
      I have had pretty good luck with getting good handling editors. I like the editors that make it more or less clear which reviewer comments are the ones that need to be take seriously. Although sometimes you get a pretty generic comments from the editor, “…the reviewers have identified several issue that need to be address before we can consider the manuscript for publication.” In this case I take anything listed by a reviewer as a major comment pretty seriously, and either change it, or give a really good explanation why I didn’t.

  6. It seems to me that the language is fixed for each journal, and in my experience the higher ranking journals use harsher language. But they are generally quite clear that a manuscript is rejected or not acceptable, but you are invited to resubmit if you address problems to the editor’s a satisfaction, usually also accompanied by a second round of reviews. EntSoc America journals and many Canadian journals use “major revision”, e.g., I just got one back that is “accepted if major revisions are done” from Can J For Res (involving ants, you’ll be happy to know, Terry – reviewer 2 had no criticism at all, except for a misspelled Latin name!)), whereas some European journals I have submitted to use rejected, but with an invitation to re-submit. Perhaps it is to make statistics look good, but from the authors’ point of view, it seems both are equivalent. Different editors clearly approach their role differntly – I always approached it with a primary objective of assisting the authors in making the paper better (I was subject editor for EnvEnt for 11 years, and I am currently with CanEntomol). It may feel like a slap in the face when one’s hard work is rejected, but I think that if you a) recognize that reviewers are volunteering their time and mostly try their best, b) editors are often handling manuscripts where their own expertise is lacking, c) try to first extract the often extremely valuable, constructive comments, and d) try to either accommodate the criticism or address it in a rebuttal in a nice way, you will find that the process is overall quite good. Having said that, there is no question that the quality and tone of reviews vary greatly, and sometimes it’s just a luck of the draw what kind of review you get.

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