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Should you appeal when a journal rejects your paper?

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Author: Dr. Stephen Heard | Category: Career Development | February 10, 2017

Everyone who publishes in science gets manuscripts rejected. And I do mean everyone: take, for example, Higgs (1964) and Akerlof (1970) – both were initially rejected, but ended up central to their authors’ Nobel prizes. So when a manuscript of yours is rejected, it will sting; but you’re in good company.

When you are (inevitably) rejected, should you appeal the decision? A recent post by Chloe Tuck on what to do after rejection offers some interesting and surprising advice. There’s a lot of useful information in the piece, but one line really caught my eye:

For the authors, appealing is always worth it.

Actually, I think that for authors, appealing is rarely worth it. Before I explain my advice, let me note two things. First, my reasoning is entirely pragmatic; it has to do with getting one’s work published expeditiously in an appropriate journal – not with whether or not everything that happens to a manuscript is “fair”. Second, this is my opinion, uncontaminated by any actual data.

Appealing a rejection is often one’s first instinct: to look at the reviews or the decision letter, seize on something that’s incorrect or that seems unfair, and to explain to the Editor-in-Chief just how the process wronged you. This seems especially right when you’ve just received the rejection letter and your emotions are (quite naturally) running high. I’ve done this myself (to my later embarrassment).

But it seems to me that for an appeal to be a good idea (from the author’s point of view), at least four things have to be true all at once:

1. There must be a genuine, objective wrong – not just something poorly phrased that you took offense to, an arguable point with which you disagree, or the kind of tough and debatable decision editors have to make all the time. If a reviewer said you write like a drunken bureaucrat, that’s unprofessional, but it doesn’t make the decision wrong. What might make the decision wrong? Clear evidence of conflict-of-interest or bias, a demonstrably incorrect statement of fact, or something similar. These things happen, of course, because reviewers and editors are human (just like all of us) – but they don’t happen all that often.

2. It must be a sizeable wrong, and the major reason for rejection. A reviewer might be laughably wrong about one point in your paper, but it won’t matter (and an appeal won’t succeed) if the point is a minor one. And appealing even the most egregiously unfair process won’t help a flawed paper, because the fix at best is further review that will only confirm the flaws.

3. The must be significant value in being published in the particular journal. If you don’t appeal, you will of course send the manuscript somewhere else instead – likely, to a journal that was your second choice. There are lots of journals, and I’ve never seen a manuscript for which only one offered a suitable home. You went, I assume, to your best option first – but how much better was it than your second choice? Enough to merit the work of a careful and thoroughly documented appeal, and the risk of editors seeing you as a difficult author?

4. The handling of the appeal must be (about) as fast as review at a new journal. A common misconception is that a successful appeal means the rejection is overturned and the paper is accepted. This is possible, I suppose – but it’s much more likely that a successful appeal leads to further review (perhaps with one review discarded and a new one sought to take its place). This may not be much faster than a de novo review process at a new journal; and if there’s an administrative process involved in judging the appeal before the new review is sought, it might actually be slower.

Could all of these four things be true for your rejected manuscript? Of course they could. But it’s pretty unlikely. It’s yet to happen to me, and I’ve had dozens of manuscripts rejected over my career*. My best guess is that rejections that are real, serious wrongs (points #1 and #2) might happen perhaps a couple of times in a prolific career – and ones that are worth appealing (additional points #3 and #4) are less frequent than that.

Now, as I said, my thinking here is really just about what’s best for the author. It’s worth pointing out that occasionally, appealing a rejection may be worthwhile even if it isn’t in the authors’ own best interests. I have in mind cases where there’s a wrong with a broader social dimension: for instance, one that points to systemic problems with the journal or with the social structure of science. Add-A-Male-Author-Gate springs to mind (in the unlikely event you don’t know about that, here’s a summary). I admire the authors of that paper because they pushed their appeal even though it would probably have been faster to simply send their paper somewhere else**. In doing so, they did science a real service. Such cases, though, are (I hope) genuinely rare.

So: should you appeal your rejection? Probably not. Most of the rejections you’ll get are reasonable enough (even if it takes some sober second thought to see it). Even if you’ve genuinely been wronged, an appeal may not succeed, risks gaining you a reputation as a difficult author to deal with, and will probably take longer than just submitting the manuscript elsewhere (after revisions, of course!). Does this advice make me a milquetoast? Maybe, and please push back in the Replies. But usually, I think, it’s just better to move on.

Dr. Stephen Heard is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick. This article was originally posted on his blog Scientist Sees SquirrelThis article is copyrighted by Dr. Stephen Heard and was published with permission. You can also find him on twitter at @StephenBHeard.


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