Ouch that hurts! Using the “force”of rejection.

imagesIt’s one of the tougher parts of academic life, those rejections we receive from journals. Let’s face it, it is a tough part of life in general … not making the team, not getting a place on that program, an invite to a party or getting dumped by ‘that’ girl/boy. What is it that really hurts? Somebody does not want us or our work. It comes to everyone in academic life – star professors, junior faculty, experienced researchers and doctoral students. Just like it comes to authors and actors . What differentiates us is how we deal with it and how we use the experience.

Role Models

The shelves of bookshops in airports are littered with examples of people who have bounced back from rejection or failure to turn into superstars, business successes or political leaders. Whether it is Michael Jordan or Soichiro Honda  there are some impressive stories out there. What did they do? Well they seem to use the rejection as a motivation or force to develop, improve and succeed with their project.

They seem to use that energy that could be spent on anger at the rejection or at that reviewer who did not get our great idea, and they turn it to some use. The pain of rejection is not unique but completely normal. Importantly, however, we can use it to move forward.

Which Response?

In talking with colleagues, there seems to be three types of response to a rejection from a journal. The way individuals respond fits three general groups: brooders, rapid responders and absorbers.

Brooders take the feedback hard and find the process depressing. A likely response is inaction or delayed action since both the feedback and the paper remain associated with the pain. Often procrastination can set in as the revision psychologically grows into an enormous task.

On the other hand, Rapid Responders tend to bounce back by quickly sending their paper to a new journal with minor changes. This seems like a positive move since the paper is back out there and hopefully under review. Just remember, however, that there are dangers of being a “rapid responder” since if the next journal uses some of the same reviewers from the first journal their feedback is unlikely to be positive!

Then there are those Absorbers who take the feedback (after the pain) and set about using it.notes-514998__180 One of my former colleagues used to put the rejection letter in her desk drawer – when responses used to come in the post – and come back to it after a few days. This allowed her to digest the initial news and get over being cross about how these anonymous reviewers did not appreciate her article. Her approach to leave it and then come back, re-read, revise, and re-send the improved work somewhere else.

Don’t Hide your Rejection

Another key element is not being embarrassed by a rejection – it’s normal to receive these. Recently JK Rowling shared the rejections she received from her first post-Harry Potter books, including kindly anonymising the reviewers to spare their embarrassment of rejecting the author of such a major publishing phenomenon.


In academic life sharing the initial pain is one way to get it out of the system. In addition colleagues are useful for getting advice and ideas on how to respond and improve the paper, and ultimately get your work published.

Use the Force

At the end of the day, negative feedback creates a lot of energy and we are free to decide how to use it. Since that paper took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it to the point of submission and then the expert reviewers will have (normally) spent a good deal of time working their way through your text, many of the elements needed to advance the paper are there.

We recently received a rejection for a paper that we really liked, had received good feedback at conferences, and were confident that it would at least get a revise and resubmit. But no. Were we disappointed? Yes. Did we feel unlucky? Yes. But when we reread the reviews for the second and third time, we also realised that three real experts in the subject had taken the time to point out ways that our paper was lacking and the possible pathways to improve it. Was the advice clear or did they agree? No. But we have a plan and have started.

It is just a case of channelling the force to improve and resubmit rather than brooding on it. Be a Jedi and use the force!

Author: Mark Smith

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