Appealing manuscript rejections

Feb 04 2016 Published by under Science Publication, Scientific Publication

This is going to be another one of those posts where we mix up what should be so, what is so and what is best for the individual scientist's career.

Our good blog friend iBAM was musing about reading a self-empowerment book.

The career prescription here...I agree with.

It took me quite awhile to realize that you can appeal when a journal editor rejects your manuscript. I thought a reject was a reject when I first started in this business. It certainly always read like one.

It turns out that you can appeal that decision.

And you should. The process does not end with the initial decision to reject your manuscript.

So what you do is, you email the Editor and you outline why the decision was a mistake, what you can do to revise the manuscript to address the major concerns, why your paper would be a fit for the journal, etc.

You may be ignored. You may be told "Nope, it is still a rejection".

OR. You may be given the opportunity to resubmit a revised version of the manuscript as if it were a new one. Which of course you could do anyway but it would be likely to get hammered down if you have not already solicited the invitation to do so from the Editor.

So you will see here that with a simple email, you have given yourself another chance to get the paper accepted. So do it.

After this we get into the fun part.

Should you appeal each and every decision? I think my natural stance is no, you don't want to get a rep as a chronic whiner. But you know what? There are probably people in science who rebut and complain about every decision. Does it work for them? I dunno. And by extension to sports, you know that phenomenon of working the ref about bad calls, hoping to get a makeup call later? That logic maybe applies here.

I do know there are plenty of testimonials like those of Kaye Tye that complaining about a rejection ended up with a published manuscript in the initially-rejecting journal.

Do appeals work the same for everyone? That is, given the same approximate merits of the case is the Editor going to respond similarly to appeals from anyone? I can't say. This is a human decision making business and I have always believed that when an editor knows you personally, they can't help but treat your submissions a little better. Similarly when an editor knows your work, your pedigree, your department, etc it probably helps your appeal gain traction.

But who knows? Maybe what helps is having a good argument on the merits. Maybe what helps is that the Editor liked the paper and slightly disagrees with the review outcome themselves.

HAHAHA, I crack myself up.

Okay so where do we end up?

First, you need to add the post-rejection appeal into your repertoire of strategies if you don't already include it. I would use it judiciously, personally, but this is something to ask your subfield colleagues about. People who publish in the journals you are targeting. Ask them how often they appeal.

Second, realize that the appeal game is going to add up over time in a person's career. If there are little personal biases on the part of Editors (which there are) then this factor is going to further amplify the insider club advantage. And when you sit and wonder why that series of papers that are no better than your own just happen to end up in that higher rank of journal well.....there may be reasons other than merit. What you choose to do with that information is up to you. I see a few options.

  • Pout.
  • Up your game so that you don't need to use those little bennies to get over the hurdle.
  • Schmooze journal editors as hard as you can.
  • Ignore the whole thing and keep doing your science the way you want and publishing in lower journals than your work deserves.

*not a fan of this myself but some people (including one of my kids' soccer coaches) appear to believe very strongly in this theory.

26 responses so far

  • PaleoGould says:

    The four options are not mutually exclusive. #1 in particular can be combined with any of others.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I successfully appealed a rejection once during my postdoc and I regret it. It took 4 rounds of review and a year to get accepted, right at a time when publications mattered most (applying for jobs and K99). It was not a CNS journal, but a solid, above-average middle tier, and I should have just cut my losses and tried somewhere else.

  • Dave says:

    It's against my nature to do it. It feels douche and whiney, but I have heard every BSD say that it's an essential part of their toolbox.

    I prefer the idea of 'educating the editor' (from 28:00):

  • Established PI says:

    My experience with appeals has been mixed. The majority have been a waste of time and just delayed the eventual publication by up to a year (and that was a mid-range journal!). One time when I did prevail it was because one reviewer dinged us on technical grounds, which was preposterous. I demanded that they reject my paper for valid reasons (almost my exact words). They got another expert in that area who agreed with me. Paper accepted. But most of the time it just isn't worth it and I move on.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's against my nature to do it. It feels douche and whiney, but I have heard every BSD say that it's an essential part of their toolbox.

    This. all of this. This is why it has taken me until about the last 3 years of my career to even try an appeal.

  • meshugena313 says:

    I've successfully appealed a manuscript when we had compelling new experiments in the works and I was able to convince the editor and then the reviewers. This was already after an earlier rejection of the paper from a mid-level journal asked for tons of new experiments, so once we did them I said WTF and went up the IF ladder.

    But what about a desk rejection prior to review? I'm much more comfortable arguing my case after a reviewer rejection. If the editors reject prior to review they would seem to be biased against the paper anyway... going through this now with something that I am sure is novel and compelling with new "mechanistic insight" but editors at multiple journals don't agree. Ugh.

  • serialmentor says:

    There's another element to this as well, I think. If you keep sending good but not great (but also not awful) papers to top-tier journals, eventually the editors know you and remember the many rejections they have given you, so when you send something a little better than your typical average they may just accept it. Similar to working the ref.

  • FreshPI says:

    My first 2 papers in a solid mid-tier biochemistry journal in my PhD were outright rejections at first. My PI appealed both. They went in without *any* revisions afterwards.

  • AcademicLurker says:


    The less favorable outcome is that eventually the editors know you as "those clowns that are always spamming us with sub-par manuscripts", and are inclined to view anything you send more unfavorably than they would otherwise.

  • SidVic says:

    Yes, unfortunately, i was raised in a stoic tradition. I have never wheedled for a better grade or complained, well, about anything really. Never explained either- that's the second half of it. For many years i compiled a black list of journals with which i refused future dealings. Haha what a fool. Of course, i eventually ran out of journals.

    I remember being shocked when my PI was organizing a conference and she complained about all these guys calling her outa the blue and pitching themselves and their projects for talks and sessions.

    I've changed my mind; although i still can't bring myself to engage in naked self-promotion i often tell my kids and students that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. A cliche because it's true.

  • SidVic says:

    PS, Dave thanks for the Bruce S video- it is good. The guy is smart.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Btw, Dave, I have to say- all that Spiegelman conversation does is make me think "this guy is everything that is wrong with science and look at that starry eyed editor eating that shit up"

  • meshugena313 says:

    Wow, that spiegelman video is something. Plus the fawning editor...

  • Dave says:

    Btw, Dave, I have to say- all that Spiegelman conversation does is make me think "this guy is everything that is wrong with science and look at that starry eyed editor eating that shit up

    Exactly. What is great with the video (and the reason I put it up) is that it illustrates just how differently these people think and operate from most of us, and how they have engineered an environment for themselves that is very, very different. I think that a large majority of young investigators really want to believe in their hearts that it's more or less a level playing field and that if they just do good science, they will get there. If you watch this video carefully, and really listen to what he is saying and look at how the interviewer interacts with him, you should realize that good science might not even get your foot in the door.

  • SidVic says:

    Yeah well when you posted it with the business about "educating editors" i was set to hate the arrogant SOB. Nonetheless, the guy makes alot of sense. I would have never have thought of prereview inquiry. I have started briefly outlining the novel aspects of my manuscripts in the submission letter, but trolling around to get a bite of interest is better. Maybe it only works for big shots like speiglmann?

    I can relate that i wrote a letter of reference for a student regarding a postdoc in Spegleman's lab when i was a assistant prof. I was surprised when he wrote me back thanking me for my insightful analysis. He hired the guy too. The guy knows how to play the game. Not lazy either.

  • Protege says:

    We got a CNS publication by getting a BSD buddy (not a co-author) to convince the editor to reconsider a revised manuscript after it was initially rejected. That's how you do it, kids.

  • A. Tasso says:

    I would expect that appeals only work at journals where the editors auto-reject or auto-accept based on the bottom-line recommendation from the reviewers. In those cases, an appeal might get them to look more closely at the content of the review and, if the reviewer's recommendation is at odds with his or her bottom-line recommendation (e.g. the review is totally reasonable but s/he for whatever reason recommends "reject"), then an appeal might be successful. This works sometimes. There are some reviewers who recommend "reject" when they actually mean "revise and resubmit", but I can't for the life of me understand why they don't simply recommend "revise and resubmit" if that is in fact what they want.

    HOWEVER... at journals where the editors critically synthesize the reviewer feedback, I don't think appeals really have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. I am an academic editor at PLOS Medicine, and I look at reviews very carefully. So it is very unlikely that an appeal would ever get me to change my mind. I have seen appeals successfully change an initial decision from RWR to getting the paper reviewed, but in _each_ one of the cases I have observed that paper ends up getting RAR'ed.

    I would also add that if I see a pattern where you are appealing every single rejection of mine, then you will rapidly land on my shitte list.

  • qaz says:

    @A Tasso - In my experience, this is exactly backwards. (I don't know how PLoS Medicine works, but I have seen appeals work a lot.)

    Appeals work when the editors are making the decisions. As with all decisions, even if they are based on the best information available to the decision-maker, the available information is limited. So if an editor looks at a manuscript and says "this is uninteresting", what it means is the editor didn't see the interesting perspective because you didn't communicate it well enough. If an editor sees the reviews and thinks "this is a fatal flaw, there's no way they can do the control for this", what it means is that the editor doesn't know all the fantastic capabilities you have in your lab. In my experience, appeals are really an opportunity to respond to reviewers (sometimes editorial comments are reviews in disguise) when the editor didn't think you could. (A desk rejection is a review about either the appropriateness for the journal or the coolness of the result.)

    On the other hand, if the editor is right (because it turns out someone else scooped you so your result is not as novel as you thought or because there is an alternative interpretation that makes your result suggestive rather than definitive or because there's a missing control you really can't do in a reasonable time) then don't waste the editor's time with an appeal. In my experience, editors are very willing to listen to a reasonable appeal.

    The reason the appeals process differs between BSD and riffraff is (1) BSDs are more confident and more likely to try an appeal than riffraff, (2) editors are more likely to look at a BSD appeal, (3) editors are more likely to believe a BSD who says "trust me, this is an important discovery". (That's how they got to be BSDs - they knew what was important. Right? Right?)

    PS. Why would anyone appeal at a mid-range journal? There are dozens of mid-range journals. Just go to another one.

    PPS. When writing an appeal, always be polite, and always assume that the editor had a good reason for their decision. You are educating the editor, not arguing with them.

  • ROStressed says:

    I am right in the middle of my first appeal, which happened by accident after inquiring to a N editor if he thought that rejected paper X could go into a different N-sub journal. He then asked me if wanted to appeal (with some stock language). While there were comments that can be addressed (as always), I thought the comment related to paper "interest" level was then death knell. Apparently not. We will see about the outcome, but definitely worth it.

    I was also brought up under the notion that a rejection is final, which is why I never attempted it before, but have slowly been learning that some rules can be bent others broken.

  • Grumble says:

    "that series of papers that are no better than your own just happen to end up in that higher rank of journal well.....there may be reasons other than merit."

    HAHAHAHA! Merit is the fucking LEAST of the reasons why MANY papers end up in glam journals.

    Appeals to glam journals go nowhere if you're a no one and if the reason for rejection is that the "novelty" or "impact" is insufficient to convince the editors that your work will ram that big stick up the journal's ass even farther. Appeals to top-mid journals (J Neurosci and the like) are very worthwhile if the reviewers missed the importance of the paper, or if the reviews are not so terrible that you could overcome them by argument, revisions, and maybe an experiment or reanalysis or two. Appeals don't always work, but you are much more likely to encounter a reasonable editor at this sort of journal than at the glams.

    Appeals to any journal less than J Neurosci is a complete fucking waste of your time. Just send it to another journal; there are plenty (I get at least 3 spam emails a day inviting me to submit to the latest zombification emitted by Hindawi Press). In fact, I have come close to yanking my submitted paper to specialty-level journals because they were taking too fucking long to review it. Half an hour of work and it's reformatted for the next journal in line, and who gives a shit which one it finally comes out in?

  • thorazine says:

    My experience squares pretty well with what qaz says. Appeals work sometimes; they are more likely to work at journals where editors have more discretion. I've successfully appealed desk rejects, and I've successfully appealed in cases where the editor thinks incorrectly that we can't respond to the reviewers' concerns. I've never successfully appealed in cases where the reviewer HATES the paper for reasons that don't stand up to scrutiny - it seems rationally as though this should be the easiest appeal, but in my experience it's the hardest.

    Several others have said that appeals can burn serious amounts of time. This is definitely true - we had one recently where we submitted to a prominent journal that prides itself on fast, fair review; the initial reviews took 3 months to come back, with a reject based on a reviewer who seemed to hate the paper irrationally. I appealed because this seemed unfair, and the appeal took another 3 months, and ended up a reject anyway, because the journal simply went back to the same reviewer, who (unsurprisingly) still hated it. Yes, I'm still bitter - for once, I really won't submit there again.

    In my experience, the important thing in appeals is not to seem angry. No sarcasm, and certainly no spittle-flecked rants. Calm, rational, polite, succinct, and clear. As a non-BSD, this has worked for me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In my experience, the important thing in appeals is not to seem angry. No sarcasm, and certainly no spittle-flecked rants. Calm, rational, polite, succinct, and clear.

    dammit. I may have just fucked this one up.

  • Dave says:

    Hard to avoid ranting at the best of times

  • jmz4 says:

    I never knew that appealing editorial decisions wasn't considered an option by some people. I came up in two BSD labs, though, so I guess I just assumed it was part of the game in getting your stuff published.

  • DJMH says:

    One of my PIs always refused to appeal at glam journals on principle, the principle being that he shouldn't need to go grade-grubbing with no-count scientists turned editors.

  • […] and taking steps to go there. Also: writing and submitting manuscripts, applying for grants and considering to appeal rejections (although this may be more the pro-active playing field of PIs rather than […]

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