We scientists can unfortunately be real bastards to each other, and no other interaction brings out that tendency more than peer review. Of course no one, no matter how experienced, likes to have a manuscript rejected. People hate to be on the receiving end of any criticism, and scientists are certainly no different. Many reviews can be harsh and unfair; many reviewers ‘miss the point’ or are just plain nasty.
It is inevitable that you will be rejected outright many times after the first attempt. Sometimes you can counter this negative decision via an appeal, but more often than not the rejection is final no matter what you could argue or modify. So your only recourse is move on to a lower-ranked journal. If you consistently submit to low-ranked journals, you would obviously receive far fewer rejections during the course of your scientific career, but you would also probably minimise the number of citations arising from your work as a consequence.
So your manuscript has been REJECTED. What now? The first thing to remember is that you and your colleagues have not been rejected, only your manuscript has. This might seem obvious as you read these words, but nearly everyone — save the chronically narcissistic — goes through some feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy following a rejection letter. At this point it is essential to remind yourself that your capacity to do science is not being judged here; rather, the most likely explanation is that given your strategy to maximise your paper’s citation potential, you have probably just overshot the target journal. What this really means is that the editor (and/or reviewers) are of the opinion that your paper is not likely to gain as many citations as they think papers in their journal should. Look closely at the rejection letter — does it say anything about “… lacking novelty …”?
The ‘lacking novelty’ excuse is an old trick that you will see in most rejections that do not explicitly highlight any technical flaws. Truly ‘novel’ science is in fact rather rare, because so many scientists have come before you and asked similar questions, posed similar hypotheses, collected similar datasets, and applied similar approaches. Not only is ‘novelty’ rare, it is also somewhat irrelevant because for any scientific conclusion to persist, it must be repeated using different data and analyses from different labs and by other people. Hypotheses that are not rejected must have support, and if enough of them lead to the same general conclusion, then theories can be developed, from which eventually laws evolve if contradictory findings do not reset the entire process. So what ‘lacking novelty’ normally means is “we do not think your paper will get as many citations as we would like”.
There is not much you can do about that judgement unless you resubmit an essentially different manuscript, so normally if the rejection is based primarily on the ‘novelty’ excuse and not on some misunderstanding or clearly biased assessment, your only recourse is to submit the manuscript elsewhere. Unless you deem the process to be rigged from the start (I would have my doubts), you should also think about making at least the major changes suggested by either the editor or reviewers who spent some time looking over your work.
Generally speaking, specific science disciplines are microcosms, so if your paper continually gets rejected from one journal to the next, chances are it is being seen by some of the same people. If all you do is repackage the manuscript for each journal without changing any of the text, you might be inadvertently limiting your chances with each submission by appearing to ignore everyone’s advice. If you do find that journals are continually shutting doors in your face, take a close look at your manuscript. Perhaps it needs a rebuild and a reset before it will see the light of day.
The take-home message then is that rejection is not an indication of a scientist’s worth or capacity, it is merely an indication that you are shooting high and want to succeed, provided you follow through and eventually get the work published somewhere.