When to appeal a rejection

26 08 2017

BegA modified excerpt from my upcoming book for you to contemplate after your next rejection letter.

This is a delicate subject that requires some reflection. Early in my career, I believed the appeal process to be a waste of time. Having made one or two of them to no avail, and then having been on the receiving end of many appeals as a journal editor myself, I thought that it would be a rare occasion indeed when an appeal actually led to a reversal of the final decision.

It turns out that I was very wrong, but not in terms of simple functional probability that you might be thinking. Ironically, the harder it is to get a paper published in a journal, the higher the likelihood that an appeal following rejection will lead to a favourable outcome for the submitting authors. Let me explain.

Appeals are generally a port of last call with manuscript submission, but if you invoke that right each time you are rejected, you will quickly learn how futile an exercise it is, and you would most likely develop a reputation among your peers for being more than just a little annoying. Appeals should only be used when there is a clear pathway for reconciliation that typically rests on the shoulders of an awful or obviously biased review with personal overtones.

If you can convince the editor politely that there has been a major injustice or error on the part of one or more reviewers, then you have something to work with. Indeed, when I receive a review that is little more than a badly disguised personal attack (alas, it does happen from time to time) and it becomes the fulcrum upon which a rejection rests, I usually rejoice because I can use it as a strong case for an appeal.

Other cases where the reviewers are not necessarily out of line, but might be dreadfully confused or inexperienced (or just incorrect), can also give you a reason to appeal. Make sure that there is a glaring error on the part of the reviewers though before you even contemplate appealing.

I casually added a vital adverb above that might have escaped your attention: politely. Under no circumstances whatsoever should you deviate from the path of utter decorum, dignity, and politeness, no matter how maddeningly snide and uncouth the reviewer chooses to reveal displeasure with you or your manuscript.

Bite your lip, avoid sarcasm, and be as sickly sweet as possible, while still exposing the flaws in the review and decision. Editors are human too, and so they will respond negatively to insulting language and obvious anger. Instead, take the higher moral ground and outline your arguments logically and without even the faintest scent of recrimination.

Now back to that seemingly flagrant contradiction that appeals are more successful in higher-ranked journals. If I had not been involved personally in more than just a few occasions where outright rejections from the top-of-the-top journals were successfully appealed, I would not believe it myself. Top-ranked journals are in fact top-ranked because they tend to publish manuscripts that have a higher-than-average (usually, much higher) probability of being cited.

In a way, these editors of the elite journals could be said to expect appeals against rejection for that very reason; they want you to try to convince them that your paper will ultimately attract many citations (and not just because it is a pile of unmitigated excrement that deserves a comprehensive thrashing from your peers).

If you have submitted to a high-ranked journal what is obviously, at least to you, some of your best work, then you should by all means consider an appeal if you have a good reason to do so. Do not be bashful and think that the editor will be annoyed and dismiss all of your future submissions out of hand just because you had the gall to appeal this one time. Stubbornness, with the appropriate foundations, has an important role to play in getting your papers published in the best journals.

CJA Bradshaw


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