Bitter like lemon, the feeling of rejection lingers in your mouth for days – or weeks, if you are not used to it. People who write a lot get many rejections and the most prolific writers hardly notice – they simply move on. This is where we all want to be, and I thought I was there, until …
Vague like grey ash, a recent rejection kicked me out of this sweet acceptance back into the darkness and bitterness. What follows is a condemnation of hazy rejection letters in academia, my way to purge the poison from my system and to provoke discussion about how rejection should (not) be done.
How does one give specific feedback: what format to follow, which rules to abandon; what are the grave dangers of inflation and how to deal with the fear of criticism? The information is available, but the courage seems lacking – courage to break the rules and be specific.
Rejection is feedback. Its aim is literally to “feed back” to the writer what could be fixed to make their work better. Feeding is typically associated with providing nutrients to help something or someone grow and feedback should foster similar growth. Hazy rejection blocks this growth because it lacks nutrients, it is empty. Whether it is through sheer laziness or deliberate disguise of the “real” reason for rejection, it is impossible to grow without the nutrients.
Helpful feedback is specific. Communicating science is a form of interpersonal communication with strict, but often unspoken, rules and format, which does not always help. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about rules and format. But the rules are not only unspoken, they are often passed from one generation of researchers to the next, without having solid evidence for effectiveness. Sometimes, they lose essence, as the scientific thinking evolves. For example, the use of past tense in academic papers, or the use of plural “we” instead of singular “I”, are dinosaurs from the past age, soon to be abandoned by the emerging writers.
A good guide to giving feedback comes from French physician David Servan-Schreiber, who coined the acronym STABEN (Source, time, amicable approach, objective behaviour and need), which sets up a simple method for conflict resolution. Essentially, Servan-Schreiber asserts that feedback should always be given with empathy and with the person and circumstances in mind – just imagine you were reading the rejection letter about your own paper(!)
As an example, I ask readers what constructive feedback is contained in the following rejection letter from editors of an online news section at an unnamed research portal:
“We regret to inform you that your article […] was not among the winning articles. The editorial team were not able to consider your article for the monthly prize, and the article will not be published in the newsletter as it did not succeed in securing its preference.”
What does “securing its preference” even mean? Was the article even read by someone?
Who fears rejection?
Most feedback from scientific journals is not specific, and there are rare attempts to be straightforward. Are editors afraid to write: “we reject your paper for reasons A, B and C”? Rejection will hurt no matter what; you may as well be straightforward. The STABEN technique above is used to ease the impact of negative messages like rejection letters. At its heart is nonviolent assertiveness while retaining specificity. Vague words do not make it hurt less. Here are several examples of letters I have received from academic journals that span the continuum of vague-to-specific.
Example A: “Unfortunately, after careful editorial consideration, we regret to inform you that we do not feel the paper is a strong candidate for publication in [journal]. In our opinion, the overall conclusions do not rise to the level of conceptual advance that would be required for the manuscript to fare well in review. In this case, we suggest that the manuscript would be more appropriately published elsewhere.”
Example B: “Unfortunately, there is not the needed level of support for your article for us to publish. The reviewers consider the manuscript to be worthwhile, but there are just too many concerns. Some central problems include: inadequate engagement with existing literature on barriers to care/treatment for drug users; an overly descriptive key question; potential bias in recruitment; insufficient depth and nuance in the analyses; and limited support within the results for the main conclusion.”
Example C: “I regret to inform you that we have now considered your paper but unfortunately feel it unsuitable for publication in [journal]. We sympathize with your project and the process evaluation as such educational workshops are much needed. However, we do not think the study is strong enough to be published in our journal. The sample is a little too small, the results a little too vague, and also we would have like to see a better analysis and contextualization of the results and not ‘just’ an evaluation.”
Doesn’t the last example say what it means in the clearest way? It gives specific reasons for rejection and guides the author to improve the analysis and discussion. The goal is to make peer review a more constructive process so the authors can go away and improve the readability of their manuscript for the next journal. If all journals editors and peer reviewers commit to providing specific feedback, we could write and publish better articles. Reader friendly articles are more likely to be read. Clear and concise writing can thus impact policy and practice, fulfilling the ultimate mission of science – to change the world.
I suspect that many journal editors have phrasebanks and stock responses that they can quickly put into what appears to be a clear response. Those editors who do not provide helpful feedback do not see themselves as serving the author but as serving the publication (weeding out the submissions they don’t want). This is shortsighted, but the “too many submissions, not enough time problem” makes quick, dismissive responses seem like the most expedient path.
This is not always the case. I once received a long e-mail of rejection regarding my book manuscript from a senior editor at Harvard University Press in which she detailed what she saw as needed changes if the book were to be publishable. I followed her advice and published the book (though not with Harvard, which ultimately did reject it on a second try). Such acts of service by an editor advance the cause of academic publishing in a way that a vague rejection letter cobbled together from stock phrases never could do.