Are Journal Rejections a Hazing Ritual (Ought Experiment)

Are Journal Rejections a Hazing Ritual (Ought Experiment)



Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s question is from a philosopher reeling from yet another journal rejection, and starting to wonder if publishing is an arbitrary (or even intentionally cruel) ordeal:

Dear Louie,

My favorite paper was just rejected for the 7th time. Let’s see, I’ve had desk rejections, rejections without referee comments, rejections for fairly superficial reasons, rejections because the referee personally disagreed with my position (my bad, guy!), and the most frustrating of all, tonight’s rejection, where the rationale for rejection DIRECTLY contradicted what the previous journal suggested I do! And this isn’t the only paper of mine getting hosed, either.

I know the party line here is “just keep at it,” and that it’s apparently common to go through seven or even more rejections before finally getting a hit. But that just makes me feel like stupid gullible Charlie Brown, and the profession is Lucy yanking away the football at the last second. Oh, except that Lucy is also the ref, and will boot me from the profession if I fail to kick the ball enough times…

So here’s my question: how can I tell the difference between a “normal” rejection spree and a paper that I should give up on? Oh, and the same question about my career, too. Because if everyone agrees that endless rejections are common and journal decisions are often arbitrary but everyone ALSO insists that a lot of high quality publications in a short amount of time is a fair standard to hold people to because publications signal useful information, then I’m not sure I want to play anymore.

Best,
Charlie Brown

Dear Charlie Brown,

Just, err, keep at it.

Look, I get it. I’ve been there, complete with my own brutally fatalistic hair-pulling montage. Whether you’re on the market, trying to publish your way out of a job, or on the tenure track, the clock is ticking loudly, and it can often feel like your fate rests in the hands of one or two uncharitable strangers. String enough of those strangers together in a row, and you’re effectively walled off from the career you want to have. No matter how hard you work, you’re just not in control of your fate. And the people actually in control of your fate don’t seem to be operating according to any systematic rulebook. Tick, tick, tick.

More than a little vexing, that.

Perhaps the best bit of advice I can give you is to avoid seeing your rejections as a pattern. I know it’s tempting. Explanatory narratives are comforting, even when the narratives themselves are rather gloomy. But false patterns also allow debilitating frustration to build, convincing you to despair when all you need is a little more time, and to overcorrect in ways that make your work worse. Patterns can also prevent you from seeing or accepting more tangible solutions.

The reason why it doesn’t seem like your various referees are operating according to a systematic rulebook is because, well, they aren’t. The profession is not an agent with discernable intentions. It has not made any judgments about your quality, nor has it resolved to carry on without you. To paraphrase Salma Hayek, what you’re experiencing as a meaningful pattern is really just the aggregate of localized individuals with different values reaching disconnected verdicts. Lucy may have been a hope-raising, hope-dashing jerk to Charlie, but there’s no Lucy here.

You might be thinking: “Great. You’ve just replaced a concerted conspiracy with indifferent and unfeeling chaos. I’m so much more comforted now. Thanks, Louie!” But I honestly consider chaos a hopeful perspective. Why? Because it means the profession hasn’t rejected you. A dozen or so shmucks have. And that’s nowhere near as decisive. The more your circumstances resemble a coin flip, the less it makes sense to infer that the next flip will also come up tails.

If every one of your many referees had given you the exact same advice, then it wouldn’t be either “a normal rejection spree” or “a paper you should give up on”, but instead a paper that you should change accordingly. You could safely conclude from such consensus that they were tracking some objective feature about the paper (or at least some feature of currently favored work that it might be in your interest to match). But your referees aren’t giving you the exact same advice. You mention that one ref rejected it for superficial reasons. Another rejected it because they substantively disagree with your position. Another rejected it because you failed to do X, and then the next one in line rejected it because you did X. When you get an inconsistent array like that, chances are good that the referees aren’t tracking any fatal defects in the paper, which means you shouldn’t give up on it. They’re just having highly individualized reactions. In which case the only thing you need to change is the pair of eyes evaluating your work. Send it back out. Because the next ref’s highly individualized reaction might be a positive one.

This is why the party line is “just keep at it”. People who care about you and think well of your work aren’t advising you to hang in there because it’s amusing to watch someone fail to learn a lesson, like that old joke about the definition of insanity. They aren’t advising you to bash your head against a wall until you open up a crack in the brick large enough for a paper to fit through. Nor are they telling you to keep at it because this is an endurance challenge or test of attrition where, per prior secret convention, the first seven submissions are always rejected. They’re telling you to just keep at it because each journal submission is a fresh coin flip. This is also why all the people telling you about their own epic rejection streaks are still around. You eventually break through. And it can happen suddenly. But it can only happen if you keep trying.

When my rejections are accompanied by referee reports, I’ll make changes to the paper if a referee spotted an obvious mistake, or if they persuaded me that the paper genuinely would be better if I did or didn’t do some thing. But most of the time, I don’t change anything. I just send the paper, as-is, to the next journal. And wouldn’t you know it: I eventually get an R&R. It would only make sense to faithfully implement all the changes that rejecting referee N wanted to see if the profession were a solitary or coordinated agent with consistent tastes and standards. It’s not. All those revisions won’t do anything to guarantee a favorable reaction from referee N+1 (and may even hinder your chances if referee N’s advice was particularly idiosyncratic or grumpy). Each review proceeds on its own terms.

I get why a rationally ordered process feels better – there are clearly understandable hurdles and benchmarks, and success becomes a matter of dutifully following the maximally transparent steps. There is no luck, and nothing is arbitrary. But imagining that the process is ordered in that way when it isn’t leads us to systematically misinterpret feedback, hacking and stitching our papers into Frankenstein monsters in the hopes of ‘finally’ satisfying ‘the profession’, or giving up when we were possibly one submission away from success because we thought ‘the profession’ had already spoken.

Abstracting away from any one individual’s employment situation, I don’t think many of us would actually prefer that the field bow to a centralized set of judgments or criteria that inevitably stamp out the same research month after month. Localized, uncoordinated referees can introduce a lot of inconsistency into the process, especially when those referees don’t read carefully or consider fairly (ahem), but referees and editors making individual decisions according to their own values is also the only way that weirder, consensus-bucking, boundary-pushing work can get published. An intentional process might guarantee results for everyone that best conforms to the publically determined mold of ‘good work’ or ‘research that makes a contribution’, but that assumes that the only role of publications is to unlock the tower for its next generation of residents. If we want publications to have any chance of expanding the frontiers of truth, then we want hundreds upon hundreds of gatekeepers playing by entirely different rules. Maybe that sentiment marks me as an old romantic, but I genuinely believe that the field is better off without coordination.

Which, to be totally and absolutely clear—because I can already see the torches and pitchforks cresting yonder hill—does not mean that individual referee reports are beyond criticism. Of course some referees make bad calls. Of course there’s something unnecessarily dicey about a situation where the only way to survive is to keep gambling on a succession of slow referees while the clock ticks away. Of course there’s something curious about treating partially arbitrary positional goods as reliable signals of merit. Of course we overvalue landing your paper in the best fifteen journal buckets, when there’s amazing research hanging out in other journal buckets (not to mention rigorous public philosophy that eschews the bucket scramble altogether, and reaches many more readers besides). Maybe we need to rethink how we evaluate dossiers. Maybe practices need to change. These are good discussions to have. (If you’re interested, see: here, here, here, and here, just for starters.)

My sense is that a lot of the heartache involved in time-sensitive publishing can be mitigated if referees and potential referees acted better. Yes, stray reader, I’m talking about you now. It can be as simple as actually declining a request to referee instead of ignoring the email, cutting weeks of wasted time out of the process. It can also mean accepting a request instead of declining it. Yes, it’s onerous and uncompensated labor, but that’s how our field is currently arranged, so you have to chip in even when it’s not in your direct interest to do so. It can also mean completing a referee report some time before the deadline, instead of treating the deadline as your first reminder to read the paper. Yes, we’re all very, very busy, but commitments matter. It can also mean reading the paper with more care than usual, and using standards like “this paper contributes to the debate” instead of “this paper supports my side of the debate”. Not because it’s our job to bestow jobs on people who want them very badly, or because the state of knowledge somehow improves when we let anything through, but because as scholars, false negatives should concern us all.

When the best institutional arrangement involves disconnected referees reaching uncoordinated and highly individualized verdicts, participating individuals have to see refereeing as a responsibility, as something owed. That’s the only way this works.

Now back to you, Charlie Brown. How can you tell the difference between a normal rejection spree and a paper that you should give up on? The inconsistent verdicts you’re getting tell me that it’s probably the former. Ditto the fact that many of us contend with similar streaks. Sharing a common problem rarely indicates that there’s something uniquely wrong with you. But it would be a good idea to get input from people other than journal referees. Ask colleagues. Ask friends. And most importantly, ask yourself. Basing your sense of the paper (let alone your sense of your career prospects) on what a dozen referees have said is some risky thinking. Remember, the profession is not an agent. It does not speak with one voice. So what matters, in the end, is learning to trust your own voice.

Just keep at it.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

This is good advice so far as it goes, but it fails to address the more important question: Once we accept that peer review is chaotic and that we, as individual submitters, shouldn’t draw any inferences from the fact that our paper has been rejected (even numerous times), why is it a good idea to use that same data as information in evaluating and selecting candidates for jobs, tenure, etc.

The journal system does not have to be a unified agent to reliably track and select for certain qualities. If it fails to do that altogether, it’s not clear why we should see success at publishing as an accomplishment at all – or why so many of us should put so much effort into sustaining that system as authors, editors, and referees. But if it does reliably track important qualities, such that it is worth maintaining, and worth caring about its results, then it would seem that individual submitters should – at some point – be able to draw conclusions from those results.

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Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

Just one additional comment to add to the generally good advice above. Sometimes friends who read your papers can give you some perspective. If you let them see referee reports they can sometimes also give good advice on how to deal with some of them.

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Wayne Fenske
5 years ago

the rationale for rejection DIRECTLY contradicted what the previous journal suggested I do!

Been there, done that. …Report

Thomas Baristotle
Thomas Baristotle
5 years ago

Charlie Brown,
Perhaps writing philosophy papers is not for you. Why not look for something else to do.
Sorry to sound so “heartless,” but, generally speaking, it happens to be true: When you’ve had the same paper rejected several times, not all of the involved referees could be wrong. Clearly, they’ve seen something in your text that is limping, whether intellectually or stylistically, or both. Ask them to send you their comments, and correct your paper accordingly.
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Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Reply to  Thomas Baristotle
5 years ago

This guy’s totally right. If you have trouble getting one paper published at seven different journals, you’re probably no good at philosophy generally. That’s an excellent conclusion that any *decent* researcher would have drawn by now.Report

PeppermintPatty
PeppermintPatty

Charlie’s probably not terrible- and Charlie probably likes writing. So long as Charlie’s bills are paid [hopefully by Charlie’s own earnings], Charlie can and should keep at it as long as Charlie pleases. It takes some people a really REALLY long time to hit, and if they enjoy the ride, there’s no reason to suggest that they quit.

You know?

In any case, I expect to take a really REALLY long time to hit, myself. But my checks still pay the bills, I can even lend other people $ sometimes, it’s still fun.

So there.

P.S. Justin, can I have some money? Report

Neil
Neil

Baristotle and Sad Eyed: that’s complete garbage. I’ve had papers rejected seven times before being accepted at a good journal. And I know better philosophers than me who have even more rejections for a single paper, again before it was accepted by a top 10 generalist journal. Acceptances are a signal of quality, because very few bad papers get published. But rejections carry little information, because great papers are rejected. Given that most journals reject more than 90% of submissions, that’s not surprising.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Reply to  Neil
5 years ago

I think my sarcasm may not have translated well. I totally agree with you and, for whatever it’s worth, am in a slump very much like Charlie Brown’s at the moment.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands

Wow. Re-reading that initial post without the sarcasm makes me sound like a total … well, unkind person. I apologize to anyone who may have read it that way.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis

^ Comment R&R.Report

Alan White
Alan White

If I may suggest a preface to certain posts like SEPOTL’s (which I took to be sarcastic, only because the Dark Side of Rejection is strong with me):

TOENAIL (To Only Express: Not Asserted Intentionally Literally) as in:

TOENAIL–I wish all those who rejected my paper, which I slaved over between teaching my 4/4 load and serving on a University committee trying to protect tenure as it exists in the best traditions of academic freedom, the best and happiest new year.

Of course the “Express” of TOENAIL is the expressionist sense of the term. Literally.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
5 years ago

As a grad student, it’s helpful to hear this kind of thing – because it’s very similar to what I’ve been going through. I’ve had awful luck on the job market this year. I’m trying to publish more and improve my odds for next year. But that too is discouraging. I’ve had one paper (that I quite like) rejected by 4 journals. I feel indignation sometimes (you rejected this paper and published THAT?!). But I’m aware that I’m one of the least objective critics, which engenders a lot of insecurity. Ive had a different paper under review for a few months, but given my track record, sometimes it feels like I’m just waiting for another rejection.

But this helps. It really does. At least I’m not alone, and can keep trying for a bit longer. Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Here’s the thing: we all know that publishing in philosophy is a crapshoot, and no one wants to be the person who tells a philosopher to give up after rejection number four when journal number five would have published the paper, but the fact is that the received wisdom to try, try again can be really dangerous advice. I’ve seen it cost people their jobs and irrevocably sour people on academic research.

I think it is important to learn when to give up on, or at least put to the side for an extended period of time, a paper that just isn’t working. I know we all hear stories of people whose paper was accepted with no revisions at Phil Review after being rejected eight times, but perhaps one reason we hear about these cases is not because they are so common, but because they make good stories. People will tell their friends about these cases and write blog posts about them, but most people won’t tell you about the paper that they buried in their desk drawer after it was rejected for the third time. There is no fun or sense of triumph in this other kind of story.

The OP thinks it is “common” for papers to be rejected seven or more times before finding a home. Maybe. I certainly know of cases where this happened, but I have my doubts that this is the norm. To be frank, it doesn’t describe my experiences with work that I’ve published in philosophy journals. I say that not to brag or be bitchy. I’ve received my share of rejections, but I have also learned how to put to the side (forever or for a long while) papers that are not having a good go of it and move on to something new.

The advice to try, try agin with a specific paper has some utility: young philosophers can take negative feedback from journals especially hard and give up far too soon. It is often rash to bin a particular paper after receiving two or three rejections, especially if one is getting feedback that is mixed. But more than two or three desk rejects or multiple rejections with little or no positive feedback? In at least some cases, especially if one is looking for a job or is tenure-track, it makes more sense to cut one’s losses and and focus one’s time and energy on a new project. The non-tenured simply don’t have the luxury of Casaubon-levels of doggedness and fixation. There is really no shame in calling it a day with regard to a project that didn’t quite work out the way one had hoped. And once one has tenure, if one still is still confident about some previously maligned or misunderstood paper, there are usually plenty of opportunities to publish while mostly bypassing the peer review process altogether. Report

Neil
Neil
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

7 rejections is a lot (I think it has happened to me only once), but multiple rejections are common in my experience. Even 7 is not a very informative signal. Even with a good paper, rejection is more likely than not. How much more likely I’m not sure, but on plausible assumptions, you would expect 7 in a row with a good paper now and then.

Further, ceteribus is not always paribus. Some papers are harder to place than others. I think my 7 times rejected paper was hard to place because it was heavily empirical but claimed to have an upshot for a debate that many people regard as insulated from the empirical. Some people claim that the more creative a paper is, the more referees regard it as a risk. I’m not sure I believe that, but maybe?

That said, I think the advice to put a multiply rejected paper aside for a while is in principle good. It allows you to return to it with fresh eyes.
Unfortunately, for many people the tenure clock is ticking and they can’t take the time to let a paper test.

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postdoc
postdoc
5 years ago

I just had a paper accepted at a good top 15 journal after being rejected half a dozen times, including from much worse journals.

Of course, I made changes between rejections, and the paper did get better and better.

But the point remains that one shouldn’t give up! Very little effort to just send it out again!
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Disgusted
Disgusted
5 years ago

Tenure clock considerations are surely important, but you generally have three to four years to get several papers accepted for publication. I hope those who are not currently on the job market don’t assume that the same level of pressure exists for marketeers. With this market, many of us need tenure-like packages before even getting interviews. Therefore, having to shop a paper around to seven journals–or even fewer, like three–is too time-consuming. If one strikes out on the market this year, with three, four, or five publications (as I am currently experiencing), then they will need to have four or five papers out for review in the spring in order to have a shot at getting one of them (probably more than one of them) accepted in preparation for next year’s market. If each of these has to make multiple rounds before being accepted, they will not be listed on next year’s CV before the new job season begins. Every year, job market candidates who have tried unsuccessfully in previous years feel the tenure-like pressures, but within the range of a matter of months, not years. Personally, I would sleep a lot better at night if I worried “merely” about the ticking of the tenure clock. Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Reply to  Disgusted
5 years ago

Disgusted, you have just described my whole life.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Disgusted
5 years ago

Exactly right. Under these conditions, “just hang in there” means “just hang in there as an unemployed or underemployed philosopher doing free research and writing on spec.” Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

Sorry to hear you’ve been struggling. I know it’s gotta be tough given the market. Here’s my two cents. I’m a thoroughly average philosopher who’s had some luck with publication (a number on the first or two tries). I’ve also had some pieces rejected numerous times and without homes at present. I think the main difference between the two groups is this: do I need a few pages of lit review in order to even explain the thesis? If yes, then they’re not published. I’ve come to realize that those papers are likely boring and the literature doesn’t need them. My publications, on the other hand, can be explained quickly and without any mention of the literature (though I incorporate the literature in the paper itself). So, one test you could apply is to try to explain the novelty and interest of your paper to a friend without mentioning the literature. If it takes all kinds of set-up, then maybe it’s worth putting on the shelf for now. Of course, there might be other, less good reasons for why you’re having trouble finding a home for it, but this has been my experience, limited as it is. Take it for what it’s worth.Report

BS
BS
5 years ago

This makes me think of the value of good rhetoric: what audience are you trying to talk to such that you get such unhelpful responses? It’s possible that you’re not communicating to your intended audience what you’re trying to do in a way they’re able to recognize. Genuinely creative papers can look like nonsense or like somebody else’s problem, but the burden of working within a professional discipline is that authors have to address the community as it stands at the present. This is just one possible diagnosis, but it hasn’t shown up in the comments yet to my knowledge.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I agree that the problem is very real. I’ve had papers rejected for entirely conflicting reasons, then later accepted. Before I landed tenure, this lottery was utterly nerve-wracking and blatantly unfair.

Having said that, I can’t see another means for evaluating a candidate’s research potential. Today, when I’m examining job applicants, I predict their future rate of publication mostly on how much they have published so far. I hate it, but I don’t see a way around it.Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
5 years ago

I have no idea what “Charlie Brown” did before submitting this particular paper, but I often encounter people (especially graduate students prepping for the market) submitting papers they have never presented in front of an audience. No matter how much you like a paper you’re written, don’t assume you’ve got it right until you get live feedback. Audiences will also give you a whole lot of random responses all at once, instead of your having to get them one at a time over the course of years from successive journal referees. It almost doesn’t matter what the audience is; if you can’t find a conference taking place in your area, a hastily-convened group of your colleagues will do just fine. Report

postdoc
postdoc
5 years ago

Re Mike Titelbaum’s comment. It’s strange that you say this. I’ve heard from others too that presenting at conferences and getting feedback is a vital part of the publishing process. I have presented at conferences, and some of those papers are now published. But they aren’t published due to any comments I got. In fact, I can’t recall a single instance in which I received a helpful comment at a conference. Am I unique in this experience? Report

sm
sm
5 years ago

My most cited paper was also my most rejected. Five desk rejections in one week. At least they were quick about it. The sixth journal accepted it with minor revisions. Then there’s this little paper I wrote a few years ago that I love, but I cannot find a home for it anywhere. Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them.Report