A big part of writing is rejection. Although nothing but time and perspective can really take away the sting of it, understanding how conference and journal article rejection works can often help with the process. It also helps you give your next article or conference proposal the best chance possible.
The reasons for rejections also, perhaps frustratingly, are the same whether you got solid, helpful reviews or less than useful ones. To help address the varied forms that journals and conferences, I surveyed colleagues who are or have been journal editors and conference organizers. Their feedback is remarkably consistent: your rejection is sometimes a question of quality, but just as often it is a question of fit, practical constraints, and luck.
How decisions get made
At academic journals, the first round of review entails a lot of “desk rejects” either at the editor in chief or associate editor level—this is when the piece is clearly not a good fit or of sufficient quality to warrant the labor and time of peer review. If editors do send your piece out for anonymous, external peer review, the reviewers usually have the option of indicating if they think the journal should accept the piece as is (this very rarely happens), accept with minor revision, accept with major revision, have the author revise and resubmit it, or reject the piece outright.
Reviewers also are often given two boxes or documents for comments: one for comments that go to the author and another for anonymous comments to the journal editors. As one journal editor I spoke to pointed out, “sometimes reviewers can write an ‘okay’ or ‘supportive’ review to the author while heavily critiquing it to the editor.” The journal editor uses the two or three reviews to inform their final decision, weighing a variety of factors beyond the reviews themselves.
For special issues of journals, the issue editor plays much of the same role as the journal editor but does so in dialog with the journal editor. The arrangement can vary widely in terms of who assigns reviewers, who gets final say in acceptances, and the like.
Some special issues use anonymous, external peer review (where the issue editors send out your piece to external scholarly experts), and sometimes the issue editors do the peer review themselves either anonymously or not.
Sometimes special issue editors have funds to hire professional copyeditors and sometimes they have to do the copyediting themselves.
Special issues also operate on a much shorter schedule (as all the articles have to come out at a specific time) so there is typically only room for pieces that require minor edits.
Special issue editors are also looking for diversity of topics and approaches to reach diverse audiences, as well as a very clear fit to the special issue theme, so assessments of articles are much more comparative than in a general journal submission. Sometimes, there is a chance for the article to go into the regular journal review pipeline if it doesn’t make the special issue.
For conferences, decisions are made by conference organizers, sometimes within specific tracks/divisions/interest groups, and with or without an external, anonymous review process. For many humanities conferences, a program committee reviews the submissions, decides which papers fit together into panels, and which panels can be programmed within the limitations of the conference. For social science conferences, usually volunteer reviewers (who are members of the professional association) are assigned submissions, offer their comments, and sometimes submit scores and votes on accepting or rejecting the submission. A program committee (or single programmer for a section) then reviews those comments, scores, and votes, and decides which submissions to accept/reject.
Across the disciplines and interdisciplines, submissions might be rejected because they do not fit with any other submissions to form a panel, are judged as weak by the committee and/or reviewers, or simply because there is no room after stronger submissions are programmed.
Even work that is ultimately rejected is not inherently “bad.” That said, as a journal editor, conference programmer, and journal reviewer I can assure you: there is work out there that is not good enough…yet. Certainly, if the underlying concept of a project is inherently flawed or even unethical, the peer review process should catch that and the author may not be able to salvage that work.
What is more common, however, are flaws in argumentation, structure, and adequate grounding in relevant literatures—these can be fixed with professional editing.
Not doing the basic work of making sure your project is theoretically grounded and features a clear, relevant, and necessary argument based in the relevant literatures will lead to a rejection. I recommend seeing the review criteria outlined here and making sure you do your own “pre-review” of your piece or ask a friend or trusted advisor to do so.
Quality for conferences can mean a lot of different things, though much of the above hold true for full paper submissions. For conferences that only accept abstracts, you have to demonstrate why your paper is an original, well-grounded, and programmable submission in a much smaller space.
As one conference programmer explained, “avoid the big preamble and state right up front what your main idea is. Tell us not just what you want to talk about, but why you think it’s important—and use (roughly) the full word allowance of the abstract.” In sum, don’t waste the words you are given, and use all the words you are given.
Although some conferences accept “works in progress” (particularly graduate student conferences), complete work is more likely to be programmed over vague statements and possible conclusions.
For some conferences, particularly in the humanities, your chances are higher if you submit as part of a pre-formed panel (this is less true for other kinds of conferences). These panels, however, are still assessed for quality, including cohesiveness of panel, fit with the conference audience and theme, and diversity of institutions, methods, topics, and panelists.
As many conference programmers confirmed to me, people without strong connections to the conference’s field tend to get a group of friends from the same institution together for a panel. On rare occasion these are programmed, but for most conferences (particularly ones with an international audience) this is too narrow an approach and such panels will lose out to ones that have broader reach. One programmer wrote, “I’d recommend grad students not be shy about reaching out (either directly or via a listserv or social media) to scholars elsewhere to build more representative panels.”
Panels and abstracts are also at times assessed in terms of the reputation of the panelists, which stems from experience standing in for the lack of detail these types of submissions include. Rest assured, even “big name scholars” still get rejected in these cases, but reputation does count here.
Every journal editor I have ever spoken to has said that the number-one reason they give desk rejects is fit (this is also true for book publishing). Every journals has a clear “aims and scope” statement on their website and if your work does not fall within that purview, an editor will not and should not send it out for review. One editor said very specifically, “new scholars need to know that it isn’t just important to be published in a high-profile journal….it is important to publish in journals that reflect their research agendas so that their work will find an audience.”
Do your research on potential venues by skimming the last year of issues, familiarize yourself with the formats and topics they accept, and research the journal editor (often journal editors publish statements on their plans for the journal). If you have done this and see a clear fit or but are not certain the journal editor will, a good cover letter can explain your reasoning.
Remember: journal editors are dealing with hundreds of submissions, not just yours, and if you have an idea that pushes boundaries, as one editor wrote, “that insight has to come from the author.” Fit, moreover, can also be demonstrated through adequate citations. If you are not citing work that reviewers for that specific journal will expect, they are likely to reject it. Your work needs to be in conversation with the fields that journal and its audience are engaged in.
As for conferences, all of them have their own culture that you need to be aware of before submitting. They also have their own rules about submission types, peer-review processes, and programming. Even within a conference, different sections, divisions, or interest groups often have their own processes.
Again, do your research: ask around to see if you know anyone who has presented at or programmed the conference, review recent programs, and thoroughly read the call for papers (CFP)—not just the format guidelines. If you aren’t sure which track, division, or interest group to submit to, you can always ask the conference programming chairs well in advance of any deadlines. DO NOT assume that if you submit to the wrong track, your submission will magically be forwarded to the right one. Similarly, if you don’t bother to follow instructions, do not assume you will be given the chance to fix your errors.
For big conferences, especially, failing to follow submission instructions will mean a desk reject so that programmers can focus their efforts on the hundreds or even thousands of pieces that were submitted correctly.
Even journals that publish regularly cannot publish everything submitted to them. Journal editors try to balance filling each issue with also not producing a massive unpublished backlog for the next editor. How big an issue can be is also shaped by whether a print version of the journal exists. Still, most journal rejections have more to do with quality and fit.
When it comes to special issues, however, editors are limited to a pre-determined length and number of articles as set out by the journal publisher. Special issues are a little more like conferences then, where your piece is assessed in relation to what else was submitted and the issue editor’s goals in terms of breadth of topics, approaches, and structure.
Similarly, conference programming is a zero-sum game. Every conference programmer I surveyed reiterated that they regularly have to reject quality work for very mundane reasons.
Conference acceptance rates have more to do with the practical space, time, and format limitations of the conference than it does with submission quality. The length of the conference and total number of sessions are usually set before the CFP is even published, as conference venues often have to be booked years in advance.
Conference organizers often want to showcase a diversity of topics, regions, approaches, and speakers while also including excellent work, and these goals can sometimes be at odds with each other. Every conference programmer ends up rejecting work that is good but simply does not fit, is edged out by work that was a little stronger, or is passed over for a similar paper/panel that is just a little more cohesive or original.
Of all the reasons work gets rejected, this one feels the hardest to accept. But much like the academic job market, sometimes things really do come down to luck. This might be the year the conference is in a particularly attractive and affordable location so everyone applies. You might have chosen a niche topic that a lot of great work happened to be about that year, making competition tougher. Or you picked something so niche that programmers have nowhere to logically program you.
And yes, you might have just gotten a bad reviewer or a reviewer on a bad day. Everyone gets the rare unhelpful, unconstructive feedback, at every stage of their career. For conferences especially, with quick turnaround times and high volume of submissions, you are likely to get not much detail (if any) on why a reviewer selected “accept” or “reject.”
Conference planners and journal editors do not have the time to take a deep dive into every paper and assess the quality of the reviews (though they do over time learn who produces good and bad reviews).
If you have two or more reviewers saying the same things, it’s pretty clear that there was a fit or quality issue in the piece as submitted—and you can fix that for next time. However, things are rarely that straightforward and the conference programmer or journal editor needs to make a decision in the time they have.
I’ll quote one colleague’s point about this here: “If you are seeking a perfect evaluation process, there is none to be had. Hopefully, it is random. And you can be outraged in the moment, but also realize that a single review for a conference is a drop in the bucket of your scholarly career. Use the experience to ensure that you become the best and most fair reviewer you can be.”
Can you push back?
First, as one journal editor and conference programmer wrote to me, “don’t assume you know why you were rejected unless that is the stated reason why you were rejected.” The one part of the review you zeroed in on might not have been the final deciding factor. It is not always about the content of the reviews, particularly for conferences.
Although complaining about reviews to friends can be cathartic, one snarky reviewer comment is generally not the reason you were rejected.
Some conferences do have a “rebuttal” system, where authors can respond to reviewer comments and a programming committee might change their decision (though there are never any guarantees). With journals, you are sometimes invited to revise and resubmit, and in your cover letter you can push back on reviewer feedback you felt was not useful. However, most of the time you just have to take the rejection and move on.
One journal editor friend advised that, before you complain to a journal editor about being rejected, trust that they have made their decision for a reason. If the decision is based on something clearly erroneous (e.g., a reviewer says X is totally wrong when you know it’s not), you can push back gently, but otherwise know that the editor weighed the pros and cons of accepting or rejecting and chose this.
The best way to respond to an editor is professionally—we all know that everyone does better or worse work, and most editors won’t judge you for a rejected paper but will judge you if fire back at them.
Similarly, it is very important to remember that all journal and conference peer review is unpaid labor that counts for next to nothing in tenure and promotion. Conference programmers, journal editors, and journal peer reviewers do this as unpaid service work on top of their own research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities.
The folks who have decided to take on these leadership roles are humans just like you, trying to do the best they can with limited time and resources. If you want the process to be “better,” then offer tangible suggestions to organizations, volunteer to program or edit a special issue, and/or be the best and most thoughtful reviewer you can be and teach your students to be the same. In general, think about the structural and not personal (i.e., that reviewer sucks) solutions.
Send it off again!
Given that there are lots of reasons even good work gets rejected, send it off to the next venue. As one colleague explained, “persistence pays off. A rejection today doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection tomorrow.” Another pointed out that “many things that are killed by one place will be adored by others.” And I’ve heard the same advice over and over again.
Have at least three journals/conferences lined up for each piece. If you didn’t get helpful reviews, you might only need to do minor reformatting to send it off again. If you did get helpful reviews, then you can make those edits if you think the next venue’s reviewers would likely ask for them.
In many cases, in narrow fields, the same reviewers will be asked to review it by the next conference or journal, so it can help to take on the major critiques before resubmitting. In the end, though, do not let rejected work linger on your hard drive, and remember that these decisions are not a comment on your value as a scholar or human being.
The only pieces I have ever given up on as an author are ones that were tangential to my research interests and reviewers’ comments demonstrated I would need to do more work than I was able to make them viable. For everything else, I found it a home eventually.