5 Tips to Avoid Academic Manuscript Rejection

Julia Barber, PharmD
6 min readAug 5, 2020

“We have decided not to publish your manuscript.”

The worst line an author can read. By the time you have submitted your manuscript to a journal, you have already invested a great deal of time and effort into your research.

The journal will often include a reason when notifying authors that their manuscript has been rejected. Rejection can occur for technical reasons (i.e., issues with the study design or statistical analysis) or editorial reasons (i.e., issues with the paper itself) (Ali, 2010; Common reasons for rejection, n.d.).

Elsevier rejects up to 50% of the manuscripts they receive before the peer-review stage, with the majority of cases due to poor language (Elsevier author, 2015). Other sources cite non-adherence to journal guidelines, failure to demonstrate a contribution or novel findings to the field of study, and formatting issues among the ways to get your manuscript tossed before peer-review (i.e., a desk-reject) (Moore, 2018; Billsberry, 2014).

It is usually difficult to address technical issues, as the solutions can require conducting more research or performing more statistical analyses. However, these issues can be addressed. In contrast, it is much easier to fix editorial issues, as the solutions usually involve choosing a more suitable journal, rewriting sections, or including additional information.

The best strategy is to avoid issues from the beginning. So, how do we prevent them from happening? As an editor, I am best equipped to address editorial issues. I will describe how to prevent and/or address these issues and what to do if rejection occurs.

5 items to consider in order to improve your chances of publication success

1. Check the journal requirements.

What types of articles does the journal publish? Some journals publish only case reports, while others allow submissions for all original research except case reports. What is the scope of the journal (i.e., what topics does the journal address)? What requirements does the journal have for submissions?

Many journals will specify details from the order and title of the manuscript sections to how p-values should be reported. This information is usually found on an “Instructions to Authors” or “Author Guidelines” page on the journal’s website. Below is an example of how this might look.

Instructions to Authors link on the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics homepage
Instructions to Authors page on the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics website

Other journals are less specific. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with the journal if their requirements are unclear. You can also review some recently published articles as examples of typical formatting for that journal.

2. Proofread the paper.

It can be difficult for editors to determine whether the content of a manuscript is appropriate for publication in their journal if there are language issues with the paper. Moreover, having a clear message goes beyond getting your manuscript accepted for publication, it helps other researchers or clinicians understand and implement your findings in further research and/or clinical practice.

If you proofread your own paper, leave time in between the day you finished writing and when you will begin proofreading. Taking a break will allow you to see the paper with fresh eyes. For a paper with multiple authors, it can be helpful to proofread each other’s sections and proofread the paper as a whole to catch inconsistencies (e.g., variances in abbreviations and technical term use). Inconsistencies are an easy way to cue an editor that you are not careful with your writing, which may cue them that you are not careful in your research (Elsevier author, 2015).

You can also have your paper proofread and edited by a professional editing service. This service can be especially helpful for authors for whom English is not their native language. As a medical editor myself, I am happy to explain more about this service. My contact information is listed below.

3. Get a trusted outside opinion.

Some papers are rejected because the explanations are unclear. As a researcher who is familiar with the intricacies of your study, it can be easy to forget small details or gloss over some methods or discussion of the results because it seems obvious to you.

However, what is obvious to the one who conducted the research is not obvious to a stranger who is reading your manuscript for the first time. Have someone else in your field or a related field who you trust will keep the content confidential to read through your manuscript and tell you if any explanations are ambiguous or incomplete.

4. Emphasize the uniqueness of your work.

Journals want to publish novel, cutting-edge findings. While academic journals of course desire to be a resource to disseminate knowledge and further technical fields, they also desire to maintain and increase their readership. If you can demonstrate the importance and uniqueness of your findings, you can certainly increase your chances of getting published.

You should demonstrate these qualities not only in the manuscript itself but also in the cover letter to the editor. Yes, you should write a cover letter. If you cannot discretely state what the study contributes to the field, you should question the value of your manuscript to the journal (Billsberry, 2014).

5. Choose the right reviewers.

This advice may not get you through the first round of consideration, but it will help you in the peer-review stage. Some journals require that you list the reviewers you would like to conduct the peer-review of your article. If given the chance, request individuals who are experts in the specific area of the main topic of your paper.

Individuals who are not experts in your field may falsely find issues with your methods or fail to note the nuances that make your paper unique and publish-worthy. Do not take this opportunity lightly.

Managing rejection of a manuscript

What do you do when a rejection occurs? It depends on the reason for rejection. If you have language issues or insufficient explanations, make substantial edits or hire a professional editing service. If you have formatting issues or failed to meet the journal’s requirements, read the author guidelines and ensure you meticulously follow the journal’s instructions.

In some cases, you simply need to choose a different journal due to scope issues or sheer competitiveness of getting published in that specific journal. You can also appeal the decision of the journal.

There are instances in which the manuscript may simply not be publishable because of ethical concerns or severely flawed methodology. While disheartening, these cases are an opportunity to take note of what can be done differently in future research.

If you have any questions or comments about publication rejection or success, I would enjoy hearing from you.

If you like the text you read above and would like to have the same editor review your work, contact me about my editing and proofreading services at PharmDEdits@gmail.com or message me on my Facebook page.

References

Ali, J. (2010). Manuscript rejection: causes and remedies. J Young Pharm, 2(1), 3–6. doi: 10.4103/0975–1483.62205

Billsberry, J. (2014). Desk-rejects: 10 top tips to avoid the cull. Journal of Management Education, 38(1), 3–9. doi: 10.1177/1052562913517209

Common reasons for rejection. (n.d.). Springer. Retrieved August 3, 2020 from https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/submitting-to-a-journal-and-peer-review/what-is-open-access/10285582

Elsevier author. (2015, April 12). 5 ways you can ensure your manuscript avoids the desk reject pile: looking at your submission through the eyes of a journal editor. Elsevier. Retrieved August 3, 2020 from https://www.elsevier.com/authors-update/story/publishing-tips/5-ways-you-can-ensure-your-manuscript-avoids-the-desk-reject-pile

Moore, A. (2018). “Desk-rejected” from your chosen journal? What next? Wiley. https://www.wiley.com/network/researchers/submission-and-navigating-peer-review/desk-rejected-from-your-chosen-journal-what-next

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Julia Barber, PharmD

I am a licensed pharmacist, medical editor, and medical writer. Follow me on IG @PharmDEdits and Facebook at Facebook.com/PharmDEdits.