Almost every scholar has had a paper rejected. Journal acceptance rates are typically low, ranging from 5% for higher impact journals (e.g., The Lancet) to 69% for “pay-to-publish” open access journals (e.g., PLoS ONE), whose criteria exclude the perceived importance of the paper. However, most rejected papers ultimately go on to be published [see 1 and 2]. In this blog, we discuss what your options are if your paper is rejected and which is the path of least resistance to getting published.
You can appeal the decision
You should only use this option if you have unquestionable reasons for doing so.
If your paper was rejected for reasons related to the journal’s specific agenda—e.g., your paper is outside the scope of the journal, the journal recently published a similar paper or has a similar paper in their pipeline, the editor/reviewer believe your paper is of limited impact relative to other submissions, etc.—it is unlikely your appeal will succeed. Most journals do not have the capacity to publish every paper submitted to them and must reject many scientifically sound papers to prevent backlogs.
If your paper was rejected based on technical issues raised by the reviewers that you are certain are invalid, you can appeal. Present your argument as explicitly as possible, without repeating what was written in the original manuscript. Add new data to support your argument, if applicable. Revise the text in the manuscript to make your argument clearer, if applicable. If a reviewer misunderstood your point, it is likely a reader will also struggle. If you believe the reviewer is not competent enough to review your paper, politely and diplomatically request another referee be invited.
If you have clear evidence of unethical behaviour by the referee—e.g., conflict of interest, bias [see 3 for an example of sexism in a peer review report]—you can appeal.
It is your right as an author to appeal. However, there are a few important things to remember:
- Appeals are rarely successful.
- Appeals are given lower priority than new submissions, so it may take several weeks, if not longer , for a decision to be made.
- Editors are busy people and you could be blacklisted as “difficult” by appealing their decision. This may be especially true if your appeal is later found to have been unsubstantiated.
- If you decide to appeal, see  for an excellent list of do’s and dont’s.
You can transfer your submission to another journal
Some journals offer “portable peer-review”, whereby if your paper is rejected you can request your manuscript files, metadata, peer-review reports (along with reviewer identities, subject to agreement), and rebuttal letter be sent to another journal. Assuming the new journal is a better fit, this is a considerably faster route to publication compared to a fresh submission to another journal. This is also advantageous if you are concerned about ownership of any discoveries, as the original submission date is typically used, rather than the transfer date .
Your transfer journal options may be limited, however, as many journal do not offer portable peer review, and those that do, often only transfer to other journals by the same publisher (e.g., BMC). However, portable peer review may be on the rise, given the formation of the Life Science Alliance  and the announcement by BMC Biology that it will now allow authors to transfer to any journal of their choosing, including those outside of BMC and Springer Nature .
You may be concerned about transferring all the details of a previous rejection to an editor [as speculated by Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham in a Times Higher Education report 9], especially as you are not required to do so for fresh submissions. In fact, this misconception may be the reason for the poor uptake of portable peer-review by the scientific community. However, editors are typically “pleased to receive a manuscript that has been previously reviewed and revised because the paper is usually in better shape overall: more concise and clear” .
You can submit to another journal
This is the most common response to rejection; in fact, many authors opt for an “aim high, then drop if rejected” strategy, presumably unconcerned by the potential time delays . To increase your chances of success, you should target a more suitable journal based on the initial reviewer/editor comments. As mentioned above, often scientifically sound papers are rejected for reasons related to the study’s perceived impact, e.g., if the paper is only a minor extension of a previous study. A lower tier or specialised journal is more likely to publish such studies. It is relatively rare to find a paper that is so fundamentally flawed it cannot be published anywhere . For tips on choosing a journal, see our video blog How to choose a journal.
It is crucial that you amend your paper according to the reviewers’ comments where possible before submitting elsewhere, as there is a considerable chance that your paper could be sent to the same reviewers.
You can submit to a preprint server
Criteria for posting on a preprint server are much less restrictive; papers are only subject to a basic screening. Posting is free and fast, with papers typically accepted within 48 hours. Your paper will not be peer reviewed; other scholars can (openly or privately) comment on the content of an article after it has been posted. Authors typically submit to preprint servers prior to formal submission to a journal; however, you can upload any paper, even those that have been through peer review. Your preprint will be assigned a DOI, which formally date-stamps any claims or ideas made in your article and enables the indexing of preprints in databases such as Google Scholar and CrossRef.
- The Grigorieff Lab. The Paper Rejection Repository. Available from: http://grigoriefflab.janelia.org/rejections [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Duffy M. First cut results of poll on manuscript rejections: we deal with a lot of rejection. Dynamic Ecology. Available from: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/03/27/first-cut-results-of-poll-on-manuscript-rejections-we-deal-with-a-lot-of-rejection/ [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Bernstein R. PLOS ONE ousts reviewer, editor after sexist peer-review storm. Science. 2015 May 1. Available from: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/05/plos-one-ousts-reviewer-editor-after-sexist-peer-review-storm [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- When to dispute a decision. Available from: https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/submitting-to-a-journal-and-peer-review/when-to-dispute-a-decision/10285586 [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Doerr A. How to write an appeal letter. Methagora Blog Nature Methods. Available from: http://blogs.nature.com/methagora/2013/09/how-to-write-an-appeal-letter.html [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- JMIR Publications. Why has my article been transferred to another journal (or a transfer has been suggested), and what are my options? Available from: https://support.jmir.org/hc/en-us/articles/115002462188-Why-has-my-article-been-transferred-to-another-journal-or-a-transfer-has-been-suggested-and-what-are-my-options- [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Kießling T. Publishing alliance comes of age. EMBO. Available from: https://www.embo.org/news/articles/2019/publishing-alliance-comes-of-age [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Bell GP, Kvajo M. Tackling waste in publishing through portable peer review. BMC Biol. 2018;16:146. Available from: https://bmcbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12915-018-0619-z [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Pells R. Journal shares peer reviews of rejected papers with rival titles. Times Higher Education. 2019 Jan 2. Available from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/journal-shares-peer-reviews-rejected-papers-rival-titles [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Sullivan GM. What to do when your paper is rejected. J Grad Med Educ. 2015 Mar;7(1):1–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4507896/ [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].
- Durso TW. Editors’ advice to rejected authors: Just try, try again. The Scientist. 1997. 11:13. Available from: https://www.the-scientist.com/profession/editors-advice-to-rejected-authors-just-try-try-again-57323 [Accessed 5 Sept. 2019].