A Rejection Plan

Most scholars have a publication plan. For a given research project, they have a list of planned “deliverables”, specifying some number of articles to be published in specific journals. Collaborative research projects, too, have a such a plan, distributing responsibility for authoring and co-authoring a series of papers among members of the research group. On a still larger scale and over a longer term, departments and whole universities have goals defined in terms of a certain amount of publications in a certain set of journals. Researchers internalize these goals and make a plan for themselves for the coming year, five years, and so on. All of this is perfectly reasonable (or at least rational) in a time where publication has a such a decisive influence on the course of one’s career.

But a publication plan has the very important drawback that it is almost inevitably an overview of one’s coming failures. The most attractive journals are characterized by very high rejection rates. One cannot simply plan to be published in a good journal, just as one cannot just plan to make an important scientific discovery. One can hope to do these things, to be sure, but one cannot simply undertake to get oneself published. It’s not the sort of goal that a deliberate plan can help one to accomplish. Success is almost entirely out of one’s own hands.

For many years, therefore, I have argued that one should plan to submit work, not to publish it. Indeed, when I talk to department heads and university administrators I encourage them not to keep asking their faculty members what they have published, but what they have submitted. In this regard, I’ve compared myself to Moneyball‘s Billy Beane. A researcher who is regularly submitting work for publication is worth more to a department than one who occasionally publishes in a top journal.  (I’m happy to discuss exceptions here, but do note that the willingness to discuss what one knows is an important part of being a scholar. Those who rarely submit work for peer review are not really demonstrating this willingness.) A submission plan, moreover, is one you control yourself. While there are all manner of barriers to publication, no one can prevent you from submitting a paper when you have done your work as planned.

I recently had a conversation with an author that suggested an even more striking, perhaps even jarring, image. Make a rejection plan. That is, plan to have your papers rejected by three or four journals before it is published. Normalise the experience of rejection as something to be expected. Write your paper and submit to the best journal you think it is suitable for. But make sure you have a list of three or four other journals that it is also suitable for. When you get rejected, incorporate whatever criticism the rejection involved and send the paper on to another journal on the list. Don’t give up until the list is exhausted, but perhaps make sure that there’s always some kind of published end-game, even if it is merely making the paper available in an institutional repository. As Brad Pitt says in Moneyball, “It’s a process.”

Obviously, there will be exceptions. If a reviewer convinces you that your study is fundamentally flawed, you might decide not to waste anyone else’s time with it. But most people retain some confidence in their work, even after a reviewer has found shortcomings in it or an editor has deemed it a poor “match” for the journal. Our general attitude is that errors can be fixed and there are other fish in the sea (or perhaps other seas in which to swim).  It is rare that we learn from any one experience with a journal that our research is altogether worthless. In fact, I would argue that to take this as the lesson of any one rejection is always a mistake.

Here’s another interesting feature of this plan: when you get a “revise and resubmit”, you can decide whether the suggested revision is worth the effort when compared to making just a few minor changes and sending it to the next journal on your list. It lets you gauge the amount of effort you are willing to put into the next step.

But the most important reason to think in terms of a series of predictable rejections, rather than planning for publication in a particular journal, is that it forces you to write your paper for an audience that is more general than a particular journal’s reviewers and editors. In fact, it gets you to think in terms of your actual readers rather than the “gatekeepers” that stand in your way of reaching them. You will have to write a paper that, with minor adjustments, is relevant to one of several journals, all of which your peers (the members of your discipline) read and cite in the course of their own work. Perhaps ironically, writing the paper in this spirit–with no one particular journal in mind–will produce prose that is more authoritative, more objective, more “classic”. It is altogether likely that your reviewers will prefer a paper that wasn’t mainly written to “get past” the particular filter they happen to represent. It will have been written to accomplish something on the other side of it.

The author and I quickly agreed that this was a refreshing way to look at the publication problem. It recognizes that the most likely result of submitting to a journal (in which you’d like to be published) is rejection. It is altogether sanguine about this prospect. It increases the odds of publication by planning the next step after rejection already before this situation arises, a situation that can’t be taken to be “unfortunate” because it is so very probable. This both tempers the disappointment of rejection and increases the joy of  acceptance.  Unlike a publication plan, a rejection plan is not a list of planned failures. It is a plan for how to move forward after an entirely imaginable outcome occurs.

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