Once you've submitted your paper to a journal, you have to wait to hear a response. Sometimes, your paper will be rejected. If that happens, what should you do next?
Consider the feedback
When your paper gets rejected, you'll usually receive feedback on why. Typically, you will either get a rejection from an editor, explaining why the paper is not appropriate for the journal that you submitted to. Or, your paper will be sent to one or more peer reviewers who will read over your paper and offer comments to the editor. The reviewers can recommend that an editor rejects the paper if they do not feel that it is up to standard or if it needs more work. In either case, you'll likely get feedback from the editor or from reviewers on exactly why they are rejecting the paper. Some of the most common reasons for a paper to be rejected are that the topic is not suited to the journal that you have submitted to, that the paper does not add to the existing body of knowledge in your field, or that your methods or data analysis techniques are not appropriate to give reliable information about the topic at hand.
Whatever the reasons, make sure that you read the feedback in depth and reflect on it. Even if you don't agree with the feedback, it's still important to understand why someone else might have thought that. Once you are clear on what the issue with your paper is, you can start working on making it better.
See if you can submit again
Some journals will allow you to submit your paper again after it has been rejected, as long as you have made substantive changes to it. Other journals discourage resubmission after rejection, on the basis that the editor or reviewers have already seen enough of your work to judge whether it will be an appropriate paper for the journal in questions. Check on the website of the journal or look in the letter you received from the editor to see whether resubmission is possible. If it is possible to resubmit to the same journal, you need only make corrections to the issues raised in your feedback, then you can try submitting again.
Or look for a new journal to submit to
Alternatively, you can find a new journal to submit your paper to. If you started off submitting to a very high ranked and prominent journal, then you may want to aim for a mid-tier journal for your second submission. Some researchers like to submit to journals with as high an impact factor as possible, and if they get rejected by the top journal then to move on to the second top journal, and so on. This maximises the impact factor that you will be able to achieve with your paper, however, this process takes an extremely long time and can be demoralising. This is why aiming slightly lower for a mid-tier journal can be preferable, as your paper is more likely to be accepted and the submission process won't drag on for months or even years.
Leave time for reformatting
Don't forget that submitting a paper to a new journal is a time-intensive process. Even if your paper was finalised and submitted to another journal when you send it to a new journal you'll still have lots of work to do. The new journal will probably have new formatting requirements and possibly you'll need to reformat your references too. Plus, there may be a different total word count that you need to adhere to. You might even consider changing the focus of the paper slightly to better match the interests of the new journal you are submitting to. All of this takes a lot of time and effort, so be prepared to take some weeks or months in between being rejected from one journal and submitting to another.
Don't give up
It's dispiriting to have a paper rejected from a journal, especially when it's a paper that you've worked hard on and are proud of. But remember that a rejection doesn't mean that the paper was bad, only that it wasn't suited to this journal at this time. Plenty of factors affect whether a paper will be accepted in addition to the quality of the paper, such as how well it fits the journal's topic, whether the editor and reviewers you are assigned share your research interests and values, and pure old luck. Keep trying and your paper will find a home soon.
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