Accepting rejection with civility and grace

I have been editing the academic journal, Agriculture and Human Values, for 10 years. I get more than 400 submissions a year, and I publish between 40 and 50 articles each year. If you do the math, that means I reject far more papers than I accept (my acceptance rate is about 12%).

I know it is not easy receiving a rejection letter. As an academic with a responsibility to publish, I get rejection letters, too. I know the feeling a rejection creates. Your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Your chest tightens. You want to lash out at the naive editor who made the bad call or the idiot reviewers who are clearly ignorant of what ground-breaking research looks like. If a reason is given for the rejection, then you see only the flaws in its logic; you miss points of genuine concern. If no reason is given, then you get even madder because the rejection now seems arbitrary and without merit.

Occasionally I get a “lashing out” email from authors of papers I rejected. The writers are clearly writing out of emotion. Many of these express unkind things about the editor, the editorial process and the reviewers providing reviews. Fortunately, there is a delete button that safely handles these emails.

But on even rarer occasions I get an email from an author of a rejected paper thanking me for the opportunity to consider their work and expressing appreciation to the reviewers for their helpful comments and insights. Wow. How amazing it is to find someone who is civil and gracious in rejection!

I received such a message yesterday shortly after my sending the dreaded rejection letter. The writer said this: “Thank you for the thoughtful response regarding this manuscript submission. While I am disappointed at the final decision, I very much appreciate the care with which the reviewers considered the manuscript as well as your commentary regarding your decision.” The writer continued with a request that I let the reviewers know that the author was grateful for the comments and suggestions they provided.

It is encouraging to know that there are scholars of integrity out there, especially those who are able to see rejection for what it is–an opportunity to improve one’s research and to demonstrate that they are a person of character.

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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