“WHY WAS MY PAPER REJECTED?” NOTES FROM A FORMER SCIENTIFIC EDITOR
By: Caeul Lim
Introduction to the NIAID/DCR/CCRB laboratory team
The Collaborative Clinical Research Branch (CCRB) laboratory team within the Division of Clinical Research (DCR) at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infection Diseases (NIAID) is led by Dr. Katy Shaw-Saliba (Laboratory Research Scientist). The team includes Bonnie Dighero-Kemp (Scientific Program Manager), Mike Belson (Microbiologist), Dr. Aaron Neal (International Health Scientist, Indonesia Country Lead) and Dr. Caeul Lim (Research Scientist). All of the members have expansive expertise in laboratory operations, science, and clinical research.
The mission of the CCRB lab team is to provide laboratory expertise and support for science and operations associated with clinical trials and studies.
The team helps build laboratory and scientific capacity to accomplish high-level clinical research across various international sites and within the US, in collaboration with other laboratory groups at and outside of NIAID. This includes every aspect of the laboratory related to clinical research including laboratory setup, day-to-day operations, monitoring, protocol development and implementation, data interpretation and publication/dissemination of results. Day-to-day operations include excellence in good laboratory practices and excellence in all aspects necessary for cutting-edge clinical research including laboratory maintenance, assays, and biorepositories. The laboratory team is committed to development of areas of strategic interest in the government-to-government partnership. The team is also passionate about providing strong mentorship and support for scientists across all sites, including career development, scientific study design, and manuscript planning and writing.
The lab team is available to discuss and provide any guidance to promote rigorous clinical and basic studies, and we look forward to collaborating on developing sustainable and impactful clinical research capacity.
Understanding editorial rejections
Getting a rejection letter from a scientific journal after months if not years of hard work is probably one of the most frustrating yet common experience as a sci-entist. How could an editor evaluate the quality of my work in just a few days?
For over four years, I was a scientific editor at Cell Host & Microbe, a Cell Press journal that focuses on the interface of host and microbial interactions. In most papers I handled, I was the deliverer of bad news, rejecting the paper after editorial discussion – what we refer to as “desk rejection”. However, except for the handful of studies that are easily recognizable as lacking scientific rigor, editors are in fact not evaluating the “quality” of the study, per se. Rather, the job of the scientific editor is to identify studies that best fit their journal’s audience and scope. Many journals that are more selective and targeting a broader audience, including Cell Host & Microbe, also decide on how “impactful” a study is for a given field. (Figure 1)
In this post I’m hoping to share some insights from an editorial point of view on why papers are rejected. I should note that these insights would be most relevant when submitting to a broad-scope journal.
In my experience rejected papers usually do not fully meet the standards the journal editors have set in one or more of the factors described in Figure 1. Rejections often fall within specific patterns that are so common across journals and disciplines that my colleagues on another Cell Press journal, Matter, published an editorial outlining the four common types of rejections (Figure 2)  , which I’m briefly summarising here.
A paper is often rejected when the editors find that it effectively replicates and confirms a past finding, but with one component or parameter exchanged for another (for example, done in a different cell type, or a common immune function elicited by a different pathogen). Editors often ask, “how does this change the way we understand this phenomenon?”. If the substitution provides similar conclusions to prior work, this may be grounds for a desk rejection.
Incremental advance is somewhat a subjective measure, and it is not necessarily bad. After all, science progresses thanks to incremental steps. However, it is often the cause for rejection if the size of the incremental step is considered too small or narrow. For example, you have identified a specific phosphorylation site on protein X. But we already knew that phosphorylation of Protein X is essential for its function. Although it is important to know the exact residue, if this finding does not change what we already know about Protein X and its function, this finding may be seen as incremental, and not enough to elicit broad interest.
Editors often refer to this archetype as the “connecting the dots” paper. This paper may do an excellent job combining two already known findings, but the conclusions are, in a way, expected. For example, let’s say there is a therapeutic known to target a salmonella protein X. This protein is related to Protein Y found in E.coli. A study showing that this therapeutic is also efficient against E.coli by targeting protein Y may seem a bit obvious to the reader. (A+B = A+B).
Now, what would be interesting is if this therapeutic was not efficient against E.coli because of Protein Z that evolved to counteract it in e.coli (A+B = brand new C) !
Finally, this archetype goes back to “scope” and “audience”. Many journals of broad impact are looking for something that a lot of different researchers will find interesting. A study can be well done, novel and very interesting to the field, but still be rejected because editors just don’t think a lot of people will read it.
As you can see, a rejection is rarely a reflection of the quality of your work. It is often a matter of whether the journal you submitted to, was the right fit for your study. Other journals also publish editorials explaining their decision making process (e.g., ).
As researchers, we can’t avoid all rejections. But we can avoid some unnecessary ones by 1) choosing the right fit and 2) highlighting the significance of our work through clearly written cover letters and abstracts – topics that I would love to cover in future newsletters!
- Chin, S.M. and S.W. Cranford, 4 Archetype Rea-sons for Editorial Rejection. Matter, 2020. 2(1): p.4- 6.
- Overcoming the Myths of the Review Process and Getting Your Paper Ready for Publication. The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, 2014. 5(5): p. 896-899.
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