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Ilana Gershon asked nine anthropologists for their approaches to the many daunting tasks of publishing an article in a journal, based on questions generated by Sandhya Narayanan. This installment explores the following question:

How do you react to a piece that has been rejected? Do you burst into tears, curl up into a ball, fume at the editor and reviewers, get back to the drawing board? The possibilities are endless.

Deborah Gewertz: When this did happen, I reacted with disbelief, tinged with anger. Over the course of my career, I’ve generally received, and still receive, revise and resubmits. I have rarely (maybe three times), received an outright acceptance. Reviewers—including me—often feel that it is their job to find enough wrong with a piece to recommend some changes.

Jason Jackson: Rejection is discouraging but I also see it regularly leads to better outcomes in terms of appearance in a more appropriate venue and improvements made to the manuscript. Earlier in my career, before becoming accustomed to the process, I received negative responses (one a desk rejection, one a revise and resubmit that I felt made excessive demands) from editors that left me discouraged. In both cases, I came to realize that the spirit of the then-current editorship was part of the story. We often talk about needing to closely align a submission with the previous work done by the journal, its scope, and so on, and this is true, but it is also the case that (new) editors often want to put their own stamp on a journal. This can lead to you submitting a paper that would have been warmly welcomed two years ago but that now receives a cool response. With experience it become possible to anticipate some of this. For me, both of those early papers went on to be published in quite appropriate journals and I learned from the experience. I save my authorial outrage now for being plagiarized.

Daniel Monterescu: I move on and try not to look back. I use the comments I found helpful to improve the manuscript and submit elsewhere. There is a lid for every pot. Once you are involved in the review process as an editor or reviewer, or when you submit the same text to different journals, it’s easier to come to terms with the arbitrariness of the publication process. It reflects an institutional logic and an element of chance that are both beyond our control, which makes it easier to deal with.

Carolyn Rouse: Rejection is hard. After picking yourself up off the ground, it is time to figure out if 1) perhaps your argument is not as strong as you imagined and perhaps not well-supported by the data, 2) argument clarity is lost because of poor structure, 3) you are trying to make too many arguments, or 4) you sent it to the wrong journal. And certainly, some reviews need to be ignored or you can respond to the criticism in a rewrite for another journal. The best revenge is an excellent challenge to a poor review.

Janelle Taylor: All of the above? But I am trying to learn from the good example of the medical folks with whom I have been collaborating in recent years, they are tough as nails and they just turn right around and resubmit somewhere else, the next day.

Matt Tomlinson: I vent to friends and family for as long as they can stand it. Then I consider what other journals might be better submission sites. Or I consider breaking the article up into different bits that can be used productively in other works.

Claire Wendland: This has evolved over the years.

Fuming is an excellent start. I imagine the reviewers as crusty old gentlemen-scholar types who have never waited tables or tended bar and who fail to understand my scrappy feminist state-school genius! Then I think about where the piece might better fit and get back to work.

My faculty mentor suggested that I never submit a manuscript to a journal without having the second and third journal possibilities already clearly laid out. That’s been really helpful.

Jessica Winegar: I take time to embrace my emotional response. With a rejection, this can be longer—months, even. Then I go back to the drawing board.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: Frankly, I usually just send it out to another journal within 24 hours. Unless there’s something in the peer reviews that is really critical to rewriting the piece, I’ve found that working through the peer reviews for a journal that rejected the piece is largely a waste of time. If it’s just going to be sent out by another editor, there’s going to be a new set of reviews with their own concerns (which might counterpoise the old reviews).

That was a hard-learned process and in the past I spent way too long revising manuscripts that were rejected before sending them elsewhere only to receive even more reviews to work through. I’m sure I learned a lot in the process of working through those revisions, and that it has sped up the time-of-submission to time-of-acceptance for later articles. But most of what I learned is that a rejection is usually not about the content of the article but its fit at a particular journal with a specific set of readers.

In terms of incorporating peer review feedback, there’s one piece in particular that I always think about in relation to this kind of question. A reviewer asked that I engage with an author that I didn’t think was particularly germane to the argument. I did, but placed the discussion in an endnote. It went back to that reviewer and they were pretty insistent that the discussion should be in the body of the article, which it now is. It sticks out to me, and I imagine that it does for other readers too, but maybe not. Over time, I’ve really come to understand that my relationship to peer review has changed. In the beginning, peer review was really instructional for me and helped to learn how to write better articles, steered me toward literatures I didn’t know, and made me more explicit in my claims. But now a lot of my engagement with peer review might be better thought of as negotiating compromises. It’s not so much that peer reviewers surprise me anymore but that I need to find a way to move between my plans for the piece and the needs of readers.

Credit: Joanna Kosinska
Photograph of two pencils

Deborah Gewertz is the G. Henry Whitcomb Professor at Amherst College and has been an associate editor of American EthnologistEthnos and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.  

Jason Jackson is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at Indiana University, and the editor of Museum Anthropology Review

Daniel Monterescu is associate professor of urban anthropology at Central European University. 

Carolyn Rouse is chair of the anthropology department at Princeton University. 

Janelle Taylor is a professor at University of Toronto. 

Matt Tomlinson is an associate professor at Australian National University. 

Claire Wendland is a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  

Jessica Winegar is a professor at Northwestern and editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. 

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an associate professor at SUNY-Binghamton. 


Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her most recent monograph is on corporate hiring in the United States—Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Cite as

Gershon, Ilana. 2021. “Handling Rejection.” Anthropology News website, August 27, 2021.