Journal editors are people, just like the researchers who submit their work for publication. People make mistakes. Journal editors often fail to correctly forecast the impact of a paper submitted for publication, and they often reject submissions that end up well received when eventually published. As a journal editor myself, I get the occasional opportunity to ponder my own potential for poor clairvoyance when I reject a paper submitted to the journal I edit. Hopefully, the decisions I make are at least reasonable if not always correct, but I am sure I have made a mistake or two in my editing days.
I have been on the other side of the decision, of course, and I have had several papers rejected. Some of those have turned out to be quite impactful once published, as gauged by citation counts. For instance, two of my papers on mediation analysis coauthored with Kristopher Preacher were rejected by at least one journal before publication. Preacher and Hayes (2004) was originally submitted to Journal of Applied Psychology but rejected after an invited revision before it was resubmitted and eventually published in Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers. Preacher and Hayes (2008), our follow-up to the 2004 paper, was rejected by Multivariate Behavioral Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Organizational Research Methods before being published by Behavior Research Methods. Both of these articles are now more often cited than almost every methodology article published this century, and much more cited than the vast majority of the papers published in those journals that rejected them.
More recently, I wrote a paper describing some of the uses of PROCESS, a tool for SPSS and SAS that I use in courses I teach at my university, for Statistical Horizons, and at other workshops I offer. This paper was rejected by Behavior Research Methods—the very journal that published the two papers just mentioned that other journals were not willing to publish! This rejected paper now sits unpublished as a white paper, which you can obtain by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I currently have no plans to pursue its publication given that I now have written a whole book revolving around PROCESS. In the meantime, this white paper is getting cited at a decent clip in spite of being rejected.
I write this story neither to flaunt my successes nor to question the judgment of some editors who made tremendous professional sacrifices when they took charge of a journal. Indeed, I am sure that they would stand by their decisions, and I acknowledge that there are many factors other than quality that determine whether a paper is accepted (such as fit to the journal’s mission, the editor’s publishing vision, the ratio of length to value, and so forth). Rather, I hope (and believe) that hearing about the failures of others—failures that have turned into successes—can provide some inspiration and long term context when you open a long -awaited email from a journal editor only to find that the news is bad. If my own experiences fail to do that, perhaps two studies I recently stumbled across will. Both are published in the Journal of American Society for Information Science and Technology (click here and here), they describe and document the publication and peer review experiences of the authors of some of the most impactful papers. Their results show that some of the best scientists experience frustrations getting their ideas accepted and dealing with the peer review process, and that some of the most highly cited papers were rejected at first.
So keep at it. As I state in Chapter 1 of my book Introduction to Mediation, Moderation, and Conditional Process Analysis, resilience to rejection combined with perseverance often does lead to success.