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Advice LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Navigating Rejection: Strategies for Resilience and Growth in Academic Writing and Publishing

Erin Renee Wahl and Dr. Rene O. Guillaume on experiences of going through peer-review and how they cope with rejection and uncertainty through breaking down the basics of the process.

A tenure-track faculty member/University Archivist, Erin Renee Wahl, spends her days being tired and petting her dog Baozi. Wahl is a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied woman born and raised in a small rural farming community in the Midwest. At the time of writing, she has a dual identity as a mid-career librarian at New Mexico State University, and a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Administration at that same university. Her experiences and privilege affect the way she views and acts in the world, and she tries to remain mindful and vigilant about how these may affect those around her, and works to minimize harm.

Dr. Rene O. Guillaume is a faculty member in the School of Teacher Preparation, Administration, and Leadership in the College of Education. Prior to his faculty appointment, he worked in numerous student services roles, most recently serving as the Director for the TRiO Upward Bound Program. Rene’s research is guided by social justice philosophies, with a focus on the lived experiences of students, faculty, and staff in P-20 settings. His primary line of inquiry focuses on Faculty of Color. He currently serves as a faculty fellow for the New Mexico State University Teaching Academy where his workshops focus on mentoring new faculty and manuscript rejection.

The publication process can be brutal, especially to new researchers and BIPOC researchers. In some cases, our work is very personal to us. We spend time, energy, and anxiety on gathering information, putting it onto the page in article form, formatting it to fit a journal’s standards and sending it off into a space we are not fully a part of yet. When it returns, it has been weighed by unknown experts using criteria we may not even be aware of and we must begin to feel our feelings. It could have been accepted outright (uncommon), with some kind of revisions required (possible) or rejected outright (common). Each one of these results can be daunting. An acceptance is awesome, but can leave us concerned about whether or not there’s anything missing that the peer reviewers didn’t catch. None of us want to publish something that our field is not receptive to. Revisions can make you angry or sad, and rejections can make you feel utterly destroyed; like you don’t belong in the scholarly world at all.

Scholarly activity, particularly peer-reviewed manuscript writing, is an integral aspect of the professional life of academics. It serves as the foundation for advancement in the tenure process at research universities and comprehensive institutions. Engaging in scholarly writing comes with the possibility of getting either accepted or rejected, with rejection leading to feelings of shame and self-doubt. The experience of facing rejection for some creates feelings of imposter syndrome. 

In a paper by Guillaume, Cisneros, and Martinez (2020) “Manuscript Rejection and Shame Resilience in Early Career Faculty of Color,” it is evident that peer-reviewed manuscripts play a crucial role in the evaluation process for early career faculty, particularly in terms of promotion and tenure. However, Faculty of Color face unique challenges in their scholarly pursuits, with their research agendas and approaches often undermined within the academic community. This, combined with the stress of being on the tenure-track, intensifies the emotional burden experienced during the scholarly writing process.

In their study, Guillaume et al. shed light on the experiences of early career faculty of color facing manuscript rejections and the impact on their resilience. Addressing these challenges requires collective efforts from institutions and the scholarly community. This involves recognizing and valuing diverse research perspectives, providing mentorship, and tailored resources for early career faculty of color. Amplifying their voices and experiences in scholarly writing discourse fosters a more inclusive academic landscape. By celebrating their contributions and advancing their research agendas, we promote equity and resilience in academia.

Erin and Rene have created a flowchart to help provide more clarity on the process of publication, particularly in a peer-reviewed journal. Please feel free to print this out and share widely if it is useful to you. (Download the chart here.)

A chart showing the peer review process. 
1. Author submits their manuscript according to the guidelines outlined by their desired publication.
2. Author waits. Usually around 3-4 months. Sometimes up to 9-12 months. It often depends upon the discipline. Every article is unique, as is every journal, so a standard is hard to pin down.
3. Editor gets recommendations back from peer-reviewers and uses those as well as their own review, to make a decision on the article (accept, reject, revise, revise & resubmit).
4a. Based on the editor's decision, the author takes one of several paths.
4b. If reviewers differ too much an additional reviewer may enter the picture (which means more waiting).
5a. Revise: using the editor and reviewer's comments the author will revise their article, the editor will have you resubmit your revisions, and you go back to step 4a.
5b. If accepted: the author moves directly into the final publication process. = Most journals have a system regarding approving proofs, copyediting, and some paperwork. This will look different depending on the journal.
5c. Revise and resubmit: revisions that are expansive. The entire article may be changed. The article will undergo another full peer review process. = The author will get all of the editor and reviewers' comments regarding their article. They must decide to revise and resubmit or move on to another journal.
5d. Reject: This journal is not going to publish this article. = Congratulations! Now you know that your article is not the right fit for this journal. You get to move on to a journal that is more excited about your work. Even a rejection is a good thing sometimes.
The peer review process. Wahl & Guillame, 2023.

The following strategies can help you flip your perspective of rejection during the publication process. These are applicable for everyone, but we wanted to pay special attention to our BIPOC research colleagues within these bullet points as well. Eventually, we believe you will start to see these rejections as opportunities and challenges rather than defeats. 

Embracing Emotional Vulnerability & Creating Community 

Writing for publication, regardless of discipline, is fraught with emotion. When a completed manuscript is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, it is subject to blind peer-review. This process allows for reviewers to provide feedback and criticism in ways that may not always be considerate of the author as a human. Some may say this is “business, not personal”, but the truth is that we spend time and energy on our research. It is very personal to make the choice to pursue research and publication.

Understand the Process

Yes, this is easier said than done! One of the lightbulb moments in our careers came when we were familiar enough with the system to understand the process and stop seeing moments as positive or negative and instead see them as different milestones along the way to publication. This knowledge allowed us to take reviewer comments with a grain of salt, and move through the steps with intention, intelligence, and thoroughness. You can do this by talking to people in the field who have published, speaking to editors at conferences, and even speaking to folks outside of the library field to understand the ways that the publishing process is similar regardless of discipline. BIPOC scholars should intentionally seek out other BIPOC scholars to speak with about the process, as they will have a better understanding of how this process may be more difficult to navigate. Understanding the publication process can help you see each moment as an opportunity for growth and new scholarly adventures. 

Create Your Own Rules

Just as there is a certain amount of control we have to come to terms with in the publishing process, there is also the possibility of creating our own rules. In most cases, no one is forcing us to submit to certain journals or publishers or even to make the edits asked for. If you feel strongly about something you can create rules for yourself about how you will engage in the publishing process and whether or not you want to take reviewers’ suggestions. Maybe you want to focus on publishing in open access publications, or places that use an open peer review process. Maybe you prefer to prioritize interdisciplinary publications or like writing book chapters more than journal articles. The odds are good that you have some measure of control over how you engage with the act of publishing. 

Find the Helpers

There are always helpers around us, even for research and publishing. They may be colleagues or mentors. They may come from within our organizations, such as university Writing Centers who frequently look over faculty work in addition to student work. They may be organizations focused on this kind of help, like the Library Writing Cooperative which runs a program to match librarian writers with a reviewer to provide feedback on their work. Find the helpers that lift you up and make you feel welcome in research and publishing, not the ones that put you down (to be extra clear: those who justify their negativity by citing the harshness of the process do not actually have your best interest at heart. You need champions, not unduly harsh critics). 

Celebrate Every Milestone

You’ll notice we didn’t use “success” or “failure” here. You don’t need those terms anymore. You’ve already flipped your perspective and those don’t exist in the same way. Now these are all merely milestones on your way to a published paper. Celebrate each one in a way that is meaningful to you. Create a new ritual for yourself specifically around publishing.

We hope that as you move on from this article you feel more empowered as you go through the process of publication. Rest assured, you can reach publication. It may not look the way you thought it would in the beginning, but you can get there and even keep the majority of your sanity.

Supplemental Reading

Guillaume, R. & Apodaca, E. C. (2022). Early career faculty of color and promotion and tenure: The intersection of advancement in the academy and cultural taxation. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 25(4), 546–563. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2020.1718084 

Guillaume, R.,  Cisneros, J.,  & Martinez, E. (2020). Manuscript Rejection and Shame Resilience in Early Career Faculty of Color: Vignettes on Coping and Overcoming. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 19(5), 37–52.

Guillaume, R. (2021). The experiences of faculty of color in departments of educational leadership and administration: The role of emotional and social intelligence in navigating promotion and tenure to achieve the rank of associate professor. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 16(3), 200–225. https://doi.org/10.1177/1942775120902190

Photo by ali elliott on Unsplash

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own.

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