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Journal papers, grants, jobs … as rejections pile up, it’s not enough to tell academics to ‘suck it up’

Most academics regularly submit papers and compete for grants and promotions. These endeavours are necessary for their success but often end in rejection.

Responses to rejection in academia have typically been individually focused. Most discussions of the topic describe what academics themselves can do to cope with rejection.

For example, in a watershed tweet in 2017, Nick Hopwood posted a picture of his office wall papered with rejection letters. Academics were encouraged to celebrate rather than commiserate rejection, spawning the #NormaliseRejection hashtag.

Read more: Please reject me: a survivor's guide to 'publish or perish'

But, as we explored in our recent paper, persistent rejection is problematic, and focusing on the individual academic is not the whole solution.

Just how toxic is the rejection culture?

Academics’ careers are strongly linked to their success in publishing and funding applications. Unfortunately, rejection rates are high, ranging from 50% in general journals to 92% in prestigious outlets like Nature. The Conversation, too, rejects most submissions.

Read more: A guide to how we decide what to publish in Politics and Society

Such high levels of rejection have three adverse consequences.

First, it squanders a valuable opportunity for professional learning and development. Learning sciences show clearly described success criteria and constructive, task-specific feedback promote effective learning and development. Yet these are lacking in many decisions on publication or grant submissions.

In our teaching of students, we adopt this nuanced, incremental and developmental approach because it improves learning. In contrast, academic publication or funding decisions can be binary: submissions are rejected or accepted, with little or nothing in between. What’s missed in the process is a powerful learning and developmental opportunity for the academics whose work has presumably been assessed and evaluated.

Second, it wastes an inordinate amount of academics’ time, contributing to their well-documented excessive workload. One study showed that for one round of a funding scheme in Australia researchers altogether spent more than 500 years of their time preparing proposals. Most of their proposals did not get funded.

Third, rejection culture on top of excessive workloads contributes to stress and anxiety among academics. Mental health issues have significant impacts on their work satisfaction, productivity and general well-being.

Mental health problems among academics are already at an all-time high. These problems occur at twice the rate of the general population, an incidence higher even than among police or medical staff.

woman with head in hands is distressed by what she has just read on her laptop
Rejection culture is a factor in the high rates of mental health problems among academics. fizkes/Shutterstock

Read more: More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before

This is what institutions can do

Most papers on academic rejection focus on how the individual can improve their response – the so-called “suck it up” response. We argue, in contrast, that systemic or institutional responses can reduce the toxicity of the culture. Our recommendations for change fall into three main categories.

First, make success criteria clear prior to applications and provide timely and targeted feedback afterwards. The opportunity costs of applying for grants, funding and publications – time and effort that could have been invested in something else – would then be minimised.

This approach could involve pre-submission quality assessments. This can involve communities of academics assessing the quality of manuscripts before they are submitted for publication; journal editors would then only expend resources on the ones most likely to succeed. This would ensure academics pursue only submissions that are most likely to succeed.

When funders and editors approach researchers directly and “commission” proposals, that greatly reduces the opportunity costs. The MacArthur Foundation, for example, now commonly does this.

Second, the process of publication can be improved in several ways. For a start, editors can reduce the number of submissions forwarded for peer review.

Researchers have studied the benefits of providing authors with prompt decisions and specific feedback aimed at improving chances of future publication. When the submissions review history is included too, it ensures the incremental improvements from feedback are not wasted. Future reviewers also appreciate this as it avoids the problem of different reviewers rejecting for conflicting reasons.

Read more: Peer review has some problems – but the science community is working on it

Third, prioritising the mental health of academics at an institutional level will lessen the impacts of the rejection culture. Institutions can and should provide awards that recognise performance in writing and research – independent of publication metrics – ideally without any time-consuming application process.

Read more: Unis want research shared widely. So why don't they properly back academics to do it?

Institutions can also take steps to maximise mentorship and collaboration among academics. The recruitment of peer mentors enhances professional learning, research productivity and community and social connection.

Some journals have already successfully adopted initiatives that involve the recruitment of peer mentors to journal editorial teams who, like peer reviewers, volunteer their time to work collaboratively with authors to improve their manuscripts for publication.

To maximise the benefits to society from the academy’s pursuit and dissemination of new knowledge, academics need to function at their best. The current culture of rejection doesn’t help them do this.

There is little point in relying on academics to just suck it up or celebrate their failure – institutions need to play their part. A cultural problem requires a cultural solution.

Read more: 2020 locked in shift to open access publishing, but Australia is lagging

Clarification: An embedded tweet seeking to comfort academics whose work has been rejected by publishers depicts a supposed Einstein rejection letter, which is a fake. As embedded tweets lack explanatory captions, it has been removed from the article.

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