Beyond “Rejection”

2 December 2015, 1136 EST

The following is a guest post by Jeffrey C. Isaac, who is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere.

“I reject this paper.”

“I recommend that this paper be rejected.”

“I am sorry to inform you that your paper has been rejected for publication.”

Social practices are constituted in large part by the words we regularly use and the meanings these words typically convey. Political science is a social practice. And variations of the sentences above are commonly employed by political scientists in ways that shape what we do and who we are.

The first two sentences, and variations upon them, are probably among the most common statements to appear in manuscript reviews of all kinds. The third sentence is surely among the most common statement to appear in editorial letters. Since most journals have rather low acceptance rates, and many “top” journals have very low acceptance rates (5%? 10%? 15%?), this means that most political scientists who submit research for review are in receipt of letters containing words like these and sometimes including very little else. Rejection letters.

One of the most commonly used terms in political science is “rejection.” The use of this term is a disciplinary norm, and corresponding to this norm is the incorporation of the term “reject” as a standard means of classification and evaluation in editorial practices that have indeed been further institutionalized through standardized systems of electronic manuscript submission.

When I became editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics in 2009, one of the first things I did was to abolish the terms “rejection” and “reject” from our official lexicon and from all of my editorial communications.

“Desk reject” became “DNER” for “Do Not Externally Review.”

“Reject” became “Decline.”

Our electronic Editorial Manager system no longer classifies submissions in terms of “Acceptance” vs. “Rejection.” It classifies submissions in terms of “Acceptance” vs. “Decline.”

And every one of my editorial letters embeds these terms in a careful letter that attempts to be collegial, constructive, kind, and indeed grateful. I thank authors for their submission, and use words designed to strongly convey appreciation and encouragement.

I decline many article submissions. Indeed I decline almost all of our article submissions. But I “reject” none of them.

What’s the difference? It’s only a single word, right?

Wrong. And the wrong is indeed obvious to us in most spheres of life.

Imagine writing a note to a colleague inviting them to dinner. The colleague discusses the invitation with their spouse. “What do you think of this invitation?” The spouse responds: “I reject this invitation.” The colleague writes you back: “I have shared this idea with my spouse. They reject this invitation. Below is an account of the reasons why. On the basis of this recommendation, I am sorry to say that I must reject your invitation. Goodbye.”

Now, quite obviously, submitting a research paper for peer review to a professional journal is not the same as sending an invitation to a friendly colleague. The differences are very important. But are they as important as we unreflectively imagine them to be?

In both cases a request is being made to someone who is a colleague.

In the first, more “personal” case, the request is framed in the form of an “invitation.”

In the second, “scholarly” case, the request is a request to consider publishing a paper that a person has worked hard on and that means a lot to them.

In both cases, something is being proposed, and a decision is being made. In both cases, the decision involves consulting others. In both cases it is possible to say “yes” or “no” for very good reasons. The appropriate reasons will differ in each case. In the former case it might boil down to nothing more than “I don’t feel like seeing those people.” In the latter case, feelings would be insufficient, and appropriate reasons would involve notions such as “I think this article submission has serious weaknesses . . . “

Yet in both cases there is a kind of sharing and a decision about whether to accept or decline a kind of invitation.

Why is it rude, and indeed absurd, to say “I reject this” in one case, and perfectly reasonable, professional, and acceptable to say it in the other?

Even if one believes that in the case of scholarly submissions what is being judged, and thus decided, is veracity or truth or at least scientific contribution—as I surely do– why does it follow from this that the language of “rejection” is appropriate?

I submit that it is not appropriate. And that is why we have eliminated the language of “rejection” from our official communications. Here’s why:

  • The language of rejection is binary and it is dismissive. It says: “I register your request, and the answer is simply no. There’s nothing else to say. Goodbye. Go away.”
  • The language of rejection is imperious. It says: “You have asked for some time and space. Okay, I’ve looked at what you sent, and (maybe) others have too. But your work—and by extension you– are not now good enough to warrant any more time and space. I thus reject you now. This place, my place, the place that I control, is not for you. Go away. You can try again later if you like. But not now.”
  • And the language of rejection is ungracious. It says: “Okay, you’ve shared something, and I’ve looked at it like you asked. You’ve gotten what you wanted. And I’m not interested. Be gone.”

I do not reject papers. I decline to publish them. When I decline to publish a submission, I try to make clear that I am making not an absolute or “objective” determination about the quality of a submission, I am making a decision that the piece does not work well for our journal or does not satisfy our criteria. Of course I am relying heavily on the opinions and especially the evaluations of expert reviewers—and it is very important to note that I care much less about the “labels” reviewers affix to their recommendations than I do about the substance of what they say about the research. At the same time, I am owning the judgmental aspect of my action, and sincerely linking it to my sense of the particular domain I happen to be temporarily authorized to control. It is not about the author or even about her paper, so much as the fit between the paper and my journal and its criteria and review processes—which are organized by a very specific bunch of people and not by God.

This is a subtle difference, but it matters. For behind this is another idea about which I am very explicit: that the review process that I curate is part of a much broader process in which there are many other commentators, reviewers, and deciders, and that my decision to decline an offer to publish is not a dismissal of the piece, but a recommendation that the author further develop a piece or share it with other, more appropriate journals where there may be a better “fit.” In this sense, no decision of mine is a “No!” Rather, when I decline a piece, I am saying: “no thank you, not here and not now, and here are some ideas about how to move forward elsewhere.” In this respect, all decisions involve a “Yes!”–an affirmation of the value of the work, and of the author, and of the possibilities for further developments and other responses, and of the importance of ongoing inquiry and ongoing conversation. My goal is to help each and every author to experience a sense of the value of their work and to move their work forward, whether it be at Perspectives or one of the many other fine journals that exist.

Finally, by repudiating the language of rejection, I am enacting a kind of gratitude. Instead of the peremptory “no, sorry, goodbye,” I am saying “thank you for your offer to publish your paper here. I am sorry to say that I can’t accept the offer and I must decline the paper for our journal. But I appreciate that you shared your work, and I am glad that you value our journal, and I wish you all the best in moving your work forward.”

Of course, all of this is not entailed in a grammatical or logical sense by the mere substitution of “decline” for “reject.” At the same time, as I have indicated, our journal’s repudiation of the discourse of “rejection” is deliberately and explicitly linked to other ways that we communicate. The purpose of decision letters is not to say “yes” or “no.” It is to communicate honestly with every author in a way that is substantive and scholarly, and also collegial, constructive, and encouraging—which I take to be important scholarly values. And by communicating in such a way, we are fostering an intellectual community based on intellectual seriousness and mutual respect.

What would political science be like if we thought, and talked, in this way, about editorial decisions, and about scholarly communication more generally?