Is it worse to admit a paper was rejected than to not acknowledge helpful anonymous reviews?

Thanks to being on research leave this semester, I am currently working on several manuscripts. Most of these are manuscripts that we are preparing to submit for the first time, but one is a manuscript that was previously reviewed and rejected.

It’s always a bit painful to receive a rejection, but my first thought when reading through the four(!) reviews this manuscript received was that they were really thoughtful and would really help the paper. As I worked last week on editing the manuscript, I was struck by that same thought again: these reviews are really helpful. Which made me think: should we acknowledge these anonymous reviewers?

I’ve benefitted in the past from manuscripts that were originally rejected by one journal and greatly improved by the review process, as I wrote about in my post on a paper that resulted from my dissertation, which was rejected by Ecology and then published in American Naturalist. But, looking back at the acknowledgments section of that paper, it doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of the reviewers and editor from Ecology (nor, to my great embarrassment as I realize it now, those of Yannis Michalakis, the AmNat AE who was really helpful during the review process).

Are there reasons why I might not want to acknowledge those earlier reviewers? The main reason would seem to be concern about biasing the editor or reviewers at the next journal, if having them know that a paper was rejected from another journal will make it seem subpar. Does that happen? I have no idea. The optimist in me (who may be a Pollyanna) says that we all recognize that papers get rejected for lots of reasons. The realist in me says that everyone has biases (even if not everyone is aware of them), and that we don’t want to make our publishing lives any harder than they need to be.

Thinking about this from the perspective of a reviewer, I can’t recall ever seeing a manuscript acknowledge anonymous reviewers in the first submission I saw. I also have never been annoyed when, in reviewing a manuscript again for a second journal, the authors don’t acknowledge that it was submitted elsewhere first. Then again, I don’t get annoyed even if they don’t acknowledge anonymous reviewers in the published version.*

Rejection is a part of science. The main thing we can hope for is that the rejections are fair and provide helpful feedback. It’s unfortunate that the culture seems to be set up in a way that makes it unlikely for people to acknowledge them when they do. Right now, I’m not sure if I want to buck that trend.


*I’m especially unlikely to get annoyed because I’ve forgotten to add this line in myself, even when I’ve been truly grateful for the suggestions of reviewers. Others feel differently, though.

23 thoughts on “Is it worse to admit a paper was rejected than to not acknowledge helpful anonymous reviews?

  1. Nice post! To me, it sounds strange to acknowledge someone without a name. Not that it is a matter of revealing that the paper was previously rejected somewhere else, but to knowledge to anonymous does not give much important information. There is at least a group of journals (Frontiers) that publishes the name of the reviewers with the paper. That sounds very fair and makes the reviewing process more interesting.

  2. You raise an important point about credit for reviews, I think. How about a compromise in which you only add a sentence about “thanks to the anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this paper” once the manuscript is accepted for publication? If you add it to your final revised version then the editor probably won’t spot it anyway 🙂

  3. I’ve acknowledged anonymous reviewers when resubmitting rejected mss to a different journal. It never occurred to me not to, and I never worried that it would affect the fate of the ms. And as an editor and reviewer, I’m sure at some point I must’ve handled mss that acknowledged anonymous reviewers of previous versions; it didn’t affect my opinion at all. As you say, rejection is a part of science.

  4. You could wait until it is accepted and then acknowledge the referees on this and previous versions. No reason to diminish the chance of acceptance if you have a troglodyte editor. You do no one any harm by waiting until it is accepted.

  5. You mentioned your embarrassment about not acknowledging the AE at Am Nat. When I had a paper accepted there, I acknowledged the important contributions of the AE, but Am Nat removed that line before the proof stage, stating that it was against journal policy for authors to acknowledge journal editors. So even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t have been able to.

  6. I submitted a previously-rejected ms to a second journal, and put in an acknowledgement to the anonymous reviewers who saw it the first time, without it occurring to me that it might not be a great idea. One of the (new) reviewers did point it out, and asked something like ‘the acknowledgement makes it sound like the paper has been previously rejected elsewhere; why was it rejected?’ So I briefly explained the reasons for rejection, and what improvements had been made. This didn’t seem to dissuade the second journal from publishing the paper!

  7. I don’t know as it is important to include the term “anonymous” in the acknowledgements. Simply thanking “reviewers” is probably sufficient. And by omitting the term “anonymous” then you might obviate any potential bias for a resubmission, because the new batch of reviewers could aptly assume you are referring, perhaps, to colleagues in your department that kindly reviewed your work prior to submission.

  8. Like Jeremy, I’ve always acknowledged anonymous reviewers and never even thought about it impacting subsequent reviews (for all they know it was barely rejected from Science or Nature).

    Interesting little cultural tradition that appears not to have converged field-wide. I expect my habits came from my advisor? Interesting to think about how this could be a token for studying cultural evolution among ecologists.

  9. A couple of times I’ve reviewed a paper that clearly had been rejected from another journal, but the giveaway was the formatting of the paper. In once case, it was formatted in Science style (so, most of the methods in a separate appendix, numbered references, Science-style abstract, etc.). In another case, it was formatting in applied math journal style (so, lemmas, etc.) for Am Nat. In both cases, I didn’t hold it against the authors, but I did write them a note in the review saying (in so many words) that that’s not a good look and you ought to reformat your ms rather than effectively shouting from the rooftops “Hey, this ms was previously rejected and we haven’t bothered revising it before resubmitting!”

    • Getting a bit off topic, but are these not examples of where editors should exercise some quality control and ask the authors to resubmit in the correct format? That would certainly have been my response.

      • Only once in my career did I fail to reformat- & the response was, to say the least, biting. In short, I was told I had insulted the intelligence of the reviewers and completely wasted their time… and to not bother resubmitting even were I to reformat. That is a mistake that should occur only once in a career… .

      • Yes, I agree that editors ought to enforce their journal’s formatting requirements, and I believe many do. But given that they saw fit to send the ms out, I decided it wasn’t my job as a reviewer to tell the editor how strictly to enforce their own journal’s formatting requirements.

      • Is the failure to reformat with a new submission a marker for a general lack of attention to detail that could also have affected their data collection/management/analysis and ultimately results and interpretation? After all, we aren’t really privy to the quality of care of their data collection/management and much of their analysis. It makes me think of cover letters for jobs in many STEM companies. Any typo in the cover letter and it never makes it past HR. It just goes to the incinerator without further review.

      • Yes, I’d agree, that would be my interpretation of their lack of effort: if they can’t be bothered to get the basics right, can we trust them that the rest is up to scratch?

      • Well, the paper wherein this happened was data-heavy- a microarray study. I believe the scathing rebuke was likely in response to not reformatting some very complex figures. I assumed the editor was mostly peeved because there was no way on Earth the journal would consider such detailed and laborious edits their responsibility.

      • despite my comment above, I’d be more inclined to evaluate the paper on it’s merits and avoid over-analyzing or reading too much into the lack of reformatting. I just wanted to add my above comment because I think it does create reasonable boundaries for rejecting a mis-formatted paper before review.

      • @Jeff Walker:

        “Is the failure to reformat with a new submission a marker for a general lack of attention to detail that could also have affected their data collection/management/analysis and ultimately results and interpretation?”

        Personally, I find that line of reasoning too speculative to want to rely on it. Especially when there are alternative hypotheses that are also plausible. The ms is by a grad student who doesn’t know the ways of the field and didn’t realize that formatting could matter. The ms is by someone who’s very careful in their own science but can’t be bothered to worry about “trivial” details on non-scientific matters like formatting. Etc.

        Appealing as your line of reasoning sounds, it reminds me too much of the thinking of people who voted for George W. Bush for US President because he seemed like a good guy to have a beer with and had his heart in the right place. Or who didn’t like Bill Clinton as a President because he cheated on his wife, the inference being that he must be a “liar” and bad “decision maker” who shouldn’t be trusted to speak truthfully about policy, or to make good policy decisions. In my experience, people often are fairly compartmentalized. I’m uncomfortable assuming that someone who’s good in one respect is good in other respects, even seemingly-related respects. Or assuming that someone who’s bad in one respect (here, bad at obeying journal formatting requirements) is bad in other respects (here, bad at doing science).

        I mean, it would be one thing if someone had had a bunch of mss retracted for falsifying data or something. I’d never trust such a person’s data again. But in that case, I no longer trust someone to do X because they’ve repeatedly faked X. I’m reluctant to stop trusting someone to do X because they didn’t do Y. Even if X and Y are “related” in some loose way.

        EDIT: And now I see that Jeff replied to himself and said in one line what I just said in three paragraphs! Everybody just ignore me, I’ll be over here if you need me. [shuffles sheepishly away] 🙂

      • While you’re standing over there, Jeremy, consider this: have you ever reviewed a paper where the formatting was poor/inappropriate, but the science was great? I think there’s a strong correlation between the attention to detail paid in thinking about the experiments/observations/data, the analyses, and the interpretation on the one hand, and the quality of the presentation of the manuscript on the other. I’m not saying it’s perfect, for all the reasons you suggest and more, but for that reason I’d not allow a mis-formatted manuscript to go to review until the authors had taken a critical look at what they first submitted and re-formatted accordingly.

        I sometimes tell my undergraduates that I can predict the grade of their lab report based on how well they have constructed and formatted their reference section. I’m only half joking… 🙂

      • @jeffollerton:

        Don’t recall what I thought of the couple of inappropriately-formatted mss I’ve reviewed. Although I’m sure I’d have remembered if they were terrible. So no, in my admittedly-anecdotal, small-sample-sized experience, inappropriate formatting is not a predictor of whether the science is bad.

        In terms of poor, as opposed to inappropriate, formatting, I’ve reviewed numerous mss where the authors didn’t include line numbers (which you should do even if the journal doesn’t ask you to). But again, can’t recall any obvious correlation between pres/abs of line numbers and quality of the science.

        I wonder if perhaps you’re overgeneralizing from your experience with undergrads. I believe you when you say you can predict undergrad marks from their attention to detail on formatting. But at the level of professional scientists, I bet there’s a lot less variation in attention to formatting details, and what variation there is is probably less correlated with attributes that might predict the quality of one’s science.

        I’d say the same about, say, grammar and spelling. I can predict undergrad marks on science exams and term papers pretty well from the frequency of grammatical and spelling errors, even if I don’t include those in the mark. But at the professional level, grammatical and spelling errors are rarer and occur for other reasons, and so aren’t predictive of the quality of the science.

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