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.