An editorial decision of “reject with option to resubmit” is inherently confusing, for inexperienced and seasoned authors alike. Has the paper been rejected? Should you revise and resubmit? To complicate matters further, for those journals that offer this option, a “reject with option to resubmit” can have very different meanings. In this blog, we examine the meaning(s) of this editorial decision and discuss why it is used.
Meaning 1: (Serious) major revisions
If the editor asks you to respond to the reviewers’ comments and gives you a deadline for the resubmission, you can assume the editor means “revise and resubmit,” but your paper will be treated as a new submission. But why not just say this? An editor may use “reject with option to resubmit” to mean “revise and resubmit” for a number of reasons:
To emphasize that the revisions required are (seriously) major, going well beyond what would typically be associated with a “major revision.” The editor wants to make it clear that the authors need to write a new paper, not simply enhance the original one.
To make it easier to reject the paper if the revisions/rebuttal are not convincing. The majority of “revise and resubmit” papers are eventually accepted. As commented on by Angela Cochran of the Scholarly Kitchen, “when editors, reviewers, and authors have put time into critiquing and improving a paper, it just seems downright unfair to reject the paper” [see here]. This results in editors somewhat reluctantly accepting papers that they consider only “passable” after many rounds of revision. Editors can avoid getting locked in such revision cycles with “reject with option to resubmit.”
To reduce pushback from authors. Authors receiving a “revise and resubmit” may be more likely to refute or ignore the editor’s comments. This can result in a long-drawn-out process that exhausts the authors, reviewers, and editor. “Reject with option to resubmit” indicates that ignored comments will likely be met with a rejection and any rebuttals must be concrete.
If the outcome of the revision is unpredictable. For example, the re-working may destroy the results and/or conclusions. If the editor cannot be sure that the recommended changes would bring the paper over the accept bar, they are likely to choose “reject with option to resubmit.”
To improve the journal’s submission-to-acceptance figures. This is a somewhat controversial point. Some scholars believe “reject with option to resubmit” is a sneaky way for journals to improve their statistics. The clock keeps ticking with “revise and resubmit” papers, often extending the submission-to-acceptance time by months. This is not the case for “reject with option to resubmit” papers [discussed here]. This may the case for a small minority of journals; however, it is far more likely that journals use “reject with option to resubmit” for the reasons outlined above.
Meaning 2: The editor does not want to see your paper again.
If the editor does not ask you describe the changes that have been made to the original paper and does not provide a deadline for resubmission, they likely do not want to see your paper again (unless it is essentially unrecognizable from the original). Editors often use this approach if they liked the concept but thought the execution was irredeemably poor. Additionally, an editor may choose this option if they not want to discourage early-career authors.
If you receive a “reject with option to resubmit” and do not agree with the recommended changes, you are free to submit the original paper to another journal. However, this is not without risks, particularly for specialist topics that have a small pool of reviewers. It is not uncommon for reviewers to be sent the same paper by different journals. As one economics scholar commented, “I had two experiences with reject and resubmit … which ended up in a rejection. In both cases, the editor sent the paper to the same reviewers who had made [up] their minds already” [see here].
You may be disheartened to receive a “reject with option to resubmit.” However, remember it gives you a fighting chance. As one scholar commented on Twitter, “I’ve had a couple of papers where they rejected because of reviewer comments that I actually could address, but the editor may not have known I could address (e.g., with other data). Wish I’d have gotten a reject and resubmit” [see here].