When to give up on a paper
Following the publication of the post on where to submit your paper, someone asked, “How do you know when it’s time to give up on a paper?”
This is a really hard question. We put a lot of work into our papers (I’m assuming in this post that it is a completed paper) and, despite the theoretical wisdom of “Ignore sunk costs”, it’s difficult to let go of months or years of hard work no matter how bleak things look. But there’s also no magic number of rejections beyond which it’s clear that you should just give up. Here are my two cents on how to make the decision.
First, here’s a clever trick I use to make “giving up” on a paper easier psychologically — I have never permanently given up on a paper. But I do have four papers and a lot of never-made-it-to-paper-stage-projects “on the back burner”. I haven’t worked on them for years and don’t plan on doing so unless I have nothing better to do. In other words, instead of asking the hard question of “Should I never try to publish this paper again?”, ask the easier question of “Should I prioritize other projects over this paper for now?” I always have the option to pull papers out of the “back burner” folder, but lo and behold, I keep having better projects to work on and don’t think much about the archived ones.
Of course, that still leaves the question of “Should I prioritize other projects over this paper?” open. I’ll discuss three related cases where this question becomes relevant and offer some general guidance for how to decide.
#1 Your paper has gotten rejected multiple (let’s say at least five) times for roughly the same reason, you don’t think you can do anything to address that shortcoming, and you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. If that reason is “this paper isn’t making enough of a contribution” AND you’ve revised your introduction substantially in between submissions to make the best possible case for your contribution, this may be a sign that it’s time to drop down a tier (though see some discussion below on when this is a good idea). At the same time, the contribution of a paper is hugely subjective. If the only thing reviewers find wrong with your paper is the contribution, then trying another journal within the same tier is fairly low-cost, assuming your contribution is actually within the realm of what gets published by the tier of journals you’ve been submitting to. Here, talking senior colleagues is especially helpful.
If the reason your paper keeps getting rejected is something related to the paper’s data/methodology — for example, no one believes your instrument, no matter how many robustness or placebo tests you’ve added — then dropping down a tier is also an option, but is less likely to be a successful strategy. I came close to giving up on a paper because no one seemed to like the IV. I ultimately decided to keep trying though because (a) a lot of the rejections were desk rejections, allowing me to re-submit without revising (since there was no real feedback given) and (b) I believed in the instrument myself and thought we made a good case for it. After six rejections, the paper was published.
By contrast, if your paper is getting rejected for diverse reasons, it is probably good to keep trying (though in that case I would recommend taking a close look at the writing to make sure your exposition is clear).
#2 You feel that your paper would only be publishable if you dropped to a tier of journals where your current colleagues generally don’t publish, you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. (Presumably, you think you need to drop down a tier because of numerous rejections. Otherwise, perhaps you are underestimating your paper!) For better or worse, publishing in a journal that your department really looks down on is sometimes viewed as a negative. So, if you otherwise have a good chance of getting tenure at your department (and want to get tenure at your department), you may want to put the project down and move on to something else. Two of my archived papers were archived for this reason.
#3 It looks like the path to publication in an acceptable-tier journal would be painful and you have other, more promising, projects/ideas. Maybe your case is not as extreme as the two cases above: you’ve had 3–4 rejections, you feel like you may have a shot at an acceptable but not stellar journal tier but, given the feedback you’ve gotten so far, you have a gut feeling that it would be painful for various reasons. Maybe a ref said the paper is not well-written and after taking a close look, you realize that the ref is right and that the whole paper needs an overhaul (I speak from experience). Maybe you have your own misgivings about the methodology/data and feel like an overhaul there is warranted. If you have other great projects in the pipeline with a lower cost-benefit ratio, by all means feel free to prioritize them. No one said you have to publish every paper you write.
Yes, I put “you have other, more promising, projects/ideas” in every entry on purpose. If you don’t have any other projects or ideas that have a reasonable shot at publishing at the same tier or higher than what you’ve been submitting to, then keep working on publishing the paper, even if it means a major overhaul. Use the suggestions I wrote about in a previous post on what to do after a rejection. While you wait for reviews, work on new projects and ideas and if a better one comes along and your submission gets rejected, by all means abandon the project.
A final word of caution is in order. According to my scientifically constructed chart below, our level of excitement about a project is always highest at the idea stage, when the promise seems unlimited and the pitfalls and barriers to getting there are not salient. So, if you find yourself constantly putting completed papers on the back burner and picking up new shiny ideas, stop! Go back to your best completed paper and publish it (and work on the shiny new ideas while you wait for reviews). Then repeat until you have a few publications.