Rejection, withdrawal, and acceptance: A story about message-journal fit

A look behind the curtain: what happens in the academic publishing process

Is a rejection from a journal always bad news? Of course, whenever we submit a paper to a journal, we would like to hear good news. Therefore, when receiving a rejection email, we need to take a few deep breaths before reading on. Yes, it is bad news, at least for the moment.

However, after going through the journey of ‘finding home’ for a paper, I learned to understand that an initial rejection can be a blessing in disguise. To put it differently, a journal rejection can be a precious chance to reflect on the nature and purpose of a paper that we want to publish. It is a process of understanding and carving out ‘what we really want to say’.

In this post I take you behind the scenes of the academic publishing process to show you the journey that we traveled in publishing this paper. You can read more about the paper itself here: Understanding the academic knowledge creation process: How to learn better?

The rejection that saved our paper: Journal of Global Mobility

We submitted the first version of our paper to Journal of Global Mobility in September 2022, entitled “Academic inpatriation and the internationalization of higher education: How do academic inpatriates acquire, utilize, and transfer knowledge across borders.”

We wanted to apply a framework we developed for business inpatriates (Kim, Reiche, & Harzing, 2022, see Beyond expatriation: How inpatriation supports subsidiary growth and performance) to the first author’s academic inpatriation experience. Thus, we drafted an empirical paper using a single case study format. We selected JGM as an outlet because we thought the topic fitted perfectly with the journal readers’ interest. However, the paper was rejected, largely because it didn’t meet scientific requirements.

The reviewers required “more representative, generalizable and non-biased data” from multiple interviewees instead of the author’s own experience only. Fundamentally, it appeared that our single case study approach was the root of the problem. The associate editor suggest we could apply a more rigorous ‘auto-ethnographic’ approach, as well as write a more extensive methods section describing the scientific background of our methodology. To meet the reviewers and editor’s expectation, we would need to collect additional data to make our paper more generalizable.

However, we felt this was not the purpose of our paper and that generalization would require a completely separate study. Thus, for our next attempt we chose a journal that is known to be very open to different types of papers: Journal of Management Inquiry. This journal is also more widely read by Management scholars from various sub-disciplines as opposed to the more specialised JGM audience.

The power of a positive review experience: Journal of Management Inquiry

It took us a few months to rewrite the paper for Journal of Management Inquiry. We discussed what the key message of the paper should be and decided to reframe the manuscript with a focus on ‘inclusive academia’. The title of our paper submitted to JMI was “Academic mobility for a more inclusive academia: How academic inpatriates can transfer knowledge and bridge academic cultures across borders.” Another major change was an elaboration of the methods section, applying ‘auto-ethnography’ to enrich our single case approach.

We received an R&R from the journal with a super-speedy turnaround, approximately one month of our submission. We were very fortunate to have two immensely supportive and committed reviewers who provided us with very helpful suggestions. One of our reasons for writing this blogpost is the hope that they will read it and understand how much their exemplary academic citizenship meant to us. You are real treasures! Please keep up the good work.

The reviewers' and editor's main concern was the fit between our JIBS model and our auto-ethnographic approach. We should have realized earlier that a deductive application of theory and the use of an ethnographic approach were two almost diametrically opposite epistemologies, and that we did not do justice to a proper ethnographic approach in our paper. In other words, we did not have enough knowledge of auto-ethnography nor enough ethnographic material to support a more theory-generative approach. Thus, we decided to withdraw our manuscript at JMI and use the reviewers’ invaluable feedback to consider how we could design an empirical study in this field.

Maybe we were put on the wrong track after our JGM rejection where ethnography was suggested as a way to justify our single-case study design? We also tried to do too much in a single paper by applying the JIBS model to academic inpatriation, doing a tiny bit of ethnography (but no theory generation), and also introducing diversity & inclusion in academia and cross-fertilization across different academic systems.

The JMI reviewers and editor’s amazingly generous feedback led us on the road to fully understand not only the problems, but also the potential for our paper. They guided us to finally find the right way to use our materials and knowledge at hand, but also prompted several exciting ideas for our – already planned – future projects.

Where the unusual is acceptable: AIB Insights

After the rejection from JGM and withdrawal from JMI, we wanted to find an outlet where a single case study and an unusual paper format was acceptable. We truly started this paper because the first author (Heejin) felt her academic inpatriation experience was extremely similar to the JIBS model we had developed for business inpatriates.

So, we decided we would really like to publish this story and message somewhere as it was, rather than trying to turn it into something it wasn’t (a theory-testing generalizable paper or a theory-generating auto-ethnography). We decided to revise and submit the third version of our manuscript to AIB Insights, which seeks “short, current, and thought-provoking articles”. We submitted the manuscript in June 2023 and received an R&R within three months.

The biggest problem in our initial submission to AIB Insights was a complete lack of “actionable insights”, quite a serious problem for an outlet called AIB Insights 😊. This was mainly caused by the fact that the second author (Anne-Wil) had several earlier publication experiences with AIB Insights. But that was a while ago when it was mainly a newsletter type outlet. These experiences had been invalidated by the journal’s reframing as an “proper” academic outlet.

The amazing editor – Bill Newburry – was kind enough to patiently guide us towards a better understanding of the journal’s new mission to “discuss theoretical, empirical, practical, or pedagogical issues affecting the international business community of researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and educators”. We gained lots of inspiration from the three reviewers’ and editor’s comments. They requested us clarify how our paper fitted with the Aims & Scopes for AIB Insights, and how and what the world of academia could learn from this paper.

One comment from reviewer 2 provided us with wonderful guidance when revising our manuscript. She/he pointed out that “one positive about your paper is that you provide a framework and a vocabulary that opens up new ways for academic sojourners to talk about and process their experiences.” This comment really hit the spot. We completely transformed our manuscript in order to provide a clear and coherent message to the AIB Insights audience, which was accepted without further changes and published at the beginning of 2024.

A journey to find the best fit

Would I have felt happier if our paper had been accepted by the first journal? Or would I be more satisfied if the paper had been published by Journal of Management Inquiry, the highest ranked journal of the three? Well, may be.... However, after going through all the trial and error in this process, I felt I finally fully understood the principle of 'finding the best-fit outlet for our messages/ideas at hand'. That in itself was immensely satisfactory and pleasant.

The review process in various academic journals is like a journey in foreign countries where we meet many nice people who help us to better understand the country and guide us towards a better direction to move forward. Of course, we sometimes encounter scammers who waste our resources, just like we sometimes meet too critical and halfhearted reviewers in the journal review process. However, that should never be a reason to stop traveling. Rather, it helps us to be better prepared for our next journey to a new destination, supported by a stronger heart and a more enlightened mind.

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