On Conference Paper Rejection

Have you ever had your work rejected for a conference? Something about that term, REJECTION, when it has to do with our research or professional representation of our work can be difficult to take, and while I cannot pretend it gets easier over time, a tenured professor once said to me that everybody in the room, including all those big-named speakers up there, have had their work rejected at some point.

I suppose that is some comfort. Misery does love company, eh?

While I tend to submit my work to academic conferences more than purely professional ones, it is this area in which I am primarily musing right now, though having presented at purely practitioner or professional events before, I think many of the same issues apply.

I suppose one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when this happens, at least to me, is either, “Those idiots just don’t get my work. Probably reviewed by some unfeeling number cruncher who doesn’t understand the nuances of qualitative inquiry” or “I didn’t really want to go to that conference anyway.”Nothing like a defensive response, generally much easier than considering that perhaps my work really was not that well-written or significant; that sort of thinking, like stages of grief or recovery, often comes later.

To be fair, the rejection letter or email usually does not use the term “rejected,” which I think is good. Instead, they tend to try to soften the blow by using a more appreciative form of verbiage, something like “Thank you for submitting a proposal for XXX. We received a large number of high quality and excellent applications, and due to limitations in the conference venue and an increased amount of competition, we were not able to accept all of them. Unfortunately your proposal was not among those selected.” Then comes the “better luck next year” recommendation, “We encourage you to submit your work again next year.”

Wait, are you saying I should still put the effort into dealing with your group again? I suppose this depends on many factors, such as how valuable the conference is in the field and what the real rejection rate is (if there is really a way to know this). Perhaps the proposal was not articulated well, or it was not yet fully formed; there are good reasons for this, and while conferences exist only as long as there are valuable presentations being made, it is in everybody’s best interest to consider improving or otherwise creating work anew to submit again. Onward and upward.

Back to the rejection letter.

Finally, the offer I always find the strangest. “We hope you will still plan to attend the XXX conference. Here is a link to it . . . .” Did I read that right? Did you just say my work is not good enough to present and discuss at your conference, though you still want me to pay to attend anyway, even without that one line I would get on my CV? What, so I can see how it should be done?! Do you just want my money? Perhaps you fear that conference acceptance or rejection rates may affect conference attendance, otherwise known as the profit factor?

Yes, I know, attending conferences to hear new ideas and network and feel a sense of being part of a field is valuable, though with the increase in social media and liveblogging, is that really as necessary as it once was IF I am not attending to present and receive feedback on my work? I suppose this depends on a lot of factors, such as who the keynotes are, does the entire department attend and it is good to be seen and be a part of this, where the venue is, and who is paying.

Yes, who is paying for all this is often the most important, though strangely handled, issues in conferences. For those of us who are self-funded, attending a conference when we present a paper is often enough of a challenge to manage, while it is totally out of the question without work to present. In the ideal world this may not be as much of an issue as it is in the real world, but it often costs a lot of time and money to attend a conference, and I often think that all that effort pays off with a good discussion around my work and how to improve it.

Of course, the initial acceptance can be seen as part of that discussion, as there is commonly feedback about the work to help improve it. For those conferences who do not provide anything other than a “No,” it somehow seems to imply that you did not meet our standard, though we will not tell you what that standard is and thus you are left completely in the dark. How can we improve without direction? It is that working on the dark that led to the rejection in the first place.

I am writing this post at the end of a week where I had a paper accepted and one rejected for different conferences. I will speak about the accepted one in my  next post (which may be a little more upbeat and less tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps).

I know the value of peer review, which often has to be navigated through managing conference attendance and expected percentages of submit-to-accept ratios, and while I have been on all sides of this issue (including reviewing some really good and really bad work over the years), I have not seen many people speak about this issue before. I went into all this blindly, and hope that my musing about conference paper or abstract acceptance or rejection here may be useful to others. If nothing else, we are all in the same boat, so to speak.

12 thoughts on “On Conference Paper Rejection

  1. Stephen Brookfield writes about this a bit in his chapter in Rocco’s _Handbook of Scholarly Writing and Publishing_. It’s a good chapter. Good book to have on the shelf.

    1. @Matt-
      Thank you for the kind feedback and suggestion. I have not read Brookfield’s chapter; thank you for pointing it out. I studied with him at one point, and find his approach to scholarship and its implementation very helpful.

  2. Oh…and I’ve had works rejected several times. A particular conference seems to like my work in one line – which is “out there”, but seems to reject any work I do that is more mainstream.

    1. @Matt-
      Do you find that to be the case with the other presenters at this conference, that their work is perhaps more cutting edge than mainstream? If so, why do you think that may be the case?

  3. The only rejections I’ve ever had have been from the big national conferences to which I’ve submitted my work, and the rejection is double-edged. On the one hand, you can take some comfort in knowing that your abstract was one of many that were rejected and that this is just the way of the large competitive conference (and when the breakdown of what abstracts were submitted and which were accepted comes out, you can pour over the stats and make wise pronouncements on the subject). On the other hand, you have to live with the fact that apparently the program committee at your national conference thinks the work you do isn’t significant enough for that platform, and that your work won’t be showcased in front of that large audience of your peers. I have to say that after going through the rejection process for these large conferences several times, I’m just viewing the whole experience as based entirely on luck and whether there were enough complementary abstracts to make up a panel.

    1. @Liz-
      I agree with everything you said. I suppose that not knowing if my research or perspective is being dismissed vs. I simply did not communicate it well enough is such a tough hurdle. How else to get a discussion without having it come both ways. So often rejections do not offer feedback. Yes, been there!
      All the best for your research!!

  4. You know…sometimes I think it is a little luck as another post suggests. Other times, I think the conference committee takes liberty in suggesting what the field ought to be. In some cases, it seems the more obscure or exotic the better, at least in some I’ve been a part of. My concern is then that there is little application for such obscure research – at least I find there may be little application at the moment for me. Then again, what is deemed obscure today may be rather informative in the future.

    I think some national conferences have their pet lines of research and theory – and if your paper seems to fit these lines of research or theory, then you get in. At times, this makes conferences seem like clubs for those who can best speak the language. I try to get to one conference that’s a new one for me each year and one that’s an old standard for me each year. I learn from both. Often one of these conferences is not in my primary field – for example, this fall, one of my students and I presented at a criminal justice conference. If my student had not had an interest in it, I would not have attended. The folks at the CJ conference seemed to like our research – it brought in new perspectives, they said.

    I’ve run some small conferences – and realize that some people do turn in rather unfinished work for their proposals. I know that conferences are a bit of a crap shot anyway – often the research is only partial when submitting an abstract anyway – and you have to propose a completed project, even though the research is not truly completed.

    As a tenure-track academic – my advice for emerging scholars is to seek a mix of old and new conferences and avoid getting in a rut. That being said, I’m on the faculty of an interdisciplinary program that likes to see us having a variety of research rather than a single topic.

    1. @Matt-
      Solid advice, especially about one tried and true conference along with a boundary-expanding one. I think this is sage advice, especially as I suffer from the joys / struggles of interdisciplinary research. I feel I also live in that world, and of course that makes it tough to explain what I do and why I do that to the hard-liners in the strict disciplinary departments and conferences. This said, kudos for finding that interdisciplinary home of yours; perhaps you can write about how we can expand those? After all, the world is really never only from one perspective!

      Thanks again for your feedback.


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