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I am a recent M.Sc. graduate and I have applied for a few PhD programs abroad.

A few months ago, we submitted our paper (which was about my thesis results) to a journal and also uploaded it to a pre-print server. Then, I mentioned the paper in my CV with the status "submitted to journal X". In my Skype meeting with a potential advisor from a university abroad, I mentioned the fact that we submitted the paper and we have not been notified about the result yet. Then, I sent the link of the paper on pre-print server to him according to his request.

Today, I got informed by the journal's editor that our paper got rejected from journal X. Now I don't know if I need to tell this fact to the potential advisor in our next Skype meeting or through other mediums like email? In general, I guess he will not ask about the status of our paper. If he asks about it, I definitely would answer truthfully. But I don't know should I tell him about the rejection even if he does not ask about it?

Actually, the journal quality is very high and we believe that we can publish our paper in another good journal elsewhere. However, the professor is from a different field and he may not know how hard it is to publish in journal X. Thus, I think that this news unfairly ruin my admission chance.

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    Personally, my view is that when you write "submitted" it mainly indicates that you finished writing the paper and it is in a state that is ready for submission. That means the stage after "in preparation" and before "accepted" (to some journal). Beyond that, it does not really matter if it is actually in review or in between submissions - that is just part of the process. So unless it is accepted or you decide to completely give up submitting (which is rare), I don't think it really matters. – Bitwise Feb 5 '17 at 18:26
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I think this question really implies an underlying second question. Breaking it into two parts;

(1) Does getting a paper rejected look bad on your application?

(2) Do you have an obligation to tell your potential advisor?

In regards to (1), the answer is no, not really. Of course, if you had your paper accepted, that would be better...but only marginally. Papers get rejected all the time, even really good ones. One almost never gets a paper accepted on the first submission, so taking in the feedback from the reviewers and resubmitting is just a part of the process. Also, keep in mind the professor has already seen the paper. This means they know whether it's a good paper that got rejected as a part of the standard process, or whether it's just such a terrible paper that it will never be accepted. So I wouldn't worry at all about the potential advisor changing their opinion about you based on getting your paper rejected. The only way it would be very problematic is if you said something like "my paper got rejected and it hurt my ego so much I don't want to ever submit again" (PhD's require determination), or "my paper got rejected by a bunch of simpletons who clearly don't understand how great my work was" (arrogance is probably one of the harder traits to deal with in a grad student). On the other hand "my paper got rejected, but the reviewers pointed out a few ways I could clarify/improve my work so I'm going to fix it up and re-submit" is a great attitude to have.

In light of my response to (1), I think (2) is not such a big deal either way. I don't think you need to immediately email your potential advisor and tell him the news, that would be kinda weird. If he asks about the paper, you should certainly tell him. Whether you want to tell him if he doesn't ask is up to you. Personally, I think discussing that it got rejected and that you want to resubmit after cleaning it up shows a good attitude, so I would push for that. For example:

Maybe future advisor: "So what's new since last time we talked?"

You: "Well, just got back the decision on the paper we talked about. It got rejected, but the reviewers pointed out that I need to work on X and Y. So I'm going to clean it up and resubmit."

Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with not discussing it if it doesn't come up in conversation either.

Side note: if the above conversation leads to an engaging discussion about the merits of X and Y with your potential advisor, that's just about the best interview you could have in regards to finding out how the advisor/student relation will work between the two of you.

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    "One almost never gets a paper accepted on the first submission.." Hm? That would mean you are constantly wasting your own and the editors and referees time by submitting sloppy work and/or to unsuitable journals. Of course the acceptance is nearly always with "pending minor revisions", did you mean that? – Karl Feb 6 '17 at 1:56
  • @Karl: Of course I try to have my first submission accepted, but I cannot say that's reliably how it works (especially for earlier career researcher). My PI, who is a top researcher in their field, still has this experience. They were just telling me how they've never had a paper accepted to a given conference despite submitting many times...yet they've been asked to be a keynote speaker at that conference. I think acceptance rates may be very different for different fields? – Cliff AB Feb 6 '17 at 6:21
  • This "conference only" publication scheme of some fields is somewhat alien to me, but if everybody submits each of of his papers to three journals/conferences before they are accepted, don't you think that is a huge wase of everyones time and there is something rotten in the system? – Karl Feb 6 '17 at 10:31
  • @Karl: yes and no. I wish that all my papers got accepted on their first submission, both for my time and the reviewers' time. On the other hand, the back and forth of these papers has greatly improved the quality of some of them (note: my field, statistics, does not do the conference system, but machine learning does). – Cliff AB Feb 6 '17 at 14:07
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    @Karl, I just want to note here that no one said "I submit work I know is shoddy, since I know the reviewers will help me fix it up." Nor "I intentionally submit to journals that are way out of my league, in order to get free expert help!". I highly doubt that reviewers will take a lousy paper and work with the author to turn it into a good one. It seems dramatically more likely that the reviewers, being adults and experts in their fields, recognize a paper that they feel should be published in their journal once a few points are addressed and they suggest the necessary improvements. – msouth Feb 6 '17 at 16:29
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I don't think that being rejected by a top tier journal of your field should reduce your chances to get the PhD position in any way. Your potential advisor most likely knows this all too well. This is part of the scientific professional life. I would assume that s/he can judge the work you did regardless of his field of expertise our whether it got accepted or not. But if it was well written, presented in a clear and structured way, he or she will appreciate that because it is such an important skill.

You don't need to mention it yourself if you feel uncomfortable about that. However if you want, you can say that you got rejected by X, but think that with the feedback you got you can really improve the manuscript and will try to publish it elsewhere. This will show your motivation. Most likely your advisor will be happy about that.

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    I don't want to put in a separate answer, but I would just like to point out that it's a very bad idea to write "submitted to xxx". Just leave it as "submitted". People probably don't care, only believe that it's suitable for xxx when it's accepted, or even think that you're full of yourself and sent a weak paper to xxx just so you could put this in your CV. With a (probably) high rejection rate you're just setting yourself up for situations like this. – VonBeche Feb 5 '17 at 15:38
  • @VonBeche If you only write "submitted", I will immediately suspect that you have submitted a substandard (in relation to the reputation of the journal) paper. Leading me to the suspicion that you are either overambitious or an underperformer. ;-) – Karl Feb 6 '17 at 14:44
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You don't need to tell them as long as they don't ask. You did not lie in your application, that's all that count.

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    And, by the same reasoning, if you see somebody about to step into the path of a moving bus, you don't need to shout at them to stop. After all, they didn't ask you if there was a bus, so you're under no obligation to tell them. How, exactly, is the potential advisor going to trust this student after they've failed to pass on potentially important information? Lies of omission are still lies. – David Richerby Feb 5 '17 at 16:46
  • @DavidRicherby: I think there's a pretty big difference between not telling someone they are about to be hit by a bus and not telling someone your paper didn't get accepted. When I'm reviewing resumes, I read submitted as "might have this published in a year or two", not "definitely will be accepted any day now". Lying about it would a huge problem, but if it's not brought up, you don't need to (although I think you should, see my answer). – Cliff AB Feb 5 '17 at 22:22
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    To name a less drastic example than the otherwise fitting one by @DavidRicherby, in particular one that does not invoke an obvious conflict with a moral obligation to tell about something, how about submitting a paper or an application for a funded project and getting a rejection in response to that? Would you tell your coauthors only if they ask rather than as soon as the message arrives? Keeping such news on progress to yourself does not seem conductive to team-based research endeavours, and working with an advisor (and, thereby, also with their team) is typically a team-based thing. – O. R. Mapper Feb 5 '17 at 22:23
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    @CliffAB: "might have this published in a few years" - field-specificity-alert ;) In applied-CS-related areas I'm most acquainted with, "remaining unpublished for more than some 12 months" usually implies it's outdated in one way or another and will never be published in a similar form to the current one. And while this varies a lot by field, processing times of job/study program applications may not vary quite that much, meaning that expectations on whether a submitted manuscript will have been accepted/published by the next contact with the prospective advisor can vary considerably. – O. R. Mapper Feb 5 '17 at 22:27
  • @O.R.Mapper: ah, interesting. In statistics, quite a different story. For example, take a look at the submitted and accepted dates for this paper. And keep in mind, Gelman is easily one of the biggest names in statistics! Maybe I should move toward CS... – Cliff AB Feb 5 '17 at 22:33
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There are no rejected papers

Assuming that you're doing proper research with no shenanigans, there are no rejected papers - there are just papers that aren't accepted yet, either because they need some more work or they had been submitted to a place that's wrong for that paper (either focus or ranking-wise).

Yes, generally a paper that's awaiting review with unknown status is considered more valuable than a paper with a known negative review, but 'Rejected' is a status of the editor/journal workflow, not generally a status in the workflow of authoring a paper.

Report on what you did or are doing

For a potential advisor, the current "paper count" isn't as important as knowing how you handle your research work. What you need to do here is (a) take appropriate actions depending on what exactly your reviews said, which in some cases might even mean simply resubmitting the exact same paper to a less selective venue; and (b) report to the advisor on what you did/are doing and what is the current status of the paper.

"Rejected" is a meaningful status only if the review made you understand that the effort should be cancelled - otherwise it's just a limbo for a few days while you make a decision on how to proceed. When you report the paper status, it should be e.g. "submitted to the other journal", "rewrite of section Y as per reviewers suggestions", "ongoing extra experiments to clarify effect Z" or something like that. Of course, it also should be that way in practice.

  • Well, realistically, there are some additional external factors that can leave a paper in "rejected" state. As time moves on, the project the paper was based upon is over and there may be no more resources/direct motivation to work on publishing this concrete paper. The primary author may have come to submit their (e.g. PhD) thesis, which may already cover the findings from the paper. And while it might still be possible in theory to publish the paper, this may not seem as interesting any more (the information is out there by means of the thesis), nor practically feasible (the author may ... – O. R. Mapper Feb 5 '17 at 22:17
  • ... have to focus on some new topics in the beginning of their postdoc time, or they may have left academia altogether and have no further time (or even rights) to publish papers). Ultimately, the longer a reviewing-revision-period for a given paper project takes, the greater are the chances that someone else has meanwhile found and published the same technique/findings (and, in my personal experience, usually in a much wider and more general way than I had previously thought of ;) ). – O. R. Mapper Feb 5 '17 at 22:19
  • Your argument seems reasonable in general. However, in this case the OP put "Submitted to Journal X" on his CV. That is no longer the case, so while the paper need not be considered "rejected" in general, it does have that status with respect to Journal X. – Pete L. Clark Feb 6 '17 at 1:17
  • Of course noone puts a paper with the mark "rejected" in his CV. However I'd find it dishonest to hide the fact that I've resubmitted somewhere else, and certainly one should not conceal it if the paper is back in the "in preparation" status, becase it needed large additional work before resubmittance. – Karl Feb 6 '17 at 11:44

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