April 12, 2021 | Published by | , ,

by Andy Pitman

A great deal of time in science is spent writing papers and grant proposals. In both cases, one puts ideas on paper, defends the ideas with evidence and often with a very great deal of emotional energy. You are passionate about the paper and you know that it is awesome.

And then you get the reviews and those anonymous reviewers don’t agree. Sometimes, the reviewers find errors and provide constructive criticism that you can use to improve your paper or proposal. The rejection still hurts of course but at least you have something to work with.

Something that might not be obvious to all of you is that rejection is normal, and entrenched, and part of the scientific method. When I was doing my PhD I remember talking to one of the gods of my field – let’s call him Alan Betts – and his recent paper had been rejected. I was genuinely shocked. It had never occurred to me that people like him – people who were viewed at the absolute peak of his field – would have his papers rejected. So, it is not about “rejection”, it is more about the process of rejection and how that is managed. So, what are some of the experiences across CLEX?. Here are some examples of rejection experienced from CLEX researchers:

  • “My evaluation is that this manuscript should not be published in this journal, or in any other journal.” Nice. That was a paper by a CLEX professor.
  • “Actually, Researcher X is on his soapbox, but this is not Hyde Park” …. and in the same review “… “there is too much Greek”. Another CLEX professor.
  • “I do not think it is a worthwhile contribution to the literature. I only continued reading since I was obligated to complete the review.” 
  • “the analysis is rather shallow and off-track in places”.
  • “One other major flaw of the paper is the total lack of question and/or hypothesis to justify the work done”

I was also sent many examples of totally contradictory reviews on the same paper:

Reviewer A: “The Introduction is a holy mess, to be totally frank.”
Reviewer B: “I enjoyed reading the paper. It is on the whole very well written.”

A CLEX researcher highlighted a paper – one that I think is profoundly important – that took 9 submissions before it was accepted, and another researcher that took part in 12 proposals in a row before one was accepted. I think, although I cannot prove it, that the more important the paper is or the more innovative the idea the harder it is to get published.

So what do we learn from all this?

  • Science can be a brutal career where you are subject to harsh criticism by anonymous reviewers. Given I’ve published a few papers, I have probably experienced more of the “harsh criticism” than most of you. I wrote a grant proposal around 5 years ago where one of the reviewers described my publication record as “mediocre” (ouch) and my research field as “peripheral”. The best paper I think I ever wrote was rejected by Nature, then Nature Climate Change and then GRL and in my view each time because one of the reviewers did not actually read the paper. That sucked. You can still see a large chip on my left shoulder if you look.
  • There is an old adage: ‘If you’ve never had a paper rejected, you’re obviously not aiming high enough’. I know of people upset that a paper submitted to (say) Nature Climate Change was rejected deciding not to submit to (say) Journal of Climate. Being rejected by Nature, GRL, ERL, PNAS and so on is often a decision by an Editor about how broad the readership is, not about how good the science is.
  • Like everyone, I take rejection personally. However, in hindsight, and in the cold light of day, if I go back over a review of a paper rejected (after I have kicked the cat – figuratively of course – or vented appropriately at whoever will listen) I can usually see how a reviewer has got the wrong end of the stick. And of course, they get the wrong end because I have not explained clearly enough which end they should grab. In short, although I am loathed to admit it, some of my rejections can be traced back to my not having quite explained things clearly.
  • Don’t take rejection personally (contradicting #3 of course) and don’t give up. Of course, you will take rejection personally, we all do, but get over it quickly, re-assess and re-group and resubmit (after fixing what needs to be fixed of course).
  • I used to have a policy of finishing a paper, putting it in a filing cabinet for a month, taking it out and re-reading it before mailing the 5 copies to a journal. Yes, yes, I know … you may not know what a filing cabinet is, and the notion of popping 5 copies of a manuscript in an envelope might seem arcane. I think there is genuine value in putting a completed paper aside for a week and then re-reading before you submit it. It is amazing how many trivia you spot.
  • When you write a review, leave it for 24 hours after you have finished it and re-read as if you were the author of the paper. Is the language appropriate? How might that author feel about the language you have used?  Can you say the same thing a little more empathetically?
  • If you are an editor read the reviews. You should not forward insulting language to the authors.

So, rejection is part of science and it hurts. If you work in science you cannot avoid rejection – everyone experiences it and even the very best in the world experience it. It is not the case that the top scientists avoid rejection and I think the very best work – the most transformative work – can be hardest to publish. Whatever, rejection does not mean you are a poor scientist – it can mean you are doing confronting science that the reviewers do not like because you have cast doubt on their own work.

In short, hang in there, never give up, revise and resubmit where possible and don’t tell Melissa when you kick the cat.