How to survive rejection
While I'm mostly concentrating my research on book writing at the moment - I've just been offered a contract for a new book, and am finishing corrections on the previous one - I still have to publish articles. No matter how much we say that in the humanities books are important, it seems that articles still count for more when it comes to getting a job, keeping it, or getting promoted. Also, in Turkey, if you publish in journals listed in the Thomson citation index, you get money for it. Loads. Enough to buy an iPad. So I'm still sending out articles on a regular basis. And still getting rejections on a regular basis.
One reviewer complained that my writing style was too easy to read
Some of the rejections are just silly. One reviewer recently complained that my writing style was too easy to read. Huh? Another one accused me of making things up. And then, there's the ones when one referee tells me the paper is too historical and the other that it's not historical enough. Some make valid points. Which I then address, as best I can, before I send out the paper again to another journal. And then the whole business of waiting for a rejection starts again.
Over the years, I've gotten very down about the rejections. One acceptance every now and then doesn't really undo all the hurt caused by the negative responses. This year, I'm trying to look at things differently. What will I remember in thirty years' time (if I'm still around) about my professional success? Not the articles, I don't suppose. More likely the books. If paper books still exist then, I'll have mine displayed on a shelf, somewhere. More likely than not, though, I'll remember the people I've met, the students I've taught, the places I visited. In the light of all this, mean little rejection letters from reviewers who got frustrated because they received a reminder from the journal to get on with their reviews don't signify much. So keep sending them out. See if I care.
Good on you, Sandrine, for aiming to take rejections to philosophically (no pun intended!), it's probably a good way of dealing with them as there are so many of them in academia (grants, papers, job applications, conference abstracts, etc.).
On the plus side (for you and others in a similar situation at least), with a low-tech subject like the arts, you can realistically dig out a paper that was rejected months, even years back, rejiggle it based on the referees' comments and have another go. With wet science subjects, it is often difficult to do even a simple experiment asked for by the reviewers once you've moved on because you simply haven't got access to the equipment that would be needed to repeat/do the experiment, and it also costs significant amounts of money to buy the consumables.
I'd say that this is why an awful lot of data in wet science subjects is left unsubmitted when the person who initiated that project leaves if there is no one to take on the project afterwards, which seems a bit of a waste. Therefore, the ideal aim to the end of your contract (or any interim deadlines such as renewals) is to get the experiments for a paper done as fully as possible, trying to pre-empt the referees' queries, and then also hope to off-load the project onto someone following you in the lab, so that there is hope in it being continued (I suppose it depends on how high a priority it is for your boss as well).
Interesting that Sandrine, you're focusing on the sense of loss / disappointment to the researcher, whereas you, Blanka are concerned about the possible loss of knowledge caused by rejected articles. Is that down to the different publishing styles in your disciplines? I'm guessing, Sandrine, you probably feel that your important work is pretty well captured in your books, so knowledge doesn't necessarily fail to see the light of day just because an article is rejected. Whereas in your field, Blanka, that appears to be not just a real risk, but a routine occurrence. I can imagine that a lot of promising experiments must be left half-done and never-published due to the process you describe. That can't be a very efficient way to 'run' a science!
Interesting observation, Simon, that never really occurred to me but now that you mention it I can see the difference in Sandrine's and my focus.
>>I can imagine that a lot of promising experiments must be left half-done and never-published due to the process you describe. That can't be a very efficient way to 'run' a science!
I expect the expense and investment in wet science experiments does also have a positive side in this respect. This is because although you (postdoc, PhD student) have actually carried out the experiments that may be half-finished and need some more work doing, your supervisor will have invested in those experiments financially (from their grants). So it is also in their interest to get them published and will often get a new student working on the finishing touches (well, if they are sensible). In this way, my first paper from my PhD, was a second authorship when I added to a previous student's work, and the same applied to my own first author paper - although we'd initially submitted it whilst I was still there, this was finally nurtured to a journal acceptance after I'd left the lab and started my postdoc.
Maybe this sort of thing happens less in the arts where the main investment is the researcher's own time?
>> Maybe this sort of thing happens less in the arts where the main investment is the researcher's own time?
That's one difference. Also it's very difficult to pick up someone else's work when people's methodological and theoretical choices differ so much (though I'm sure they must vary to some extent in the the sciences too?).
One way some people deal with rejection in the arts and social sciences is to self-publish - just say 'to hell with them' and put your paper in an online open repository, get your department to put it out as a working paper, or set up your a blog and make it available there. Unlikely to win you any 'brownie points', of course, but if your main aim is to share knowledge with others it's not a bad option for some of your work. It even has advantages, e.g. it allows you more stylistic freedom - you can experiment a bit.
Is self-publishing possible in the sciences, or would people think it was suspect if a paper wasn't 'certified by peer review' in a journal?
>>Is self-publishing possible in the sciences, or would people think it was suspect if a paper wasn't 'certified by peer review' in a journal?
There was some success with self-publishing in the physics/maths field (http://arxiv.org/), as far as I know, but this does not seem to have caught on in the biological sciences. I think the issue there is with the fierce competition - if you self-publish some result on a blog, someone else might pick up the idea, do the experiments (or a slight modification of them) and maybe even get their Nature or Cell paper.
I have heard of PIs phoning their lab back from conferences once they've read somebody's poster, telling them to get onto the case of a particular experiment to get there quicker than the other lab - some of this may be urban legend, but the pervading competitiveness certainly does seem to be there in the cell biology field.
I think the difference is definitely there: when a paper fails to be published in philosophy, most of time, you can recycle the ideas, so all is not wasted. Which is not to say that we don't waste a lot of time and energy getting a paper just right, responding to referees' comments only to have the journal send it out to new referees with a completely different perspective, but the ideas can be re-used, and no material equipment goes to waste (paper?). I don't know about self-publishing though. Putting working papers up on the web, to me, is more like giving a conference presentation, a way of getting comments. On the other hand, I have found unplublished stuff on the web that was useful, so it's also a way of sharing information.