Sunday, May 24, 2009
Rejected and Dejected
You’ve been waiting for weeks, maybe months to hear from the journal about your submission. Finally, you see an email in your inbox with the subject heading: “Decision-MS#xxxxx”. Your heart skips a beat, you take a big breath, and you click on the email to open it. It says, “Thank you for your submission, but we regret to inform you that…..”.
For some female scientists (especially early-career), this is the end. The paper goes into their file, never to see the light of day again. Their most frequent thought is, “What did I do wrong?” Or worse, "What's wrong with me?"
In contrast, most male scientists think, “What’s wrong with that journal editor and those ignorant reviewers? Can’t they see that my paper is fantastic? I’m sending it somewhere else!”
In graduate school, it’s rare for students to get advice on how to handle rejection. Advisors may not recognize that male and female students handle rejection differently and perhaps fail to give some extra encouragement or specific advice to female students. If the advisor is male, he may assume that female students and post-docs will react the same way he would to rejection.
But knowing how to deal with rejection can make the difference as to whether you are successful or not in a science career. How you react to rejection is as much of a test of character as your ability as a scientist.
A little-known statistic: some of the most published scientists have the most rejections. This is because they do not give up until they get their papers published and often suffer numerous rejections along the way. If you automatically assume the problem is with you when your paper is rejected, then you will tend to give up. If you instead believe the problem is not necessarily with you or your inherent ability, then you will realistically assess the reviews, make necessary revisions, and persist until you succeed.
If your work deserves to be published (i.e., it’s good), then giving up with the first rejection is a mistake. If the work is flawed, then heed the comments of the reviewers and editors (they’ve done you a favor) and revise the paper and resubmit somewhere else. If the problem is not fixable, then you might be able to salvage a portion of the study and publish it as a note.
For more discussion of what to do when your paper is rejected, see this article, “When a Journal Says No” by Wendy Belcher. The advice she gives is far more comprehensive than what I could cover in this blog post. I highly recommend it if you are at all unclear as to how to proceed when getting a rejection letter.
Instead, let me tell about my own personal experience with rejection.
A number of years ago, another scientist (female) and I collaborated on a paper, which we submitted for publication at a moderate-impact journal. It was rejected. We revised and resubmitted somewhere else. It kept getting rejected, and we kept revising and resubmitting it. We were determined to get the paper published because we thought it was a great study. She lived in a different city, so we met at another city mid-way between us to work on the paper. We holed up in a hotel room with our computers, a printer, and lots of coffee. Each time the paper was rejected, we would meet over a weekend and revise. We were getting very frustrated because some of the changes (based on previous reviewer comments) were later criticized by other reviewers. We started referring to it as the “Paper from Hell”.
Finally, we went back to our original version, incorporated some of the suggestions that seemed reasonable, and resubmitted to a high-impact journal in our field. The paper was accepted with minor revision. The week it was published, the editors of Science selected it for their “Editor’s Choice” section. The journal that published our paper was delighted that one of their publications was mentioned by Science, and the editors would subsequently thank us profusely whenever they saw us at conferences.
I guess the moral is: Be persistent; don’t give up too easily. I don’t know why our paper got so many rejections. It could be the reviewer lottery was not in our favor or simply that we had failed in earlier versions to write a sufficiently compelling paper. In hindsight, I see many things that I would do differently today—but by persisting, we ultimately got it right.