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Archives: Rejection Watch

Rejection Watch Vol. 1, Supplementary Online Material

Photo by Troy C. Boucher Photography, used under a CC license.

Submissions for Rejection Watch have dropped off, which doesn’t really surprise me;  the traffic on this blog isn’t quite strong enough to sustain a feature like that (yet!), though I don’t regret the attempt.  The submissions I did get were fantastic and if anyone out there still wants to send me material, I’ll be happy to resurrect it whenever they do.  In the mean time, though, a couple of relevant posts from around the web have cropped up in the last day or so, and I feel like they make great supplementary reading for those of you reeling from academic rejection.

Rosie Redfield (she of debunking-#arseniclife-fame) over at RRResearch posts her rage over a crappy review of her postdoc’s paper:

We finally (after two months) got the reviews back for the postdoc’s manuscript about DNA uptake bias.    It’s a rejection -  the reviews were quite negative.  The first reviewer was very unfair; they didn’t find any fault with the methods or data or analysis, but they attacked our brief discussion of the functional evolutionary context of uptake bias.  This is all too common for my papers.  The reviewer is so hostile to the idea that bacteria might take up DNA for food that they don’t focus on the science.  Because the paper was rejected we don’t get to do an official response to the reviews, so I’m relieving my frustration by responding to them here.

She goes on to do a detailed, blow-by-blow response to the objections of the two reviewers.  The whole thing is a great read, even if you’re not in this field;  the feeling of ‘oh, that happened to you too?’ is too good to pass up.

Meanwhile, over at The Bug Geek Crystal has found a new pit of despair:

So you know that I handed my draft manuscript in to my advisor last week.  He sent back a document covered in red ink. Then my labmates pointed out all the dumb things I did, and showed me all the cool things I COULD have done but didn’t.

My advisor, a real funny guy, said, “You should make a new graph about the revision process,” and I was all, “Ha ha ha that’s so funny.”

The graph she makes is pretty awesome, but one of the things that struck me was that even the most well-meaning revisions from people close to you (advisors, labmates, colleagues you respect) can cut deeper than the blunt hammerings of an anonymous reviewer with a grudge.  I think that this is because it inspires different emotions, rage for reviewers and despair for labmates.  When we have a personal relationship with those who have dripped red ink on our work, it’s hard to avoid  the attack on your sense of self:  this person knows me, and didn’t think my work was perfect, so there must be something wrong with me.  I should have done better, screwed up.  These are people that you (usually) like, that you want to look smart in front of.  Contrast Crystal’s feelings of despair with Rosie’s feelings of rage;  when anonymous reviewers trash our material, unless we think that they’re right we can work up a really good mad and use it as fuel to revise. In the academic setting, it feels to me like rage is a more productive emotion, a provocation to defiant action (‘I’ll show you Mr. Anonymous Reviewer who will never read this paper again!’) while despair has a soporific effect that leaves us drained and dragging ourselves through the revisions.

Of course, this is just a sweeping generalisation based on my own experience that is almost certainly wrong in some fashion.  But hey, maybe you can leave an anonymous review?  Then I’ll show you.

Rejection Watch Vol. 1(3): Dave Walter

Dr. David Walter is a current member of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta (where I did my undergrad and M.Sc.;  unfortunately, I was in the Psychology department then, and never met Dave) and he’s also an advisor to the Royal Alberta Museum on mite behaviour, ecology, and identification.  You can also find him blogging at Macromite’s Blog where he has some quite amazing pictures.  Dave sent me this great story of the perils of naming new species for Rejection Watch:

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This only counts as a near rejection, so you may decide to reject it yourself, but your tale of meeting your nemesis at a poster at a conference reminded me of a similar encounter. I’m an acarologist and long ago got used to having my papers sent back with the ‘not of interest to our readership’ theme and soon found the journals that would find mites of interest or learned to hammer through the few papers that more general journals would accept and, other than a few bent nails that couldn’t be straightened, have had a reasonably successful career.

My graduate training was in both ecology and systematics, but at heart I was an ecologist and considered the taxonomy part just plain hard work with no reward. Still, when you need a name to hang some behaviour on, you may have to describe new species. Very early in my first postdoc I found that I was up to my 13th new species description. That seemed a bad sign and having just read an article in Smithsonian magazine about fear of the number 13, I was inspired to name my new species ‘triskadecaphobiae’. Well, first thing that went wrong was the word was too long to fit on a slide label, but by the time that I figured that out the paper was already off to the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Eventually the reviews came back on official forms (this was a long time ago) and the second problem appeared – whoever typed the form had misspelled triscadecaphobiae. Still, one review was okay, but the other is etched in my mind and went more or less like this: ‘Normally I would suggest accepting such a paper with minor revision, but because of the author’s obvious scientific immaturity as evidenced by his choice of a scientific name, I recommend rejection. A scientific name should march down the ages as a testimony to the good taste of the author …’ and so on for several stinging sentences.

Later, it turned out that a friend of mine was visiting the lab of the referee at the time my paper had arrived and the ref had come storming out of his office red-faced, waving my paper, and shouting ‘who is this arsehole Walter and who does he think he is?’ and possibly other less kind things that I have forgotten. It also turned out that another friend – we had been graduate students together – was a postdoc in this lab. I had previously named another species in honour of this student by appending the Latin for ‘belonging to’ (-ianus) to his name. This is perfectly correct (and went to a French journal, so they noticed nothing amiss), but of course, sounds rather asinine. ‘X-ianus’ was, basically, puerile and I suppose every time my friend saw the name he was annoyed and let people know it. So, I was reaping what I had sowed.

The editor of the journal, a famous entomologist who I suppose should remain nameless, was very nice and asked me for my opinion. I thought about the name for a while, considered the problem with the labels and a future of misspellings (not to mention my reputation), and suggested that I name the species after the editor – by appending an ‘i’ to his name. That worked perfectly and I was able to get past #13 and add another line to my CV. It was 20 years before I found the mite again, but it turns out to be common in the northern Great Plains, so the name has turned out to be both useful and honours a great entomologist.

I still manage to sneak a pun into a paper every now and then, and at least one species name has made a list of such irreverences (Funkotriplogynium iagobadius – species named after the King of Funk, James Brown, – but the genus was someone else’s and the species from one of my postgraduate students following in my mould and I just went along). So, I guess I’ve never really learned to grow-up completely, but I have become more circumspect (and insidious).

Even better, I ran into the referee in front of a poster at an Ent Soc meeting a couple of years later and stopped to introduce myself and admit to triskadecaphobiae. He turned out to be delightful and we subsequently enjoyed a productive correspondence. Turns out his comments to the editor were much less vitriolic than his comments to the author and he was simply taking the opportunity take me down a peg. Still, I wonder what will happen when I get to my 13th new genus …

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I want to thank Dave for sending me that and remind you that Rejection Watch is driven entirely by reader submissions, so if you’ve been holding on to yours until now, get them into me!  That email address again is rejectionwatch@gmail.com, so send me your best academic rejection story now, and I’ll throw in this free juicer*!

 

*Limit of 0 juicers per person

A perfect companion to Rejection Watch…

If you’ve been enjoying the Rejection Watch series on this blog, you might want to head over to The Journal of Universal Rejection and submit your latest masterpiece.  From their home page:

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

And after you’ve submitted don’t forget to check out their blog, which houses a fabulous collection of rejection letters from their esteemed editors.

Rejection Watch Vol 1(2): Rob Williams

Welcome to issue 2 of Rejection Watch,  now in the less-than-three-hours-to-read format.  Rob Williams writes:

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My favourite review (now, with the benefit of hindsight), is a paper that estimated abundance of pelagic sharks in continental shelf waters of British Columbia, Canada. One review was great. The other reviewer obviously wasn’t familiar with the statistics underlying line transect surveys, but rather than admitting that, s/he wrote, “How do you know that you didn’t just see one shark over and over again?” So, our shark would have to have been hovering a mile ahead of us, anticipating where our next (randomly selected) trackline would take us, and speeding up ahead to be seen again, repeating the process 100 times. Like Jaws, but this time hell-bent on being seen, not extracting revenge. But, one bad review meant that the paper was rejected. Fortunately, we told the editor how silly this concern was, and the paper was accepted after revision.

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Rob sent a link along to the paper he’s talking about, and you can find it here.  I was so amused by the idea of a super-troll shark racing around in an effort to subvert the scientific process that I googled “Sneaky Shark”, with predictable results.

I’d like to thank Rob for sending in the first reader-submitted Rejection Watch!  I already have another ready to go, I’ve been promised that one is incoming in the next few days, and I’m also collecting the short rejection blurbs I’ve gotten on Twitter for the first special Twitter edition of Rejection Watch coming soon (thanks @hylopsar for suggesting it).  So, email me your stories at rejectionwatch@gmail.com, or if you’ve only got 140 characters in you tweet me @BehavEcology and we’ll share the pain of rejection together.

Rejection Watch, Vol. 1(1): Me.

Since I put out the call for Rejection Watch a few days ago, I’ve gotten a great response on Twitter and have already received a reader submission that is in the can and ready to go.  But, since this is my feature and my blog, it does make sense that I should go first!  So, I’ll relate something that happened to me in the course of my Ph.D. and during my Ph.D. defence;  it’s not the classical scenario of “I got rejected for a great/ridiculous/unbelievable reason”, but instead the more postmodern twist of “I tried to reject someone else, it came back to bite me, and then things really went pear-shaped”.  It’s also longer than will likely be the norm for this space.  If you’re looking for the more classical – and shorter – scenario, I’ve got a great submission from Rob Williams coming up in Issue number 2 of Rejection Watch;  look for it on fine blogs (mine) everywhere (here) soon.

And in the mean-time, if you’re a scientist, stop reading this and send me your best rejection.  The rules are simple (see the announcement for details), and you can make it as long or as short as you want.  Funny, terrible, crushing, life-changing, whatever it is click the link: rejectionwatch@gmail.com and send me your story!

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Names have been obliterated to protect the guilty, namely me.  

tl;dr:  Things go badly wrong for the author.  

Early in 2010, I was asked to review a paper for the Journal of Theoretical Biology which modeled a question directly related to what I was working on for my Ph.D. and which came from a lab whose work I enjoy. Obviously, I jumped at the chance.  Reviewing the paper, however, turned out to be more challenging than anticipated because I immediately ran into a conceptual problem with their model that I felt scuttled the whole affair.  In essence, I felt that they weren’t modelling what they thought they were modelling.  On the other hand, these were some pretty smart people that I was criticising (including a pretty big name in evolutionary biology), so I spent a very long time convincing myself that I hadn’t gotten things backwards.  Agonised, I went back and forth about it for a couple more days, and finally wrote that that I thought the paper was unpublishable unless the authors changed it to address the my objection (essentially by redoing the whole thing) or could provide a justification for why I was wrong.

Sure enough, the revision came back and the authors rejected my view on the matter;  they politely conveyed that they felt that I wrong about this being a problem, and that I had misinterpreted the logic of the entire class of models that this work was based on.  Since this was a fairly binary, yes/no disagreement, I decided that it was time to seek out the advice of others.  I fired off a quick e-mail to my Ph.D. advisor and got an equally quick reply:  “Nope, I agree with them.  You’re wrong.”

Hmm.

I thought about it some more and though I still felt that I was right, numbers weren’t on my side.  And since all of the smart people in the room felt differently, I had to concede that perhaps I had made a mistake.  I sent in my review of the revised paper and withdrew my objection,  the paper was duly published, and after nursing my bruised ego for a few days I promptly forgot about the matter.

Fast-forward six months to the ISBE conference in Perth last year.  The head of the lab that had written – and who was last author on – the paper I had tried to reject is attending the conference and giving a poster;  I wander by his poster without realising it, and he makes a point of grabbing me to chat.  I’ve never met this guy before (we’ll call him Big Cheese, BC for short) and have no idea what to expect.  He’s also … shall we say, not from around these parts? … and he’s pretty intense,  so I’m having a bit of trouble reading his tone when he tells me that “we need to sit down and talk, the two of us”.  I, of course, immediately say “Oh, sure” before I can figure out how to get away with “Hey, look over there!” followed by a quick exit out the side window.

Having agreed to meet with him, I spend the night wondering what in the world he wants to talk to me about and hoping that it’s just about our shared scientific interests.  Instead, it catches me completely flat-footed that the first thing BC he says when he sits down is “It was you who reviewed our paper, wasn’t it.”  Not even a question, really, just a statement of fact.  He’s still looking pretty intense,  I still can’t read his body language, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to set a record for being the first guy knifed at a behavioural ecology conference.   Doesn’t seem like the odds of me getting away with denying it are all that good, though, so I fess up.

Turns out, all is well:  he’s one of the nicest guys you can imagine, and his intensity is actually just enthusiasm mixed with a tiny dash of thick accent.  We chat excitedly about science for over an hour, and part ways on good terms.  I finish out the conference feeling pretty good about things and promptly forget about the whole thing once again.

You’d think that it would have ended there, but there’s an odd coda to this show.  Fast-forward another eight months, and I’m scrambling to get my Ph.D. defence in order because I’ve landed a post-doc in Australia and I have to get this degree thing wrapped up.  BC is now the external examiner on my committee, which makes sense for two reasons.  First, he’s actively publishing in the field that I’m defending my thesis on.  Second, having learned my lesson from the review I’ve since written a paper employing a model similar (in basic logic, though not application) to the one that I tried to reject when BC wrote it.  I feel that there are differences between the two efforts that rescue my paper from my own objections, but I’m well-prepared for this to be a significant talking point during my defence.  In fact, I’ve spent the better part of a month reading and preparing to defend my position on the matter.  So you can imagine my shock when I get written comments back from the other examiners and another member of my committee is rejecting my paper for exactly the same reason that I rejected BC’s paper the first time around!

At this point, I’m about to give up entirely, and so I settle on what I believe to be a time-honoured strategy in academic circles:  when the matter comes up during my defence,  I plan on winding up both BC and the other committee member on the subject, pointing them at each other, and just leaving the room.  I can just come back and pick up the pieces after they’ve hashed it out, goes my thinking.  I spend the night before my defence planning to both defend and deflect on this subject (and I was already pretty emotional to begin with) so it’s quite the anti-climax when I find out that through the magic of bureaucratic mis-scheduling, BC is not going to be tele-conferencing into the defence after all.

Le sigh.

Thankfully, I’m prepared to defend my choices anyways, and I make it through the defence only a little worse for wear.  Also, I discover that I’m pretty good at verbal tap-dancing, and I can wave my hands with the best of them.  But if you’re a Ph.D. student reading this and looking forward to your own defence one day (assuming you live in a place that has oral defences;  if you don’t, I respectfully hate you), take a lesson from my ups and downs:  reviews can come back to haunt you at the most unexpected of times, so watch what you write!

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Once again, Rejection Watch will be a semi-regular feature driven by reader submissions.  So, get yours in now by emailing me at rejectionwatch@gmail.com, and then you can feel free to mock me in the comments below.

Announcing “Rejection Watch”.

Update: As the series continues, I’ll update this page to include links to each entry (or you can click on the Rejection Watch category to the left to see them).  So, take a look at Volume 1, Issue 1Issue 2, and Issue 3.  Also:  Supplementary Online Material.

I don’t want to make a habit out of starting posts by quoting tweets, but by coincidence it works here too.  So, a couple of weeks ago, after receiving another one of the journal rejection emails that we as scientists cherish so much, I tweeted:

This got a surprisingly vocal reaction on Twitter, and so I’ve decided that to kick off the New Year I will make good on my threat.  Thus, I’d like to announce an experiment in the form of a new feature on this blog called “Rejection Watch”, with a title which is shamelessly derivative of a blog I love.  The focus of this semi-regular feature will be the funniest, weirdest, most crushing, most useful rejections received by me and by you, the readers.  I invite you to send me your best rejections, good or bad, to rejectionwatch@gmail.com, and I will post them here so that we can all benefit from the knowledge that we’re not alone in feeling what we feel when yet another journal says “Sorry, we get a lot of submissions, and you didn’t make the cut”.

The rules are simple:

  • Send your rejection story to rejectionwatch@gmail.com.  I reserve the right to judge the suitability for publication on this blog, but I’m pretty easy going.  As long as it’s a non-pornographic story about a rejection received while attempting to publish in any academic field (journals, books, magazines, etc), it’ll probably get through. I’ll also take related academic rejections like grants and scholarships.  And the non-pornographic part is negotiable if it’s funny. :-)
  • Be sure to tell me if you want to be anonymous or not.  I’ll ask if you forget, but it’ll save some time if I don’t have to chase you down.  And keep in mind that aside from asking that question, I won’t change what you write unless I have a really good reason.  This means that if you leave in identifying details that you meant to take out, you’ll see them on the web in short order and will have to scramble to get me to take them out.
  • The feature will occur when people send me stuff, hence the “semi-regular”.  If no one sends me anything, I’ll probably put up a few of my own rejections and then give up.  Wait, that’s depressingly meta…
  • Have fun with it.  We get kicked in the teeth often enough trying to get our science out the door and it’s time to get a little back:  comment on the rejection, be snarky, be thoughtful, be whatever you want.

So, once more, that phone number is rejectionwatch@gmail.com.   Call now, and you can be the first one to be published!  I promise that I won’t even assess your contribution for novelty, technical correctness, or interest to the readership of this journal blog.