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: firstname.lastname@example.org and send me your story!
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.”
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.
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!
Once again, Rejection Watch will be a semi-regular feature driven by reader submissions. So, get yours in now by emailing me at email@example.com, and then you can feel free to mock me in the comments below.