Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | January 26, 2012

Academia: paper rejection and some perspective

Many of you who read “The Third Glance” will remember that I am a 1st year (science) PhD student (but I’ve been doing my own research for several years.) If you ever want to know my special interest (and field of research), please feel free to email me, and I’ll very happily discuss it ad nauseam. I am deliberately not discussing it here, as I am in a fairly small field and am trying to maintain some degree of anonymity to protect myself from various people I know (especially family). It is highly likely that at some point I’ll crack and I’ll write a post about it that will be password protected but the password will be openly distributed.

I had a paper rejected today, from a top tier journal. You’d think I’d be super unhappy about it, but I’m actually not. Academia is a very confusing place, and this paper has been in the works for several years. This is the second time it has been submitted. The first time, it was rejected flat out, not even sent for review. This time, we changed the format and submitted it to a different (but just as prestigious journal), it was sent out for review. That is a MAJOR victory. This is a really neat little paper that, when it finally gets published, will call into question some major ideas about how our planet’s ecosystems work… pretty cool, eh? Of course, I’d love it if it was just accepted point-blank, but that’s not the point of the peer-review system. And quite frankly, it’s an important, new set of ideas that challenge conventional wisdom, and that should be subjected to extreme scrutiny. The paper was reviewed by some of best scientists in the world, and their comments will only help to make the paper better.

It’s a little frustrating, because due to the format that we chose to submit in, we were restricted severely in space. Many of the comments were just that we glossed over something or didn’t discuss it in depth enough. Well no kidding, we didn’t have the space. But since we’re changing formats again, we’ll just expand it and it’ll be fine, we can address those points in more detail. One of the reviewers called into question our methods, in great detail, without once telling us exactly what we did wrong or how we could go about fixing it. Looks like we’ll be rewriting the methods section… But overall it got good reviews. The science is relatively sound (always good to have an outsider perspective), the overall conclusions, while revolutionary, seem to have convinced 2 out of the 3 reviewers, and the 3rd could be convinced if we follow his exact analysis. So while it was rejected from this journal, I honestly wasn’t expecting an acceptance, and just the fact that it was reviewed at all is great. So now I’m looking forward to rewriting it, doing some more analyses, addressing the concerns and comments from the reviewers, and resubmitting it for another rigorous round of peer-review. There were no awful tear-you-apart comments, no ridiculous notions that everything you did was wrong, and no telling us that the whole thing was worthless. The reviewers recognized the novelty and the strengths, and gave us good constructive comments that will help make it better. Just as the peer-review process should do. And yes, I know, I’m seriously lucky. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting rejections that have caused breakdowns of monumental proportion due to crazy and mean reviewers who tore them apart. We didn’t have that. Part of the reason I’m writing and putting this post up here is because I want to remember these “warm fuzzy feelings” I (currently, naively) have about the peer-review process. In this case, I honestly think its working just as it should. And that will make for better science, regardless of which journal eventually publishes it.

And why have I been rather quiet lately? Well besides getting over an incredibly nasty bout of the flu (which hit particularly hard this year, and I am still feeling rather miserable, though at least finally able to do some work), I’ve been catching up on classwork and writing a mini-grant to travel to Europe to do some really neat field work (wish me luck!), and preparing for several talks that I have to give in various places. And I’ve finally just started labwork on a project that is integral to my work that I can’t do myself due to the fact that I am allergic to some of the reagents. Thank goodness for undergraduate volunteers. When I defend, I will have a full slide thanking them profusely for their amazingly hard work and dedication and willingness to do just about anything. *mental note to buy them chocolate and cookies*



  1. Congratulations on being reviewed by a big journal. I considered a career in academia once (electro-magnetics) and I understand how significant it is to be reviewed. Woot!

    You have an excellent attitude toward the experience. My dad had controversial ideas in the 70’s that took root in the 90’s. When you have the gift of detecting patterns it can take time before others learn to share your vision. Best of luck to you.

  2. That sounds incredible exciting. So does your field of study when it can ‘call into question some major ideas about how our planet’s ecosystems work’… yes extremely cool! Thanks for this glimpse of insight into the ways of the world of Academia / how the peer review process works.

    Ps. Good luck with your field trip to Europe.

  3. I am very fortunate to be on the other side of the fence for an occupational science manuscript. Being a reviewer is also a serious job. After all, this type of review can help make or break on whether an article is published or not.

    I gave it the o’ college try in reviewing the article and type in comments. However, because it was my first review, I wasn’t entirely sure I did it right either. So, I went over it with my faculty mentor. Little did I know, there are things I did wrong. One, I was too nice in some aspects. Two, I kept on identifying myself as an individual with autism (which I thought initially would help in letting the author(s) know about my rare perspective). Three, while I knew the manuscript was crappy, I didn’t know that it was worse than I thought!

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