Disclaimer: TED talk therapy for researchers who publish in the peer-reviewed literature.
I just received another rejection (Major revision). I was very happy with this manuscript, and I was really glad to be done with it. The rejection was not based on unsound science, but was a recommendation to frame the paper better to be more effective and to amend some weak assumptions. We will get this paper published, and it will be improved by the comments that we received. However, this brings to mind an important issue that I think about often: rejection.
Researchers are generally accustomed to academic success. We were good students in no small measure because we do not like to fail. We have demonstrated the capacity to succeed in academics. Failure is, at this point, a bitter pill. Yet, failure is commonplace: 5% of grants get funded, 15% of papers get accepted, experiments fail. Generally, we have always succeeded on those narrow margins. For example most of us got into some school that only accepted that very top fraction of folks; the academic top 10% is our crowd. We expect to succeed despite long odds on failure.
Hence, it often bugs the crap out of us, and sometimes derails our careers, when we fail. Here are my words of advice meant for those of you experiencing or expecting to experience failure (ie, all of you): embrace that failure. Run right up to it, give it a huge hug, say thank you. Mean it. Be genuinely grateful. That is tougher than it sounds.
There are many reasons to take the grateful, albeit reluctant acceptance of failure. Foremost is that your proposal/research/paper will be better when you change the it based on the feedback you get from failing. Knowing that, however, doesn't make failure easy for anyone. Secondarily, science is supposed to be fun. We all need to make failure as pleasant as possible because we will encounter small doses of failure throughout our careers even while we build a record of success. With that, here is my step by step recommendation for you when you receive that email containing the reviews to a manuscript you recently submitted.
Step 1. Before you open the email, place a pencil in your mouth, crosswise and bite gently on it. This forces your smile muscles to engage. It has been shown that smiling makes us happier people. Start by smiling while reading what is highly likely to be a rejection. Let's remember that you are now competing amongst a pool where 100% of your competitors share your expectations of success. This is no longer high school where you are academically competing against a pool where most weren’t trying. There is no shame in rejection.
Step 2. Read only as far as the decision. Force yourself to stop. I know you want to read the rationale immediately. Don't read it now. Wait. You are not yet ready to embrace the change that is needed. The reviewers are, at this point, nattering nabobs of negativism. Give yourself some time to be mad or sad. Mad is good. Mad is a better motivator. Sad is likely. Sad requires sending the self-doubt off on vacation.
Step 3. Draft the thank you letter to the editor. You received constructive feedback from caring scientists who volunteered their time to help you. Thank them for the care and attention that they invested in you. Be grateful. It has been shown that when you stop and be consciously grateful, you become a nicer and happier person. Write the grateful beginning of your response when you are mad/sad. It will help you get over the mad, possibly even the sad.
Step 4. Contemplate your community. Spend at least 4 hours doing other stuff, including at least a minute contemplating the well-known fact that everyone you admire in the world of science also has had most of their best work rejected. All of the papers that you cited in your paper were kicked back to their authors for major revision and re-review. OK, so I don't have any data on this. But, I published my first paper 27 years ago, and I probably have a higher rate of rejection now than I did when I first started. I have published over 100 papers. I have had 1 where the paper was accepted on its first go without revision of some sort. That was years ago. Journal rejection rates are very high; there is likely a good reason for rejection that is not specifically related to your skill as a scientist.
Step 5. Read the review. If a minimum of 4 hours have elapsed, and that is important, you may be ready to read the reviews. If you feel Mr. Mad coming back, you might need to stop and come back later. Feel free to use the pencil in the mouth at any time. Take another four hours, minimum.
Step 6. Revise the letter to the editor. Go back to the thank you letter and enumerate the positive aspects of the review (things the reviewers liked about your paper). Then enumerate the constructive components of criticism that you find in your first read of the reviews. Now give it some more time. The weekend sounds about right.
Step 7. Get to work. You are now ready to revise your manuscript. Once you have given yourself the time and mental space to gracefully and gratefully accept criticism, you will be much better at incorporating the constructive criticism and make your paper effective at reaching the target audience. Remember, the editor chose those reviewers because they thought that these people represent your target audience. Even if the reviewers simply failed to understand your paper, you need to write a clearer paper.
You will succeed, but first you will fail. When failure causes self doubt, and it will, follow these easy steps. 1. Assume the power pose: stand up, put your hands on your hips, lift your chin, spread your legs at least 18 inches apart. 2. Watch this video. It will put you in a better mindset to work through the self doubt and revise the paper in a way that will succeed. Rock on. The world needs you. Thank god for TED talks.
How do you deal with rejection? Share your clever coping strategies.
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.