If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Rejections

Just the other night I had finished up a post and was closing my laptop to get ready for bed when I checked my email one last time.  It was right before midnight and one lone email popped up.  It was a decision email from an editor rejecting my paper.  Who sends out rejection emails at midnight?

I have certainly received rejections throughout my career but lately they have been coming fast and furious.  I have not had an acceptance in a long time.  Actually I should say I have not had an acceptance where I was the first author in a long time.  My students and colleagues that write with me have faired much better than me as of late.  It has been over a year since I've even received a revise and resubmit on a first authored publication.

At first I thought it was because I was not spending enough time and careful attention on my own work. I still believe this was true but not for the last few manuscripts.  I may be picking the wrong journals but this last paper has been rejected by two journals in the past 4 months and both of them were very carefully selected.

So I need to ask myself, what exactly is going on?  Unfortunately there are a lot of variables so it is difficult to pinpoint the problem.  I could chalk it all up to a bad streak.  However the one consistent thing that that has changed is the my perception of my writing and research topics.  When I had less difficulty getting published I thought most of my work was rather boring and not all that unique.  Sure there was something in each manuscript that hadn't been asked before, but that something felt rather minor.  Lately my work has felt a bit more cutting-edge.  I'm trying to merge fields; I'm using riskier (at least for my field) methodology; I'm asking unique questions.  

I am also operating on a smaller scale.  In my last position I had the luxury of large grants (which generated large datasets) and a famous PI.  Our methodology, though conservative, was sound. Currently most of my work is put together on a shoestring.  I make it happen by my efforts, a student research team and (if I'm lucky) a few extra dollars thrown to me from my university.  

I think it is possible to be successful in academia asking unique questions with risky methodology but you probably need the resources and the backing that I had before.  I also think it is possible to be successful doing smaller scale work, but you may have to be more conservative.  Or perhaps it is something completely different.  Perhaps I have just not found my voice in this new area yet. Science is incredibly conservative and new ideas need to be introduced carefully.  I know this from my training.  The problem is I don't know if I have the patience.

My ideas are well received in conferences and presentations.  People seem excited about what I am doing when I talk to them about it.  Normally I would say that they are just being kind but my previous experience tells me that academics enjoy telling you what is wrong with your thinking or methodology, even to your face.  

I don't need a lot of new publications.  I have published a lot for someone at my level.  Also I have the luxury of tenure and I continue to publish (although not as first author as of late).  One of the problems with the rejections is that I need to keep working on the same manuscripts.  I want to get them out because I am wedded to them.  They not only represent a significant amount of my time, effort, and thought but they also represent the voices of my participants and I feel they deserve a chance to be heard.  At the same time I have at least a dozen (actually it is getting close to 14) new papers that are somewhere in the analysis/writing stage.  More importantly, I have a desire for bigger projects.  I have several book-length projects in mind but I don't feel I can start them until I've cleared away most of these papers.

My manuscripts are beginning to feel like children who refuse to leave the nest. 


Annie said...

I think it's good to get all of your thoughts "on paper," working to identify possible reasons your recent work is not getting published. As I read your post, several thoughts came to mind. Key to me seems to be your statement: "In my last position I had the luxury of large grants (which generated large datasets) and a famous PI."

Is it possible that the reviewers want to see more "dramatic" data before publishing something experimental in nature, and that having the funding for a larger dataset will help? Which, of course, means grant writing, and with sufficient funding, doing the research again on a larger scale; using your original research as background material.

I'm speaking in general terms, of course, because I don't know what kind of research you are doing. But I'm guessing that since you are getting favorable verbal feedback from your colleagues, that your concepts are intriguing, valuable, and sound.

Catherine said...

Rejections are never fun. Persevere. I've submitted my last story to numerous places. When it was finally accepted, the editors loved it and so did many readers. Go figure.

Drax said...

That blows. Persevere.

Midnight rejections (and acceptances) are not unusual. They've wrestled with it, they need to go to bed.

life_of_a_fool said...

Yes persevere. I got a rejection email on Christmas eve. That's when I truly understood the argument of setting your email to send at a set time, if that's what you need to do to not send email on weekends, holidays, crazy hours, etc.

I tend to operate on a small scale. It's valuable, I think, though I do have a hard time selling it big. But sometimes it's just bad luck; the wrong reviewers, the wrong editor, and a bad coincidence of it being a string. Of course you have to think through the possibilities, and maybe there's something you could do differently. Or, maybe it's just bad luck. Regardless, it sucks to be in that phase. Here's to breaking out of it!!