Sometimes, things just fall into place: The evening before the most recent Academic Crisis Line on dealing with rejection and frustration, I got a pre-holiday manuscript rejection. As pointed out by the crisis liners, rejection in academia happens to everyone on a rather regular basis. So what we should really be concentrating on is to deal with it in the most self-preserving and productive ways possible. One thing that can really help is to talk through it, and to connect with others in similar situations.
So I thought it would be an interesting experiment to share my unfiltered thoughts while I deal with this rejected paper here on this blog.
The life cycle of this manuscript started way before the rejection. It is the first paper I submitted based on my core postdoc project. Since I switched topics after my PhD it is, so to speak, my second baby. And just between you and I, it is even dearer to me than my first baby, since the idea is really entirely mine.
Since I am using quite a new methodology, the project has not been without it bumps. The results are promising, but I definitely need to run more experiments and conditions to really establish the effect I am aiming at. And I am looking forward to doing that. But given I am running baby studies, which take forever and more to conduct, I chose to write an initial, honest paper about my findings so far (which were, nevertheless, based on two full samples in two different labs).
The decision letter
I kind of expected a rejection, since we had aimed quite high journal-wise. So when the email arrived in my inbox I didn’t even hesitate to open it, since I really wanted to know what was going on. And when I read it, it was disappointing, but ok. I guess that’s the nice thing about aiming high – that it is not soul-crushing if it doesn’t work out. You can always escape to saying that it was because you aimed too high.
Opening the reviewers’ comments took a bit more courage. I was bracing myself to read that my results were inconclusive and how I’d need to run more studies. I thought I’d find out they’d suggest two more years worth of work was necessary to be convincing.
However, surprisingly, there was almost none of that. In fact, I never got reviews quite like that. Interestingly, all three reviewers seemed to agree a lot amongst each other, but not with me. The biggest chunk of comments is about how I frame my study – reviewers unanimously disliked it. That is indeed interesting to me, since I think my framing is the strongest aspect of my study, and numerous talks I’ve given to people in my field suggested the same. Another group of comments is about papers I should be citing – which is again very interesting, since quite a few of the papers they suggest are actually cited. Finally, the last comments are misunderstandings about my study design. Which is the fourth occasion for me to use the term interesting, since, honestly, I have never had the impression I was bad at structured explanations, and it has never happened to me before that reviewers have misunderstood my study design that severely.
Analysis: How I am dealing with the rejection
I just wrote down the previous passage straight as it poured out of my head. And then I re-read it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who would secretly smile about someone that reacts to the unanimous criticism of three experts with the term “interesting”. I wouldn’t go as far as to compare my reactions with the five stages of grief (denial – anger – bargaining – depression – acceptance) that every hobby psychologist throws at you when a relationship ends (and the phase of denial, in this case, would require quite some cognitive skills). But I do think that my reaction is my personal way to express a phase of anger. Just that, as many of us, I am not uninhibited and unreflected enough to start ranting about the reviewers’ comments. That’s why I choose to find everything “interesting”. By doing so, I can at least keep up the image of sophisticated me in my head, sipping my tea elegantly while politely listening to my aunt explaining how the rose quartz stone she just gave me for Christmas will prevent me from ever having UTIs. “Interesting”, I would say and warmly smile.
See what I am doing here? Now these reviewers, who were honestly wonderful and took a lot of time and gave useful feedback (and are probably actually right in what they were saying, although I can barely spell that out right now) are, in my mind, like my rose quartz aunt.
But no, sophisticated me is replying, of course the reviewers are not rose quartz auntie! They have good reasons for why they are reacting the way they are, listen: My project is situated at a cross-section of disciplines, and I probably got reviewers that come from a very different tradition using a different framework. That’s the only reason why the way I frame my work is unappealing to them.
The fact that I am simultaneously being sophisticated me and meta-reflecting me might suggest I do not believe what sophisticated me is saying, but that is absolutely not true. In fact, by ironically meta-reflecting I can give myself the illusion of being in rational control of everything, although, actually, between us, I think all three reviewers sleep with semi-precious stones under their pillows.
So…: I will let this manuscript sit for a little bit and then get back to it and the reviewers’ comments. You will hear from me then!