Or, dealing with rejection in your scientific career, Part I
This is part one of a two-part blog post.
There’s no doubt about it, rejection is hard to accept.
But when you choose a career in research, you will frequently encounter rejection.
It happened to me just the other day.
We submitted a paper describing a computational model of phenotype switching in the soil bacterium B. Subtilis to PLoS Computational Biology. The paper produced several new results that other models had not reported. It also revealed new biological insights into the mechanisms of phenotype switching. This journal requires that a submitted paper represent both computational and biological advances. Our paper seemed to meet that requirement.
The rejection letter included the following quote:
As with all papers submitted to the journal, yours was fully evaluated by myself in consultation with other members of the PLoS Computational Biology Editorial Team. While we appreciate the attention to an important topic, I regret that we do not feel that the manuscript provides the strength of the advance that we must require for PLoS Computational Biology.
I am sorry that we cannot be more positive on this occasion, but hope that you appreciate the reasons for this decision and that you will consider PLoS Computational Biology for other submissions in the future.
It was not even sent out for review.
This is the second paper of mine that has been submitted to this journal recently, and been rejected without review.
In fact, I didn’t want to send the paper to the journal, but my co-author, a graduate student in my lab, really wanted to try this journal. I went along with her wishes.
This rejection letter is the least useful kind of rejection you can receive – because it contains no information about what was “wrong” with your paper.
I can only speculate what was wrong with mine.
But speculation does not help make it better.
Turning rejection into strength
As time has gone on, I’ve gotten better at dealing with the rejections.
One of the things that has made it easier is realizing that I can almost always use a rejection as a learning mechanism, that will improve my subsequent work.
The paper rejection I mentioned above is the worst type of rejection – one that comes with no useful information. Having had two such uninformative rejections from that journal in a short space of time means that I am unlikely to submit another paper to that journal.
I was able to turn this rejection into a strength in one way: learning that this journal is not a good place to submit my work.
Every time a rejection occurs, you should parlay it into a learning opportunity (I do). Some are more informative opportunities than others – but every one is an opportunity.
That’s the one “nice” thing about grant rejections from NIH or NSF: they almost always contain at least two reviews. From those, you may get at least some idea of where the reviewers were coming from, in order to figure out how to fix the problems (or whether to start over).
Grant or paper reviews don’t always tell you exactly what the deeper problems are with your work. So often you have to try to read between the lines. But the information is usually there if you look carefully.
I’ll expound on that thought on my email list (if you want to join, you can use the subscribe box in the upper left of my blog page).
And in part II of the article, I will discuss actionable items for dealing with rejection.