Monday, 2 June 2008


This morning I received one of the least-welcome messages it is possible for a scientist to receive: my manuscript was rejected for publication. I was assured by the professor for whom I had originally written the paper that it would sail through peer review, but apparently it did not: both reviewers were negative.

This was my first real introduction to the receiving end of peer review. I have always been in favour of the process: it is a sort of quality control for science. It has its flaws, to be sure, but they are far less significant than some of the other problems with science.* I always figured that I could take a rejection gracefully, that I would grow from it and make my work into something better when I resubmitted it. It took this experience to show that I was really not prepared for dealing with it. I managed to pull myself together, though, and thought about it on my way into campus.

For one thing, my paper is not on a topic in which I am actually doing research. It is a review of work done in a distantly related field, written for a class and coached into publication by the class's professor. I suppose that I had started to feel somewhat overconfident of my talents in the latter stages of submission. Getting a paper published outside of my field would be something of a coup, proof of my versatility. But at the same time, there is nothing halfway about this. Publishing a paper is not playing in a sandbox: submitting something for publication is tantamount to saying that one is ready to play with the big kids. One is asking for the roughest treatment that one's work could possibly merit. Like the saying goes, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," and that is certainly true here. If a paper survives the peer-review process, it was either exemplary to begin with, or (more likely) was considerably improved through its criticism. I was asking to be taken seriously as an expert in a field in which I have in fact had little formal training (none at all, in the case of palaeontology, of which I had much to say in this paper), and I should have expected a thorough smacking in any way that could be delivered.

However, things are not as negative as that implies. One of the reviewers provided about four pages of commentary, which I take to mean that s/he thought my work of sufficient merit to indicate at the very least that I was thinking along the right lines. If nothing else, s/he has helped me learn more about the field, pointing out where I was making false assumptions or missing critical papers. Although there was nothing explicit by way of encouragement in what s/he wrote, it is not reading between the lines too much to see that, at the very least, the reviewer respected my effort.

The other review was quite different. For one thing, it was well under half a page. It began with explicit praise for my writing, and regards the paper's principal flaw as a lack of novel ideas (which, being a review paper, is not a particularly hurtful observation). However, the second paragraph reads almost as if it were describing a different paper entirely. It deplores my lack of expertise and experience, and concludes by calling my work "poor". I am not sure what to make of the conflicting messages in this review, but I will continue to ruminate on the matter, and both the professor for whom I originally wrote the paper and my supervisor have promised advice and encouragement. I may take the first reviewer's suggestions to heart, rework the manuscript, and resubmit it. I may get my coup after all. But overall, this is a side project, and not a critical one to my career, and if it fails to produce anything that can go on my CV, so be it.

In any event, I have made it through the day with my dignity largely intact -- challenged, to be sure, but not broken. This is part of the process. I would expect nothing less: I have asked for my work to be taken seriously, and it was, even if that amounted to being told that it was not an effort worthy of being taken seriously. This is a sign that science is working. If I am to make anything of my effort, it will be all the better for having weathered such a challenge. In short, things are not so bad.

* This is worthy of another post in and of itself. The principal problems with science that concern me are research priorities, funding, job availability, and regard for educational talent -- but those are all problems within science. More significant still is the general public ignorance of what science is, how it works, and what scientists do, running from general lack of exposure all the way to the mistruths spread by Creationists. But I will restrain myself: I will post about that another time.