Tuesday, August 20, 2013


My work as a researcher* takes me through its ups and downs, both in terms of teaching situations and collegial interactions but particularly through the merciless part of publishing research results. Research areas differ but one thing is certain, getting a paper published is hard. Not only do you have to have groundbreaking interesting results, they also need to be written up in a clever, thoughtful way and the results need to be carefully related and differentiated from previous similar results. I fare pretty well in terms of getting my work published but it doesn't mean I don't struggle with each paper and that I don't put a lot of effort (blood, sweat and tears) into each and every part of an article. Like most other researchers I get emotionally invested in the review process, that being in a conference review committee or a set of journal reviews. Meaning, yes, I have almost cried over getting a paper rejected, I have screamed and jumped up and down by another one getting accepted and I have sympathized with many colleagues doing the same. At a committee meeting many years ago I found a colleague crying in the bathroom after her carefully written paper describing a longitudinal study that she had worked on for years got rejected. "I don't know what more the reviewers want!" she sobbed as I tried to make her feel better. Reviewers are those cruel anonymous people behind sentences such as "I really like this paper but the contribution is just not significant enough for publication at this point", and "The topic and method is great but the sample size is just too small for such study". They most often don't know the authors either and cannot see their tears, their shredded dreams and their funding slip away as they reject the papers.

I'm not saying that research papers are being rejected for no reason. To non-researchers it looks like a simple and fair process that we as colleagues check each other's research for flaws and novelty. But reality is different, particularly in interdisciplinary fields like my own. Reviewing papers is not just about checking the facts, the calculations and if this has been done before. It is also about pushing for a specific type of research that the reviewer find important, in essence trying to drives one's own agenda. Nobody is of course willing to admit that this is the case but talking privately to colleagues, it's obvious that such prejudice takes place. A classic (very simplified) argument goes that these researchers should not have used this method for this study but another method (one that happens to be of the reviewer's expertise). And they cannot claim the results on the basis of the method used. When the authors review the reviewer's research, they will argue the opposite.

Zoe sometimes helps me write papers
I just spent two days in a committee meeting where we decided on a set of 75 papers to be presented at one of the main conferences in my field. Committee members were ruthless in their slashing but also occasionally compassionate. I got convinced of accepting one paper that I initially felt was not good enough but I also argued for rejection of another one due to its lack of serious contribution. My own paper** was also out of luck. After three rounds of discussion (where I of course had to leave the room, this is customary) it was rejected by a committee member who felt the theory we had used was not developed any further but simply used to illustrate our data. The positive part this time around was that the particular committee member identified himself to me and offered a bit of advice and a suggestion to what to change and where to submit it (a second tier conference with deadline in 8 months). I nodded and took a few pointers but I'll be ignoring most of his guidance, for a variety of reasons. What I didn't tell him was that this time the rejected paper has direct consequences for me: because I don't have any research funding in my new job yet I depend directly on published papers for travel funding. This rejection very likely means that I will not get any travel funding next year and cannot attend any conferences or committee meetings unless I get some research funding (I have applied for several grants but they take 6-8 months of review time). So although I have yet to cry over this rejection, I am utterly stunned and perplexed over the random and person-centric system of reviewing yet again. I am running on borrowed steam because of my sh**** job situation where I am just building up a research agenda and a research group, and this was a tie-over publication based on research in my previous job. Luckily I'm a very driven person and as soon as I get over this (probably by tomorrow), I'll use my annoyance to motivate my next writing efforts. I will do this. I will continue to publish interesting, novel and relevant research. And I'll continue to get rejections but hopefully also at one point accepts.

*Technically my job title is associate professor but I like to refer to myself as a researcher because research is the core part of what I do. It might not be the part I spend the most time on but it is the most important and interesting part of my job. 

**Like most other research papers, this is a collaboration paper with several coauthors who did an amazing job contributing to the paper, in fact two coauthors did the majority of the work in this case.

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