In science, rejection is normal

In the news: A coupla guys played around with some #2 pencils and Scotch tape and won a Nobel Prize in physics. Talk about easy science! This is what happens when you work in a field with such low-hanging fruit that you run out of testable hypotheses.

Okay, kidding aside…

The initial NY Times report noted that the first paper on graphene that the researchers wrote was rejected by Nature before later being published in Science. [1]

It would be easy to fit that into a narrative that is common in movies and in science journalism: the brilliant iconoclasts rejected by the hidebound scientific establishment.

Far more likely though is a much more mundane explanation: scientists see their work rejected all the time. It’s just part of how science works. The review process is not perfect, and sometimes you have to shop a good idea around for a while before you can convince people of its merit. And the more productive you are, the more rejection experiences you will accumulate over a career.

It’s a good reminder that if you’re a working scientist (or trying to start a career as one), don’t get too worked up about rejection.

[1] Puzzling sidenote: For some reason that part no longer appears in the article on the NY Times website, but since there’s no correction statement I’ll still assume that it’s true and they just edited it out of a later edition for some reason. The rejection anecdote still appears on the PBS website.

4 thoughts on “In science, rejection is normal

  1. Sure rejection is normal, but I don’t think getting things published is just a matter of shopping around. Most of the time, I did some editing before resubmission. Then too, papers generally get rejected for some reason. Most of the time, you can show the reason for the rejection to be invalid, assuming it is, indeed invalid.

  2. Oh, yes. Reworking takes place. The paper we just got published, for example, was rejected all out the first time, but with a great deal of good commentary, and an indication that the reviewers actually thought this was interesting. So, we re-wrote and resubmitted it to the same journal. A few rounds after that (one of them including a 6 month wait), we got it accepted. Phew. And, of course, the paper that was rejected from one place, so we rewrote and submitted to an even better journal, and then the editor of the first journal asked why we hadn’t resubmitted… I’m starting to see it a bit as an editing process. Right now, I have once again asked for a re-submit on a paper I’m reviewing. It is a neat little experiment that I really want to see published, but the introduction and discussion needs a bit more work.

  3. I wouldn’t disagree. “Shopping around” may have been the wrong phrase, if it implies just sending the exact same thing to different outlets until somebody takes it. That’s definitely not what I meant. If your work gets sent out for review before being rejected, you’re always well advised to take the reviews into consideration and revise before you send it out again.

    But there are lots of reasons that papers get rejected besides straight-up lack of merit. Ase’s story about getting a paper rejected at one journal and then published at a more prestigious journal doesn’t surprise me at all. People usually work their way down the ladder, not up, so I suspect the main reason there aren’t more stories like that is because people don’t give them a chance to happen.

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