My work lately has not been particularly glorious: we just got a manuscript desk rejected. (For those not familiar with the academic publishing business: In an optimal case, we would have sent the manuscript to a journal, the handling editor would have passed it to a bunch of reviewers, and we could have improved it based on the reviewer comments. This time, however, the editor didn’t find the manuscript interesting enough for further evaluation. So, we just got it back with no further comments. The plan B is, of course, to submit to another journal.)
This is by far not the first time. Actually, looks like one gets used to this. This time, instead of questioning my competence as a researcher (and a supervisor: I’m the “senior author” of this manuscript!), I found myself pondering the narrative of success in science.
As researchers, we work under continuous evaluation; first by supervisors at early career stages and later on more and more by peers. This evaluation is most visible in the peer review process of publications: before an article gets published in some scientific journal, a group of independent researchers from the same field have read the manuscript and suggested – sometimes required – improvements. The peer review system plays an important gate-keeper role, ensuring that published research is methodologically sound and follows good scientific practice. In the same time, however, it poses research as a highly competitive process: who manages to please the reviewers, who is good enough to publish?
Honestly speaking, research is a highly competitive process. One’s future research possibilities are more or less defined by how much and where one publishes – there are never enough positions and funding sources for everybody, and an article or two in a high-end journal always looks good on one’s CV. However, this easily turns to a discouraging narrative of scientific success. According to this narrative, being talented and hard-working is not enough for making a research career; instead, one’s work needs to be absolutely faultless.
As a PhD student, I was told by a distinguished senior researcher that in science, being the second-best is never enough. In my opinion, this is simply wrong (in addition to being a cruel thing to say to a student who already feels slightly unsure). Although being the second-best may not be enough for getting a particular high-end professorship, it definitely is enough for getting most grants, for publishing in most journals – and for making valuable scientific findings.
How is this narrative related to the peer review process? Reading is an important and enjoyable part of my work as a researcher. However, I often can’t help comparing my own manuscripts under construction to the articles I read, in particular if a more experienced researcher has recommend these articles as classics or good examples. How come are others able to produce such beautiful, polished pieces of research? Am I again being the second-best, at most? Lately, I’ve realized that the answer may lay in the invisibility of the peer review process. Authors work on the reviewer comments privately, and what the broader audience gets to see is the final version of the manuscript that has already benefitted from the reviewer suggestions*. So, the articles of others have not been perfect to start with: carefully reported secondary analyses and complementary views raised in the discussion may well have come up during the review process.
* There are some exceptions, though. For example, the European Journal of Neuroscience publishes the reviewer comments alongside the articles (as an example, the reviewer comments on our smoothing paper (Alakörkkö et al. 2017) can be found here).
As reviewers have a huge impact on which manuscripts get published, they are often considered as slightly hostile authorities that spend their time searching for reasons to reject the manuscripts by the second-best. For me, this is sad: although the gate-keeper role of reviewers requires rejecting manuscripts with clear scientific misconduct, in most cases the peer review should be another possibility to improve the manuscript. Unfortunately, the authors are not the only ones to consider the reviewers as hostile gate-keepers: also some reviewers seem to consider finding mistakes as their main task. Actually, this should not been surprising. After learning to see the reviewers of one’s own manuscripts as malicious, it may be difficult to take a different role while reviewing the manuscripts of others.
At individual level, one typically learns to cope with the problematic narrative of success over time. For example, I fully understood the imperfection of others only when I reviewed a manuscript myself* for the first time. At the same time, I realized that most reviewers (including those evaluating my manuscripts) probably aren’t that hostile: if I mostly want to help the authors to improve their manuscript, why should I assume this being an exception?
* By the way, I enjoy reviewing: it’s a good excuse to spend more time reading! So, if you happen to be an editor, I will most probably accept your invitation to review.
However, letting every researcher to learn this on their own is sort of wast of resources. In my opinion, the key here is openness. For example, people naturally don’t like to announce their failures publicly. So, we rarely hear about others getting their manuscripts rejected. Published papers are often celebrated in lab meetings – sharing the rejections there as well probably wouldn’t harm. Lately, I’ve enjoyed also tweets by colleagues who openly share the problems with getting their work published.
Further, local working culture can enhance the positive aspects of peer review. When we, for example, discuss an article at a journal club, do we concentrate on spotting its mistakes instead of learning from it? Also the way we give feedback to our colleagues matters.
On a more general level, pre-print servers challenge the traditional peer review. Authors can post their research on these servers without any peer review, and many actually do so before submitting their manuscript to a journal. Besides improving the accessibility of science by making articles freely available, pre-print servers also highlight the importance of research process compared to the final outcome. It is not rare that authors update their pre-print with later versions, where the positive effects of peer review are visible. Obviously, servers that allow comments on pre-prints (such as bioArxiv) and open pre-print reviews (for example in PREreview) increase the process visibility even more.
So, what’s the take-home message of the day? Let’s summarize this with two points. First, to anybody feeling unsure, incompetent, and second-best (at most): others are probably not categorically better than you; you just see their work only in its final state. Second, to everybody: let’s continue to talk about our achievements – but let’s talk more about desk rejections too!
PS: Desk rejection seems to lead to a general-level reflection. A more positive review outcome, major revision, would lead to addressing the reviewer comments instead. Jari Saramäki has written great tips for this here and here.