A few weeks ago, I was on a panel of Editors that was answering questions from scientists about how scientific papers are published, and giving advice to help authors. This happened at the joint, American Society of Naturalist/Society for the Study of Evolution/Society of Systematic Biologists meeting in Moscow, Idaho. One of the most fascinating parts of this conversation was the degree to which new authors think that the system is stacked against them or that their “enemies” are all reviewing their papers and having them rejected.
This was fascinating to me. It is true that most journals have high rejection rates: for example, the journal I now edit (The American Naturalist) has an acceptance rate that hovers around 20%. However, it has also always been my experience that every paper that is submitted to scientific journals are judged on the merits of content, and not the authority of who wrote the paper. Peer review really works like it’s supposed to.
It may be true that scientists just starting out have a higher rejection rate on papers than more well-established scientists (I have seen no data to this effect, but I’m willing to accept the fact that it is true), but this is not because new scientists are discriminated against. I would guess that the main reason this may be true is that new authors have not found their voices as authors. Papers are judged on content and clarity of writing. More established scientists have more experience writing papers, and so hopefully produce clearer and better written papers. In contrast, new scientists haven’t had a tremendous amount of experience in crafting arguments in writing, and thinking through the organization of a paper. Like anything, this all comes with experience and practice.
I know this was the case with me. When I think back to my first scientific writing experiences, I cringe. However, as I wrote more papers, I got better (and faster) at drafting papers, and getting them accepted into respected journals.
A few tips:
Read papers, and copy the attributes of papers you like. Like any good writer starting out, copying the style of someone who’s good is a good way to get started. After a while though, you will develop your own style of writing that will form your own voice.
The biggest mistake most authors make is to not listen to reviewers comments, particularly when a paper is rejected. After a day or two of calming down, read the reviews with a critical eye, and try to place yourself in the position of the reviewer. If the reviewer didn’t understand what you were trying to say, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault as the writer! Learn to anticipate what the reader will think when she/he reads a sentence in one of your papers. It’s not about what you’re thinking of when you wrote the sentence; it’s about what the reader reads.
Finally, pass your paper around to a number of colleagues before you submit it to a journal. Particularly useful are those colleagues who you respect, but who don’t work in exactly your field. That’s the kind of person who will be writing reviews to the journal about your paper, so having the criticisms from those types of people before you submit it will be critical.