Mind Games 2.0

Bloggin' 'bout science and life

New Authors and Rejection

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.



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  1. Rassim Khelifa

    Dear Pr. McPeek,

    Would you please illustrate us some points about plagiarism and how scientists behave with this issue. I’m interested by that because I have “heard” about a very strange situation. I’m gonna explain you that case then tell me (if you can) what is your opinion.

    Let’s consider that someone named “John” submit a manuscript to a journal (x). The editor spends some days then replies to John that someone named “Pr. Bill” claims that the manuscript is based on data that he possesses in thesis that he supervised. John replies to the editor that his work is original and it has never been studied before. He gives proofs that he actually collected his own data (pictures, sketches…) then he did the bibliographic research needed to show that no thesis includes his data submitted. John asks Pr. Bill to give him the Title, the author, and the year of the thesis in order to check it and be convinced. Of course Pr. Bill did not reply John because there is actually no thesis and he knows it. It turns out that Pr. Bill has scientific conflict with John. The most important problem is that the editor doesn’t care about the issue. Since Pr. Bill is a “Professor” and John is a “PhD student”, that means that John is probably the liar.
    Something that John did not understand is: Why didn’t the editor ask Pr. Bill to give him the reference of his thesis so that he proves his claims.
    It’s a bit unfair don’t you think. When someone accuses another one of plagiarism, the first thing he should do is to present proofs. Otherwise, he could not talk about plagiarism.
    Just to notice that Pr. Bill and John live in the same region and have usually similar research interests (they share the same resource) but they have conflict.
    What should John do?

    Thank you


    • Rassim,

      This sounds quite unfair to me. Anyone bringing an accusation of plagiarism-or any other type of misconduct-must be able to back up that accusation. My attitude is that the Editor of the journal has a responsibility to investigate the charges fully, and if “Pr. Bill” cannot produce the thesis for the Editor and for “John”, then the charge is baseless, and the Editor should simply ignore “Pr Bill”‘s charge. Moreover, “Pr Bill” should be removed from ever reviewing for this journal again (I realize that this is not really a punishment of “Pr Bill”, but it does maintain the integrity of the journal in question and of the reviewing process).

      My 2¢s

      Happy New Year, & I hope things work out for “John”.

      • Rassim Khelifa

        Dear Pr. McPeek,

        Thank you for your explanations.
        I also hope that things will work out for this “powerless” John.
        By the way, you have a very good website.

        Happy New Year Professor.



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