Writing, rejection, and how to avoid perishing in a publication-crazy world

January 22, 2015

By Michael Donaldson, Ph.D.

"Publish or perish."  That dire adage is the mantra of researchers the world over. Publishing represents one of the greatest sources of both excitement and consternation among researchers. It is that crucial step that communicates your research to the world; but the road to that destination is rife with challenges and fraught with uncertainty. While there is no universal strategy to have your work published, there is certainly value in discussing the process from the point of view of both editors and authors.

Recently, I had the great honour of participating in a panel on publishing at the 2015 Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research -  a joint meeting of the CCFFR & Society for Canadian Limnologists (SCL). 


 The panel was comprised of Dr. John Smol, Queen’s University and Editor of Environmental Reviews), Dr. Rolf Vinebrooke (University of Alberta and Editor of Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences), and Dr. Donna Parrish (University of Vermont and President of the American Fisheries Society).  Oh, and me… compared to the other members on the panel, I was by far the most junior, and was invited to bring the perspective of an early career author and editor; albeit I was more than a little out of my league! The session was moderated by Dr. Steven Cooke (Carleton University and Editor-in-chief of Conservation Physiology and an Associate Editor for Environmental Reviews).  The discussion began with a brief preamble from each of the panelists followed by a facilitated discussion with the mostly graduate student audience.

The panel participants were (L to R) John Smol, Rolf Vinebrooke, Michael Donaldson, and Donna Parrish.

 A range of topics were touched upon during the panel but two key themes clearly emerged:
  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Rejection is hard too, but that’s okay.

Writing is Hard

John Smol led the preamble to the panel by stating: “If it isn’t published, you never did the research.”  This bold statement that set the tone for the remainder of the discussion also led to numerous nods of agreement from the rest of the panel.  Although there are various means of communicating research results to the world, peer-reviewed publication remains the best approach we have to vet and disseminate science. Publishing is the product of research. However, the process is a tedious one, particularly for students starting out. 

Getting to the writing stage is a challenge on its own, as students must develop their research questions, navigate input from their committees, establish a study design, and collect data.  Putting the proverbial pen to paper is the most difficult part and, as all panel members agreed, it doesn’t necessarily get easier even later in your career. I likened the experience to some of the most stressful moments of my research career as a salmon field biologist.  I have been cornered by a bear, had to reach through flames to close a valve on a flaming propane tank that was about to explode, and even had to carry out field work in remote locations while under the effects of a hideous food-borne illness known as Campylobacteriosis. Those situations were nerve-wracking, but not nearly as stressful as sitting down to a blank word processing document and trying to start a new manuscript!

So how do you get past the writer’s block and start writing? Everyone is unique, but ultimately you should strive to find a way to get something, anything, on the page. Some people aim for a title or a skeleton outline, others a methods or results section.  Many start with the introduction.  Personally, I like to write the abstract – it may evolve as the manuscript develops, but I feel that it gives me a snapshot of how I am going to put the entire manuscript together. Lean on your co-authors and colleagues by bouncing ideas or asking for advice. Whatever strategy you use to get started, once you climb over that first hurdle and get rolling, you may find that you build a little confidence and can continue to work through the manuscript section by section.

Rejection is hard too, but that’s okay

Overcoming the challenges of writing and submitting your work is often only half the battle. Peer-review can be a trying and discouraging process. You will likely wait several weeks before learning of the editorial decision, and often the decision can be disappointing. Sometimes you will be faced with major revisions or rejection as it is very rare to have a manuscript accepted and even uncommon to have only minor revisions on a first submission.  

Brace yourself for your first read-through of your reviews. Remember that the process of peer-review is inherently critical in nature, so expect some harsh comments and even a terse or negative tone from the reviewers. It is the reviewers’ job to point out the flaws in the study; but it is also their job, with the help of the editorial team, to provide constructive criticism, so that you can improve on the work and move it forward. Take those criticisms and do your very best to address them all; if you have been offered the opportunity to resubmit your manuscript, remember to document your point-by-point changes in your response letter to the editor. However, keep in mind that reviewers can misinterpret your work or even offer incorrect or poor advice.  You are not obligated to make every suggested revision, but in cases where you elect not to address the suggestion, make sure to provide a full, considerate explanation for your decision.  If your paper was rejected outright, still consider the reviewer comments very carefully to help you revised and prepare to resubmit your manuscript elsewhere.

Ergonomic Errors by Raymond Nakamura
Ergonomic Errors, Cartoon by Raymond Nakamura

Regardless of context, rejection is by its very nature, discouraging. Shortly after the panel, I spoke with a student who was nearing the end of her M.Sc. Her thesis was near completion but she was struggling to have her work published. It is not uncommon to have a paper rejected or to have to make what seems like insurmountable revisions to your work. John, Rolf, and Donna all mentioned this during their discussion, providing evidence that even those with a great deal of experience with writing and peer-review can still struggle to publish their work.  Their rule of thumb was to turn a negative into a positive; use the criticisms to improve your work and stick with it until it is published.

The peer-review process is not easy nor is it infallible, but it is the best way to vet our scientific research and disseminate it to the world. No matter how discouraging it can be, remember to trust the process. Trust that you will get out what you put in and never give up, no matter how challenging it can be.  

Michael Donaldson

About MichaelMichael R. Donaldson (@EcolEvol) is the Content Development Manager at Canadian Science Publishing. His lifelong passion for nature led to a B.Sc. and M.Sc. at Carleton University and a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, studying the effects of climate change and fisheries on Pacific Salmon. His more recent work has investigated methods for preventing the spread of invasive Asian Carp into the Great Lakes. He has also written on the peer-review process and ideas for enhancing scientific communication. A passionate communicator of science, Michael has participated in a number of academic conferences and continues to do so in his role with Canadian Science Publishing. Michael volunteers on a number of academic society committees, many related to scholarly publishing and science communication.

Filed Under: NRC Research Press Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Science Careers Raymond Nakamura Michael Donaldson

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