Rejection is brutal – but here’s some consolation

Rejection can be felt more intensely in academia because of the level of personal investment – but it is a normal and necessary aspect of any career

October 31, 2019
person bouncing in front of rainbow
Source: Getty

“I was never actually told there was something called a desk rejection until I received one.

“So it was a shock to be informed that, not only did the editor dislike my/our toil, he disliked it sufficiently to circumvent its progress through the review process. I vividly recall my co-author’s response as he yelled ‘at least he bothered to read it’ (expletives deleted).”

This frank retelling of what it feels like to have one’s cherished work returned forthwith is from a journal article by Justin Craig, of Bond University, Australia, in which he likens the experience to being “hit by a returning boomerang”.

On the failure of his academic mentors to bring this brutal rite of passage to his attention, he says he will never know whether this was because they wanted to hide their own fallibility or because they had never experienced desk rejections themselves.

But perhaps that’s beside the point, since none escape rejection in some shape or form given the nature of our systems for awarding grants and publishing findings.

We are sometimes reminded of this at the time of the Nobel prize announcements, when we learn of earlier setbacks faced by those garlanded with the highest academic honours.

This year, Sir Peter Ratcliffe, joint winner of the 2019 prize in physiology or medicine, revealed that back in 1992, his now award-winning study on cells and their adaptability to oxygen was rejected by Nature.

The letter informing him of the decision advised that “your paper would be better placed in a more specialised journal, particularly given the competition for space”.

In our cover story, we dive into the universal experience of failure – what it feels like and how best to deal with it – with contributions from a range of disciplines.

A wonderful image offered by one scholar explains how it feels to face professional rejection.

The sensation, according to Merlin Crossley, deputy vice-chancellor of UNSW Sydney, is like travelling through an inverted rainbow, in which not only is the curve upside down, but the bright colours are also flipped into dark and sludgy tones.

Upon hearing that a paper has been knocked back, “you drop through a deep crimson of disbelief and outrage”, before moving on to “a sort of dirty brown of acceptance”.

What follows is “a consolatory period – a sort of burnt orange” before one emerges into bright yellow sunlight with the realisation that “you haven’t changed – only your circumstances have”.

The agony of rejection may be felt more intensely in academia than in some other professions because of the nature of the job – the level of personal investment it requires.

But the reassuring reminder from all our contributors is that failure and rejection are both necessary and inevitable aspects of any academic career – successful or otherwise.

It’s also worth reflecting that, as Sir Peter’s experience demonstrates, the line between success and failure can be fine, and there are all sorts of vagaries when it comes to which grants are awarded, and which papers make the cut.

Two recent studies published in the journal Scientometrics, for example, suggest that something as simple as the time or date of submission could affect a paper’s chances.

The first study, which looked at more than 3,000 submissions to two journals, found that “papers are more likely accepted if they are submitted during a few specific months – these depending on the journal. The probability of having a rejected paper also appears to be seasonally biased.”

The second study found that “analysis of nearly 10,000 (first) submissions to a leading academic journal shows that manuscripts which were submitted earlier on a given day were up to 7 per cent more likely to be desk rejected”.

So next time you get a letter from a journal editor that begins, “We regret to inform you”, console yourself that, like Sir Peter, your paper may just be ahead of its time. Or perhaps it just landed on the editor’s desk at the wrong time of day (or year).

In any event, you are not alone.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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