Columns Opinion

A profession marked by decency and respect

Ron Vale

We all work very hard in biological research, whether we are students or senior scientists. We are motivated by making discoveries, which can be as addictive as love. However, just like love, it is painful to be rejected. But in our profession, which operates largely as self-run meritocracy, not everyone can be given the stamp of approval and supported all of the time. Frustration, and sometimes anger, is a natural reaction. But the worst outcome is if we let frustration get the better of us and we start to treat our colleagues poorly and with less respect and courtesy than they deserve. If we want to start to make our profession more tolerable and enjoyable, we need not look any farther than our backyard. We need to improve the way that we are viewing and treating our colleagues.

Let me start with an example of reviewing papers, which is assigned to principal investigators but frequently farmed out in practice to students and postdocs. There is a journal hierarchy and we are asked to comment on whether the paper is good enough, if it has high enough impact. Behind the cloak of anonymity, reviewers often write the most discouraging and disparaging remarks about the importance and quality of the work, perhaps because they want to make doubly sure that the paper gets rejected. In 5 min of their time, a reviewer can completely trash the work that a student or postdoc who had labored over the work for 5 years. Although it never ceases to hurt, many senior PIs have a tough enough skin to withstand such an assault on their work. However, for a young person, such a review can be devastating and calls into question their ability as a scientist and even whether they should continue in a profession populated with such kind of hostile people. I think that reviewers internally justify this type of behavior by well, this happened to me with the last two papers that I submitted to Nature”. Gandhi had a quote for this type of behavior, and I need not write it here since all of you know what it is. 

And then there is verbal rancor. I know who trashed my grant and he/​she is a terrible person.” The editor at Nature is an idiot”. This is dangerous, because such assumptions are very frequently wrong and you are likely pointing a loose canon in the wrong direction. Most importantly, you do not need to take someone else down in order to raise yourself higher. Most often, it backfires and does not project yourself in a good light.

While rejection is part of our business, I want to inject a word of optimism and perspective for young people. While a paper or a grant might be rejected, things even out over time if you stick with it, pick yourself and try again. If your paper from your Ph.D. thesis is rejected from a journal, your sphere of experience at that instant in time is 100% failure, which is disheartening. However, my papers get rejected too! And I feel bad too (and also for the student or postdoc in lab)! The difference is that, being an old fart, I have had more life experience to know that rejected papers can get accepted, that careers that seem to be going nowhere can change trajectory dramatically, and that personal unhappiness can turn into happiness. Patience, persistence, adaptability are key traits — yes, easy to write and read in a blog and but often learned the hard way in practice.

It also important to remember that we are all people trying to do the best that we can. Some individuals are better scientists than others, some are better journal editors than others. This diversity can manifest itself in poor judgment calls, and this creates an imperfect system of scientific governance since it is overseen by imperfect human beings. But very, very, few people have intrinsically dishonest and evil motives. The journal editors, the scientific reviewers, the grants administrators are people like you. They have a mom and dad, they have families and try to do the best for their kids, they work hard at what they do, they savor some free time after a hard week of work to go for a bike ride or enjoy a movie. And they crave the occasional positive feedback to know that they are doing some good for their hours spent at work. They also are hurt by same demoralizing blows that affect us.

In ending this blog, let me be clear — I very strongly believe that our profession is characterized by many more acts of kindness and collegiality than of hostility. But we can still seek to do better; we can improve as a profession and as individuals. Let us take control of the situation ourselves. Let us seek polite and courteous peer review. Let us not blame government, granting agencies, journals. Sure, there are problems with all of these systems and there are issues that require change. However, we must remember that we scientists largely created the systems that govern us and sometimes systems are slow to change and require patience and persistent improvement. But we can regain our own sanity immediately, be kinder to our colleagues, and help to create the type of professional environment that we all want to work in and enjoy.