Columns Opinion

Personalising Rejection

K VijayRaghavan

We sent out a manuscript a few months ago. The first journal bounced it without sending it out to review. The second, also a top-tier journal, rejected it soundly after a review. Our paper was the result of extraordinary hard work of several years by two students and a summer visitor. There is little doubt that we had a good story to tell and the rejection was deeply disappointing. Another paper is doing the rounds of journals, trying hard to get a foot in the door. Meanwhile, I have a collaborative grant with a team of really awesome colleagues rejected without being sent for a review and we are scrambling to resubmit. I have a couple of papers to write, and I am full of trepidation about their trajectory. With self-esteem battered, I am trying hard to get to write up pending research proposals and grants to keep my lab afloat. Time to throw in the towel and write about science policy?

Life is tough and it’s easy to get depressed. It is very tempting to blame the system for my woes. The sophisticated rarely accuse the system of personal bias. They usually accuse the system of group discrimination, and their state as a consequence. Many of us, who work from India, like to say that papers from here are not looked at as generously as papers from, say, Harvard. I find this very interesting logic. Let’s say this is true. So what? How does that prove that my paper was a good one rejected on this discriminatory ground? Perhaps, my paper was not well written. Perhaps the long-list of experiments the referees suggest are actually worth doing. We do ourselves no favours when we, as individuals project ourselves as victims of discrimination and generalise our woes to external causes. If the external causes are valid, they apply to a group. Each specific case must only be examined on its merits. When applied to an individual, we must take care almost never to apply generalisations to ourselves, but mainly to others. We lose credibility when we apply generalisations to ourselves. Consider the following argument. Suppose I contend that women are discriminated against at all stages in their career. Then I say that Ms. X is remarkable because she has succeeded despite this. This argument rings true as does the statement that Ms. Y is a reasonable scientist, but has not been recognised as much as a similarly accomplished male scientist, suggesting a bias in our system. When I apply generalisations to myself, though, I need to have very high standards of proof. Could it be, I need to ask myself, that negative decisions about me are actually valid? Could it be just possible, I need to ask myself, that I am using the obvious flaws in the system to make what is an untenable case for myself? The answers to these questions are easy for each of us to make. Well, not that easy, it seems, as the kneejerk reaction which blames conspiracies, corruption, cronyism and manipulation for all my problems. All the faults listed above are likely present in all systems to varying extent, but if my examples of discrimination relate mainly to me, we have a problem.

My lesson on how to react to rejection came from the students whose paper was rejected: the worst hit of the lot! In 24 hours, they had listed out the experiments to be done and the timelines for getting them done. Not a waffle about referees, journals and their ilke being discriminatory. I will work hard over the next three months, driven by them, to see that we have a better paper submitted. The referees and the editor did a great job and my initial irritation, and disappointment aside, it’s clear we too have a better job to do. On another front, my colleagues have resubmitted our grant and addressed key points which we perhaps should have done earlier. I just have to pull myself up and keep the focus on the science and not wallow in comfortable self-pity. Life is not easy and it only gets harder. But, the joys of grappling with scientific questions with colleagues in the lab and seeing the results of their excitement, wipes out all pessimism. To whine about external structures is human. To take our own whining too seriously is dangerous: worry when others whine, don’t whine about yourself!