On Scientific Rejection

When I was a sophomore in high school and a budding creative writer, I submitted a story to The New Yorker. This was not an act of hubris; naive as I may have been as a sixteen-year-old, I knew well that I was no Joyce or Updike or Trillin. Instead, I did it for the letter I got back, that piece of New Yorker stationery with the singular font, the man in the top hat with the monocle. It’s hard to remember that time, when manuscripts were submitted in manila envelopes and rejections came on thick textured paper. The last two years of high school, that letter stared down at me from my wall. I hung it up in a black matte frame as a message from a world I desperately hoped to join. It was written in polite, formal English, an easy letdown to a young kid who had no doubt bothered an intern with his petulant, literally sophomoric drivel. They used the same prose to reject me as they used to reject the lesser work of the Great American Writer. It felt…civilized, like an old rite of passage.

Yesterday I got another letter, this one of the modern electronic sort. It was from my favorite scientific periodical, Nature Neuroscience, and it was to the same unfortunate effect, and though I may have had slightly higher hopes this time, it came as no surprise. The work is good, but not that good.

What does it feel like to be rejected by your favorite journal? It’s a strange sort of melancholy, as when the nerdy kid asks the prettiest girl in school to prom and gets rejected. It’s sad, sure, but you feel good about the effort.

How exactly does one get rejected by such a journal? For me, as the non-corresponding author, I found out early yesterday morning via a truly modern method: I refreshed the journal’s status page for the 5,323rd time (I’m not kidding…it becomes an addiction. There’s no way the editorial team is handing down its decision at 1:32 AM, but that doesn’t stop me from refreshing, again and again…) until the R key finally yielded and the website provided me the answer I had been waiting for: “Decision Sent to Author.” Shit.

Decision Sent to Author is a fickle mistress, scandalous doublespeak. After a lengthy review, it can easily mean acceptance, a place in the pantheon of published science. But directly following “manuscript under editorial consideration” (not “manuscript under consideration,” a slightly earlier stage in the process, I know, it’s confusing), the writing’s on the e-wall. So, that’s how we find out: via the interpretative dance required to understand the updates provided to us by those cheeky brits at Nature. It is a strange thing, to have one’s hopes dashed in such an opaque way. You’d think they could just write REJECTED, SUCKA!

Of course, an official e-letter of rejection is sent to the corresponding author, who in this case is my mentor. Much like the letter from The New Yorker, it is formal, kind, even a little pitying. And I quote, “While we are in no way questioning the validity of your work or its interest to others in the field, I am afraid we are not persuaded that the strength of the novel conclusions that can be drawn from this work is sufficient to justify publication in Nature Neuroscience rather than a more specialized journal. Thank you in any case for the opportunity to consider this work; we hope that you will soon receive a more encouraging response elsewhere.”

To read a form letter from the editor of a publication you admire is, above all things, an act of willful self deceit, or else a form of torture, and as a matter of principle I always choose the former when given the option. Disappointment is tempered by faint pride–he’s thanked me for showing him something new!–and a strange feeling of in-it-togetherness: I, too, hope that my next response will be more encouraging. And–of course!–the letter clearly states that the problem is specificity. Our work, it says (between the lines), is too precise, too exacting, for a journal as general as this. That must be it.

That paragraph, in my mind, is the perfect form letter rejection: it is firm, yet humble in its judgement. As a result, I have no interest in kicking the editor in the junk. I respect the letter for its subtle art, but I won’t be putting it on my wall this time. I’d like to think I’m past that.


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One Response to On Scientific Rejection

  1. Ray says:

    Superb write, nice page design, carry on the good work

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