The Plight of the Post-Doc


On having one's career dreams quashed by a PoS journal editor

Arg.  I've been going back and forth in my brain as to whether or not to actually post this, because I'd like to think that I'm self-aware enough to know to keep the whining to a minimum.  Everyone has their publishing struggles.


This blog is about my career.  And while I wish every aspect of my career could be described using only self-deprecating humor and charming stories re: The Follies of Youth, that's just not the way it works.  In the immortal words of PhysioProf, Academic Science is not a Care Bears Fucking Tea Party, and never is that more patently clear than when you're approaching the one-year anniversary of the submission of a manuscript to a journal that is still reviewing it.

So be warned, and get your dialing fingers ready: someone needs a waaahmbulance.  Read at your own discretion.  

There's this paper, you see.  A paper that contains nearly three years of work--novel, rigorous, and award-winning-at-conferences work--that I submitted for publication to a medium-high impact journal nearly one year ago.  I'd just had a related paper accepted relatively easily in this journal, and thought they'd be happy to have the follow-up, which was much more interesting.  The reviewers' comments were brief and favorable, with one saying they'd like a histological figure demonstrating that our surgeries were accurate, and the other saying--literally--that they were "unable to find any methodological problems with the study," but that they'd like a list of abbreviations. The paper was rejected. 

Now, I know that a journal isn't obligated to take the advice of the reviewers, but I feel like if they're going to do that, you should at least get some kind of explanation for the glaring discrepancy between reviewer comments and editor's decision, instead of the form rejection letter stating that the reviewers had substantial concerns when that was obviously not the case.  My PI and I were floored that such positive reviews could result in an outright rejection, and we naturally wrote a very polite "WTF???" (if I may paraphrase) letter to the editor, asking that he reconsider and allow us to resubmit.  He said sure, but we'd have to change the title and he'd be sending it out to a new set of reviewers.  We agreed, but we shouldn't have.

 The next review took 3.5 months.  Three and a half months!! An entire season came and went, and I could do nothing but sit and wait like a chump.  When the decision finally came back, it had comments from FIVE reviewers.  FIVE!!  Much more critical and lengthy than before, but not rejected this time. We could only conclude, then, that this journal makes its decisions not according to the reviewers' comments, but through randomized-trial questioning of the Magic 8-ball. 

Reply hazy, try again.
Cannot predict now.
Outlook not so good.

 After a thorough revision we resubmitted, and waited another 2 months.  This time, the non-rejection decision letter came with a loooong message from the managing editor claiming that despite all of our revisions the paper was still not satisfactory, and for him to accept it as it was, he would have to lower the standards of the journal.  Really, was that necessary?  He could have just said, "one of our reviewers still has several concerns that need to be addressed," but he just had to be a dick about it.  He also demonstrated that, after what was now almost 10 months of dealing with a paper titled "Factor Q affects factor R in brain region A," he was under the impression that we were studying brain region Z. 

Now, I do not toss around the term douchebag lightly, but seriously.  This guy and his inflated ego can't even manage to read the title of my paper, and then feels it appropriate to condescend like that?  I'd have loved to be able to just say "fuck 'em" and try a different journal, but after so much time had gone by, I didn't think I could risk going through it all again somewhere else.  So back in it went after another revison...and we're still waiting. 

The problem is that in a lot of ways, my career is hinging on this paper.  It contains half of the work I've done as a post-doc, and until it's published, I'm not going to look like a super-productive scientist.  The fact that it was reviewed so favorably the first time around but not given an opportunity for a "revise and re-review" is killing me, because things might be so different for me now. 

I know that journals don't owe any single author anything, but the lack of accountability in the publishing process is really frustrating.  That a journal can allow its reviewers to take nearly 4 months to submit their comments is ludicrous, and that a managing editor feels it appropriate to write a misinformed, insulting, and all-around unprofessional decision letter is, frankly, outrageous.  What's worse is that in taking so long with each review, they've put me in a position where there's nothing I can do but sit there and take it.  I'm their bitch.   Boo.

Erm...thanks for listening to me rant.  It felt good to get it all off my chest and down in writing, because when I try to talk about it, I'm often unable to speak.


Zen Faulkes said...

Almost every editor has people that he or she is responsible to. After the paper is out and it is all over, it may be worth it to find out if there are any people and talk to them.

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked and gutted with your story. People like this guy shame other scientists and to be honest, they make me sick. I almost quit science because of this sort of political crap, but I'm determined now to carry on and try to make a difference, and quica one day we'll be in a position to expose these motherf*****! Peer reviewing is a disgrace, there are so many stories like this nowadays, things have to change. I sincerely hope your paper will be accepted this time.

thephysiologist said...

I've always asked myself how could a manuscript be accepted with so many reviewers in the picture?? Let's hope your manuscript will be accepted...but think it twice before submitting another piece of your work to this journal !!

pinus said...

This is part of the bullshit process. It sucks. It sucks especially hard after they keep you hanging for so damn long. Very frustrating. My last article at a moderately good journal (not nature/cell or science, but a good society level journal) took over a year. soft rejection, followed by hard rejection, followed by appeal, followed by soft rejection, followed by acceptance. Total fucking horse-shit. I think the editor dropped the ball, I am steering clear of said editor in all future interactions. The funny part is that I have mentioned this to other people and they told me said editor does this shit all the time.

I had a similar experience in grad school...with a fuck-face editor kind of being a douche. Said fuck-face now cites my papers all the time. I guess that is some sort of small victory.

I guess, the best advice is to know when to hold em, and know when to fold em. It is really tought when you are trying to get a job to fold em though.

Becca said...

Thanks for the support, guys.

@thephysiologist: don't worry about me thinking twice--I will be thinking zero times about submitting to this journal again. It's too bad, too, because it's a great and respected journal whose audience is perfect for my work. Their loss!

JaneB said...

Sorry to hear about all this crap. It isn't that common but it does happen too often for comfort. So frustrating!

Requin said...

How frustrating. Any chance the editor will change soon? In my field, most of us are counting the days until our top journal is run by someone new... (sadly, it might be a while, but the current team is a bunch of wackloons, so we are waiting anyway).

florid nightingale said...

"the lack of accountability in the publishing process is really frustrating"

Thank you! I thought I was the only one who had experienced such disregard. I'm also grateful that it's not only my discipline. Right this minute I've got a paper submitted 4 months ago on which the reviews are ostensibly completed, but the section editor has not had time to give it a read-through and decide thumbs up or down. Really? It's 7 pages long!

So to whom does one appeal when the managing editor and section editors are being recalcitrant?

Candid Engineer said...

Sucks the big nut. Hope they pull their heads out of their asses soon and accept your damn paper. Merry Christmas/happy holidays, Becca. :)

Becca said...

@florid nightingale I LOVE your handle. We've contacted the super-high editor about these issues, but he's not super responsive. Boo.

@CE It does, indeed, suck the big nut. Have I ever told you how much I wish you were on Twitter so we could chat ALL DAY LONG?? Happy Holidays to you!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Super sucky. I haven't had all that dicky of editors, but I did recently have a paper get rejected with two favorable reviews and two minor revisions reviews. The process blows.

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