Environment Magazine

Learning How to Fail

By Bradshaw @conservbytes

Learning how to failOn the way to work yesterday I was listening to ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program hosted by Natasha Mitchell about how school children are now apparently being given so much positive praise and encouragement that they can no longer handle failure. Poor, wee dears. Maybe that’s why we have such a high attrition rate once they get up to postgraduate level, because that’s when they REALLY experience failure.

Jokes and whinges aside, there is a hard truth in that message that applies to all scientists, and especially the early-career ones. I’m talking about having your paper rejected from a journal.

Even the terms we use to describe the peer-review gauntlet appear designed to instil fear and inadequacy: reject or accept. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a PhD student’s face figuratively melt off the skull as they shuffle into my office to show me the journal’s rejection letter (now just usually forwarded in an email accompanied by implied stooped shoulders – is there an emoticon for that?). As I’ve mentioned before, we scientists can be real bastards to each other, and it comes out in spades during peer review.

While neophytes tend to take these hits the hardest, I want to impart a little wisdom from some of my very well-established and successful colleagues. Rejection should be viewed as an asset, not a mark of failure. Let me explain.

No one, no matter how experienced, likes to have a paper rejected. Humans hate to be on the receiving end of a criticism, and scientists are no different. Many reviews can be harsh and unfair; many reviewers ‘miss the point’ or are just plain nasty. It could be argued that some reviewers even get off by stomping on others. However, I and many of my colleagues argue that if you’re NOT getting rejected, you’re not trying hard enough.

We have an unwritten policy in our lab: a manuscript should be prepared with the highest target in mind, but then submitted to a journal about two impact levels above that target. I’m not suggesting that every paper we write gets sent initially to Nature or Science, for that would essentially guarantee almost always getting rejected, but I think you get the picture. For example, if I have a good, local-interest paper that would sit nicely in, say, Wildlife Research, but I think with a little finesse I could get it into Biological Conservation or  Conservation Biology, I’ll probably instead submit it to Ecology or even Ecology Letters first (within reason and theme, of course). We pretty much apply this rule across the journal impact gradient.

You can imagine what this policy engenders: lots and lots of rejections. Sometimes we get it right and get a paper through the door and past the gauntlet of the highest-impact journals, but many times we fail. This means that for every one of the 200-odd papers I’ve published with my colleagues, we’ve had about an average of 2-3 (and sometimes many more) rejections. That means that I can boast over 500 rejections in my career thus far! I wear this like a proud battle scar.

The take-home message is that rejection is not an indication of a scientist’s worth or capacity, it’s merely an indication that you’re shooting high and want to succeed (provided you follow through and eventually get the work published somewhere, of course).

Happy rejections.

CJA Bradshaw

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