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Personalising Rejection

K VijayRaghavan, National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR

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!

I have always been an admirer of Prof.K.Vijayragavan and

I have always been an admirer of Prof.K.Vijayragavan and this article has only reinforced my respect for him. I think the essence of this article is the key to be successful in life. Thanks a lot sir for the enlightening words.

Most scientist might admit the fact that often there can be

Most scientist might admit the fact that often there can be blunt rejection owing to hetherto uncalled reasons. However the system of reveiwing works better if specific point to point discussion happens and in a postive unbiased manner. One need to have a high scientific temperament to overcome the hurt feelings and thereby personalizing the rejection. A postive attitude is a must. 

As I have done research in India, Japan and USA, I can agree

As I have done research in India, Japan and USA, I can agree with Vijay that the personalization varies place to place.

Inadequate facility-India (though it is changing now)

Issue in narration (language skills)-Japan (Many Japanese scientists write very well and also seek English editing service)

It is the opposite group or a dominant club in the field rejects the work-USA (Everybody feels the same when their paper rejected)

So don't cave in to these rejections as Vijay says. Come on folks and do what you want to do. But make sure how you want to do. That makes the difference. Do better and best, these days good is not enough! Thats is what the rejection means!!




I agree with Dr. Vijay Raghavan, I am a post doc in a highly

I agree with Dr. Vijay Raghavan, I am a post doc in a highly prestigious institute of US. We submitted a manuscript, which struggled for two years (a record time for our lab). First, a top tier journal kept us engaged with reviews and revisions for a year before official rejection. After that, we moved from journal to journal and without a review got turned down on all occasions. Finally, a well-respected journal from the field considered it for review, the academic editor recognised the impact of the story and after a highly fare and timely review the manuscript was accepted. In those two years, I had many prolonged sessions of happy hours to gulp down the rejection, had doubts about quality of my work and had to live in a constant fear of getting scooped. But then, I learned a lot form this experience. I started writing in a more concise and specific fashion, which will enable editors to understand main point of my paper at a quick glance. I started designing more logical and clear experiments that will help the reviewers see my refined design of an experiment and I also started putting work hours to maximum output. Bottom line, I improved myself. We live in a constantly evolving system and therefore there is always a chance to improve. So, next time when I will see a rejection of a paper/grant, I know, I have to improve!

PS: Needless to say this also applies to your job rejections.

I am very glad and somewhat surprised to read this point of

I am very glad and somewhat surprised to read this point of view, especially to see this positive message drawn from the rejection, by a top-tier Indian scientist! I am doing a Ph.D. in the US and was having exactly this discussion with a friend prusuing her Ph.D. at IISc. Having heard of this prejudice against papers from Indian labs, I decided to do a bit of my own research as to whether this is true. I looked up a few known good institutes in India on Pubmed to get a sense of the quality of publications. Though it is true that on an average, publications are not in top-ranked journals, on skimming through papers in my area (neuroscience), I found that there might also be a component of data quality and presentation to it. That is not to say that there might not be a bias or any politics involved in the rejection/review, but as Dr. Raghavan points out here, we don't really have anough data to support that, and I would say, even if we did, what difference does complaining about it make? Instead, such a constructive focus on what can WE improve is surely more likely to produce quality work that will be tougher to reject! And of course, the title is great; I especially like the use of  "Personalize".




Very true indeed Dr Vijay. I am an Indian, doing my PhD in

Very true indeed Dr Vijay. I am an Indian, doing my PhD in Oxford University. The notion that there is bias is not completely true to some extent. I along with my supervisors have submitted a paper to one of the best journals and was initially rejected and later accepted after additional modifications/correction and resubmission. Definitely, communicating effectively and timely (as research in few areas is leaping) is needed. I learnt a lot in the process. Wish all Indian scientists communicate their research quicker into better journals rather than breaking the story into many papers. Science has no boundaries. Looking forward to get back to India and contribute as researcher. Jai Hind.


Thanks Dr VR,for sharing your views and pains on

Thanks Dr VR,for sharing your views and pains on discrimination of indian science.I am sure, your article would make the naive researchers in india to understand how difficult to hit top-tier journals and how do western scientists react aginst your noble work?I am quite excited to read this article. I once again thanks for sharing this article and sorry to hear the news

Dear Koteswara Rao Actually, I was trying to say just the

Dear Koteswara Rao
Actually, I was trying to say just the opposite! I guess I need to improve the way I communicate. The point I was trying to make is that it is easy to accuse others of discrimination when, often, we are the problem. People all over the world do that, not just in India. It is harder to to bite the bullet and address how we can make our work better. Almost always, there's much rom for improvement at our end.
It is difficult to get a paper into a top-tier journal from anywhere in the world. About whether there is an anti-Indian bias: I dont see it, but I think it is a futile discussion as we are dealing with small numbers of quality papers from India. When India publishes hundreds of excellent papers each year in biology, as opposed to the tens or less now, then we will have the data to address this question. Till then, its back to the bench and back to improving our writing and communication skills ( something which I clearly need to learn!)

I agree with the Dr. VijayRaghavan. Well written!

I agree with the Dr. VijayRaghavan. Well written!

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