Recently a non-science friend asked me “How is your research going?” I hate answering this question because I never know what to say. Do I say, “my new grad student has been breaking all her micropipettes and killing all the cells”, or “we can’t get that new reagent into solution because the company that makes it changed how its made, and the one from the other company is backordered for six months so we can’t do any experiments”, or “my postdoc has been stuck in China for 3 months because he can’t get his visa renewed”? Or do I just say “fine” and change the topic? It’s always hard to find something that someone outside of science can relate to. But this time I decided to tell him about the troubles we’ve been having getting a paper published.
It’s the typical story. My grad student has been working on this project for several years and getting good results and when it was ready to write up we submitted it to a good top-tier journal. We were excited that the journal sent it out for review, and even more excited when we got back two very positive and constructive reviews. The reviewers wanted a butt-load of experiments but which sounded reasonable, so we decided to do all of them, which took about eight months. And all of them worked, significantly strengthening our already kick-ass study. We sent a revised version with all the new data back to the journal and sat back waiting for the good news. About eight weeks later we get an email saying that they won’t publish our paper. WTF!? The original two reviewers liked our revisions and new data and both suggested the paper get published. But of course, the journal decided to open the dungeon and bring out… you guessed it… the Third Reviewer. Fucking Third Reviewer!!! Whoever it was gave our paper a cursory read, blurted out some “serious concerns” which we had already explicitly addressed, suggested some impossible experiments and shat all over our paper. The editor of the journal, based on this, rejected our paper. Which goes to show that you are at the whim of some randomly chosen sadistic dude who can dismiss four years worth of work with the wave of a keyboard, just because he can. And just like that, he and the journal wasted everybody else’s time.
My friend was shocked. He had developed this idea of science working in a very objective way, where scientists sit around doing experiments and soberly publishing their results so other serious scientists could mull them over and devise new experiments. He expressed surprise that science was so full of ego and susceptible to whim and trendiness and all of the imperfections that accompany every other human endeavor. That in order for your science to gain exposure you had to fight for these few spots in superglamourous journals, otherwise nobody outside your immediate field would ever read your papers – as was suggested in a recent informal poll. He was also surprised that this was all being supported by taxpayer money. But that’s the way it is. Although our experiments might be objective, and ultimately we are discovering something about the natural world, all the human activity that surrounds this process sometimes overshadows the actual science and the actual facts. Which is something that is sometimes hard for people outside of science to grasp. My friend asked, “well I’m sure your University would offer to help you in this case, which sounds so unfair, right?” But again another big misconception, that there is some undefined entity called the “University” that somehow guides the research that occurs within its walls, protecting its faithful faculty, and stepping in when necessary. Who is this “University”? The administration? They have no idea about half of the research that individuals working there are doing. Only the stuff that gets featured in the University home page when you get a publication in a fancy journal.
So what happened to the paper? I asked a senior colleague who has a lot of fancy publications for advice, and he said “fight like hell”. So that’s what we’re doing. We filed an appeal (which is greatly discouraged by the journal, of course) and expressed in their lengthy appeal form why we thought the Third Reviewer was out of line, added data from the one experiment he suggested that was doable (it also worked as expected), replied to all of the his petty concerns and are ready for the big fight. We’ve battened down the hatches, pulled out the cannons and battering rams, sharpened our swords, dug out those weapons that have the spiky balls at the end, loaded up the horses and elephants, tightened our boxing gloves, honed our arrows, tightened our bows, loaded up the guns and laser blasters, wet our spitballs… watch out fancy pants journal, we’re mad, and your ass is grass! For now.