Scientists are as likely to feel the smart of rejection as any other kind of writer. You slave over experiments trying to make sure that they have the proper controls to account for every possible artifact. You finally head to the computer keyboard and transcribe months, sometimes years, worth of labor into a few pages of text with some figures: your opus, which you send off on a wave of electrons to some distant editorial figure. And then you wait.
Rejection is a funny thing. It always stings, and we always remember it, but it has at least two positive aspects. First, not just anybody can be rejected. Only a person who is willing to risk failure can be rejected. Fear of failure is why people cheat and plagiarize, why they engage in “funny” accounting or lie on loan applications and falsify information on resumes. The rejected are an elite group of people who have honestly tried.
The second positive aspect of rejection is motivation. When I was in graduate school, the biology department chairperson had two letters displayed in a frame outside his office door. The first letter in the frame was the letter from the search committee congratulating him on being selected as the biology department chairperson. The second letter was dated many years earlier; it was a letter rejecting his application for graduate study at the same institution. I never asked him, but I always wondered if the first letter he received, the rejection letter, planted the seed of the idea that he would someday be running the biology department.
All that is well enough, but let’s face it. It would be nice to submit a manuscript successfully and not be rejected.
So, what are some tips for getting papers published?
First, once you have your scientific story in your mind, talk to scientists outside of your lab about it. Let them ask questions and challenge your work. Do you find that everyone is suggesting the same experiment or control? If so, the reviewers of your paper are probably going to make the same suggestion. A little more time at the lab bench now might prevent angst later.
Second, read Strunk and White, Elements of Style and take their advice. Tighten up your writing and tell your story as clearly as possible. If you are writing in a language that is not your native language, hire an author’s editor or go to your institute’s writing center for help.
Third, when you write your manuscript get as many people as possible to review it—not just your PI or graduate advisor. Correct the grammar and spelling errors. If the reviewers see that you are careless with spelling and grammar, they will wonder if you are careless with your science as well.
Fourth, make sure you are submitting your work to the appropriate journal. Talk to people who do work in your field, where do they publish? Read some articles in the journals you are considering; does your work fit?
Fifth, pay attention to the instructions. At a meeting among a group of life science and medical editors, one editor-in-chief was asked, “What is the most important thing an author can do to get a manuscript into your journal?” She replied, “Read and FOLLOW the instructions to authors.”
The science still has to be solid, but editors do look more kindly upon those manuscripts that are submitted with titles and abstracts that meet the character limits and references that are formatted according to the journal’s style. An editor might not look at all upon those manuscripts where the author has not-so-much as glanced at the instructions to authors.
Nothing will replace solid science when it comes to publishing a peer-reviewed paper, but you can smooth the way for your manuscript. Nobody likes rejection, but everybody dreams of receiving that e-mail declaring a paper to be “accepted without revision”.