Over the years I have had several colleagues come to me in utter frustration that their most recent papers have been rejected from good journals. And now, after wasting all this time, they will have to make do with wherever it can get published. "How can the Reviewer/Editor not see it?" is the most common lament. In many such cases I have offered to take a look. I cannot profess that my suggestions helped these authors get their oft-rejected papers in glossy journals - though this has sometimes been the case - these experiences allowed me to get some insight into why good papers are often rejected from good journals. Allow me to elaborate....
The first common reason for rejection is that the authors simply overestimate the significance of their findings. Your experiments may be rigorous, the question may be an important one in your field, and yet the significance of your findings to Science in general may be limited. This is just a fact that authors must realize. Science works in unpredictable, meandering ways. Often experiments that you think will change the world turn out to be pretty lame in the end, while side-projects spearheaded by naive, wide-eyed undergrads yield stunning insights. Thus the end product can be very different from the start, and it is important to objectively evaluate your final manuscript. This is very difficult of course, as authors are personally invested in their favorite projects. For trainees, often matters are made worse by mentors who insist on submitting everything to glossy journals, and an experienced ally who is not afraid to tell the truth is a big asset. However I have found that such friends are rare, and most people are happy to give superficial "positive feedback". This is completely worthless and I suggest that authors stay away from such "mentors".
The second, perhaps more common, reason is that the authors simply do not clearly state the significance of their findings. Worse, they are completely unaware that they are not doing so. Most papers are written in a dry style, listing experiments in the exact sequence that they were done, with no effort made to engage the audience. The result is that the reader is slammed with a series of complicated experiments with no end in sight and fails to see the significance. It is a classic case of being lost in the trees and not seeing the forest, and I have seen it so many times its not funny. The Reviewer/Editor cannot see it because the writer is not stating it clearly! One obvious reason for this is that scientists get almost no training in writing. But I feel there is also a cultural problem that scientists don't think that it is important to write clearly. While they may not directly say this, few make any effort to learn how to write clearly. Whatever one thinks about writing is up to them, but having been on many study sections and reviewed numerous papers I am absolutely certain that clear writers are getting most of the prizes.
So what can one do? Besides reading and re-reading the book on writing clearly ("On Writing Well" by William Zinsser) until the cows come home, one thing that helps me is to write the abstract first. I know that this is exactly the opposite of what the pundits preach, but I always write and re-write the abstract first (often languishing in it for weeks or months), until the sequence of events (and significance) is clear in my head. Sometimes this reveals major insights, and at other times it tells me that the Science is solid but its not that significant after all. Once this logic is clear, the paper can be written. Often this exercise also helps in framing/designing final follow up experiments, and that is a bonus. So happy thinking and happy writing!
Some old ones Reposted...
8/18/13 - A Classification of PI's - find yours' in the list!
7/6/12 - Way to a "Science paper"
5/30/11 - 20/20 Hindsights
9/30/11 - Evolution of a bizzare, new Idea
11/17/2011 - Rationale for curiosty-driven research...
lessons from a 4 year old
1/28/12 - "GTFM" - hilarious article on grant writing!
The PI Blog
This blog exists because my wife seemed a bit tired of being the only recipient of my random pontifications on life and Science for many years; and gently encouraged me to vent in a blog instead. From time to time, I put down thoughts that occur to me as I naiively stumble through a life in Science - bestowed upon me by accident (literally!). Please keep in mind that these musings are rather obvious things of little or no use to anyone, and are certainly not personally targeted in any way, even though they are obviously derived from my experiences. OK, enough said.