I’ve fallen out of the practice of writing. It’s gotten to the point where I actually fear having to do it. There’s a manuscript hanging over my head, a paper that I desperately need to publish so that I’m known for something other than finding Candida albicans haploids (although, to be fair, this study also regards ploidy variation). More importantly, to wrap up the loose ends of my postdoctoral research and develop my own independent program.
If only I could wish that the words would write themselves. Except the paper is already written, had even been submitted and subject to review. At first glance, the rejection was hardly a blow – all reviewers agreed it was technically sound, however there were mixed feelings to the degree in which it advanced our knowledge and thus, wasn’t impactful enough for that journal. The solution seemed simple: a few quick edits and submit to a lower-tier journal.
That was five months ago. It shames me to admit that, I don’t usually operate at snail speed. Granted, that first semester as a faculty member, combined with the cross-country relocation was a substantial transition. Unbelievably, in that time, I set up a functioning lab, hired a technician and now have experiments in progress (!!!). But the manuscript continues to sit stagnant on my desktop. I usually circumvent writers block by finding an existing document and revising, editing and re-writing the whole damn thing to transform it into something distinct from the original. Not so with this paper.
The brick wall my head keeps pounding into? I took the reviews personally. Strike that: I took the slightly less-than-glowing review personally. The positive review didn’t resonate in the least. As a naïve graduate student, some time ago now, I remember being told to not take these things personally. And most times, I think do a pretty good job of it. I’ve internalized that perspective to the point that I find myself frequently qualifying the comments I provide with the ubiquitous “it’s not you, it’s the science” statement. But is that the truth? I enthusiastically stand on my soapbox, advocating that scientists are individuals with interests and lives beyond just their science. Yet, that sentiment does not diminish the degree in which the work that we do; the research we perform and the context in which we convey the results and their significance reflects who we are.
Scientific style has been on the forefront of my mind as I’ve been making decisions after decision on establishing the lab and the direction to move towards. So the “it’s not the science, it’s the lack of impact” comment struck an overworked and exposed nerve, disabling me in a way that I am not proud of. It wasn’t that I received that particular review, I support the rigor of peer-review, it’s that I knew it wasn’t an unfair statement. The paper, as previously submitted, DID lack meaningful insight and failed to emphasize the novelty of the results. I take full responsibility for its lackluster appearance. Ultimately, I appreciate the rejection – it has given me the opportunity to give the paper a desperately needed makeover.
Why shouldn’t my scientific writing and research have a signature style? As with so many other elements of my life – I like being distinctive and striking to the beholder. I’m currently obsessed with residing at the intersection of form and function. Too ‘functional’ and you end up with boring ideas and dry writing. Too much form and flair and you run the risk of losing substance and credibility. I’ve spent hours crafting a single paragraph and months upon months playing with data visualization. Finding the balance between form and function not takes time, but an enormous amount of work, all in the hopes that it looks effortless.
In this day and age of ‘publish or perish’ in academics, my proclivity towards staying true to my style (not to mention my idealism towards mentoring) will certainly prevent me from being my most productive. I know that. But for me, external metrics (like number of papers published) are rarely sufficient for my sense of satisfaction. Up to this point, my own high expectations have guided me in my career, with measurable success. We’ll see if this holds true in the future.