We're a little crazy, about science!

The perils of publishing

So you want to publish some science. I don’t blame you, as a scientist we’re driven by the “publish or perish” mindset. The further along you get the more you’re stuck having weird nightmares about h-index and impact factor. Or maybe that’s just me, who knows? In any case, any publication is a labor of love, one that typically turns into a labor of spite. Because publishing isn’t easy, or maybe that’s just me.

In the brief time I’ve been a “publishing” researcher. I’ve managed ~2 conference publications a year until my streak came to a halt when I started trying to publish mostly journal papers. While the process is similar and the result is somewhat similar, ie a publication, that’s about the only real similarities. Here is where I put the disclaimer that this is basically applicable to my fields of research (mechanical engineering and neuroengineering) so the same may not be said for other fields, or conversely they could be worse for other fields.

Journal publications are hard to do and in some fields can take years before you get the data collected, organized, and written out to get one. Conference papers are more for work you’re currently doing, it’s sort of a step to the end of the project. They are small milestones along a longer project path. Whereas a journal paper is what we publish when we’ve finished the project. That’s not always true, but in my case journal papers at least represent large milestones in project development so typically that means the end of that particular part of the project even if what came out of it will be used in other research.

For a mechanical engineering example, I built an entire bipedal walking robot. From it, I had three conference papers and one journal paper. The journal paper was the end of my involvement with the project and represented the “finished” design. There has been work since I left to redesign components, but finishing the build of the robot was the large milestone that triggered a journal publication. Technically we’re still in the process of trying to get that published too. It can take some time and I’ve already got several rejections, sad but true.

In neuroengineering it’s sort of the same way, but sometimes the end result isn’t as tangible as a whole robot. I’m in the process of finishing my first journal publication (every publication I’m discussing here is me as first author just to clarify) in the field since I made the jump. The paper has taken a LOT of time to write and is the extension of a previous paper that was a collaboration from our lab. It’s a large milestone in the sense that we can’t do much to improve it using the current techniques so we’re “finished” with it. That doesn’t mean others won’t continue it though.

In terms of difficulty journal papers are by far much harder to get. Reviewers tend to come in two flavors, helpful, through, and polite. Or reviewer 2, rather the idea that a reviewer (somehow almost always reviewer 2) hates the paper, hates your methods, vehemently hates you as a person, your family for giving birth to you, and your dog. And unfortunately they won’t tell you why. That’s also why sometimes they take so long to publish. The worst part is reviewers change every submission, even if that submission is to the same journal. So one set of reviewers may have suggestions of what needs to change, where as another set of reviewers might hate the revisions and prefer the original way we had it written.

My robot paper keeps getting rejected. Reviewers are suggesting that I need to do MORE with it. I need to make it do something, walk up stairs or over challenging terrain. It isn’t enough that I built something with human like capabilities, kinematics, and created several novel types of joints with unique and useful properties. Surprisingly it’s one of the more common critiques we’ve gotten on the paper, which is both frustrating and slightly depressing since it was A LOT of work. Yet we keep trying, we’re on our fifth submission, but I’ve seen papers take 10 or more, so all in all were still “on track,” whatever that means.

The motivation for this post was rejection number four for that paper actually. We’re in the process of editing it and trying to improve things, but at the moment I’m taking a break from everything, because pandemic, holidays and all the stress that comes with those things. I’m also in the process of submitting for the first time this new paper and getting ready for the fun ride of rejection, requested edits, and hopefully eventual acceptance. Since this is a different field I’m hoping the process will be a slightly smoother one. Each time we submit a paper it takes months before we hear back so I’ve been stuck on the publishing rollercoaster for the past couple of years now with the robot paper.

It can be discouraging, but I’m hopeful that both papers will be published and more importantly that this process will make them better overall. I’m a little anxious to see what happens now that I’ve switched fields, every field has its own little idiosyncrasies so I’m expecting to be introduced, somewhat violently, to the idiosyncrasies of this field when we finally submit the paper.

While the publish or perish mindset is not healthy and shouldn’t exist, we do have to work inside the system so here I am trying to publish. Basically what I’m saying is that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you’re not alone. The process is hard on mental health, especially if, like me, your mental health isn’t so great to begin with. I keep seeing researchers listing how many times they’ve been rejected and how much they must suck only for others to come in and say they’ve had similar stories. I don’t know if the system will ever change, but I figure if we don’t talk about it, we’ll all just feel alone and useless.


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