Robot paper is live!
Finally! After years and years of trying to get this published I finally have the paper out in the world. Okay, to be fair it was accepted about a month ago and I did a deep dive into the paper itself (here), but it feels a little more official now that it’s out there in the wild, or at least open-access like it should be! Granted I’ve told this story before, but indulge me as I recount for the final time why this paper almost killed me, literally.
For anyone who wants to skip the sad story, feel free to jump to the end with the link to the paper.
It feels like forever ago when I started doing research, in the publishable sense I guess. I mean it feels like forever, but it’s really only been seven years or so. Which I guess is a lot of time to be doing anything, but from where I started to now feels like a much longer journey. Being early on in my career I had assumed you write something, you publish it after some back and forth, and that is the end of the story… wow was I off base.
In a lot of ways that isn’t too far off from how it happens. You do an experiment, you write about what you found, and you go back and forth with the publishers to get the best written version of the paper possible. My first few conference papers were very straightforward and I think in a lot of ways made me feel like I was an actual researcher, like someone who’s work mattered, if that makes sense. So when my then PI offered me a chance at publishing a journal paper, of course I jumped at the chance.
I really felt like the work I did was good, I felt like it was important, and I felt like it would be obvious to others how important the work that was done was. Maybe I had an overdeveloped sense of self worth or thought I was more important than I was. Maybe the work I did wasn’t as impressive or important as I thought it was. No matter the case, it was my work and I was proud of it. I thought it was worth publishing and my co-authors convinced me that this was the case. The work was what we call “high impact.”
The first rejection hurt.
It wasn’t even looked at, it was desk rejected after about six months of sitting on a virtual desk. Which is a fancy way of saying the editor of the journal read the synopsis of our paper and thought it wasn’t a good fit for the journal. That I could deal with because what can you do? They didn’t think it was a good fit, so that’s not a me problem, we just didn’t select the correct journal. That was easily remedied and we took time to revise the paper a bit, but we did and after a few months we submitted to a different journal.
The second rejection was worse.
At least this time it made it to reviewers. The reviews were scathing through and I started to question my own competence. I deal with imposter syndrome like so many of us in research/academia/life, but this really started to reinforce the fact that I was a fake and should really just not be in research. The reviews were that bad. Like, we didn’t accomplish anything worth calling engineering, much less something worth publishing bad. Still we pressed on and tried to further clarify what we did and why the paper was worth publishing.
The third rejection was too much.
The paper started weighing on me and it wasn’t just the paper. At that point it had been a year and a half into my PhD and not only was I being not so subtly told that I didn’t have what it takes by reviewers, I was also in a whole new field doing things that I had no idea how to do. There was a lot to learn and it really felt like there was no hope for me. It started taking a toll on my mental health. But we pressed on.
The fourth and fifth rejection were just a blur.
By this point I felt like I was just going through the motions. I now had two other papers that I needed to write on top of this paper. Stuff was coming in, nothing was going out, and the common denominator was me. This was my fault. I wasn’t good enough and it was being made clear. Each time we revised robot paper, and each time it wasn’t enough. Everyone wanted more, some didn’t think we did anything, others thought the knee would’ve been good enough alone, so we were getting seriously mixed signals. At the time I couldn’t even hear the good responses from reviewers, the bad reviews had buried me alive. I was years into my PhD and nothing was going right.
I stopped counting the re-submissions at this point.
Three years into my PhD and four years since I wrote robot paper and nothing was getting better. Each rejection my co-authors reassured me it wasn’t my fault, but it felt personal. The critiques felt less like critiques and more like attacks. Some of it wasn’t as bad as I had taken it at the time, but some of it was legitimately mean. At that point I was trying not to drop out or just kill myself. It didn’t feel so dire at the time, but looking back it was a very dark point in my life. I know academia is hard and it’s supposed to be challenging. I can handle challenging, I like a challenge. This just felt cruel and I don’t think anyone saw it, I didn’t even see it until after the fact.
Thankfully the dam broke and paper after paper got accepted and published. I went from having four papers on my plate to two basically in just a few months time. Then we submitted the third (last paper, which is currently undergoing the first round of edits). Robot paper was always in the background. We edited it, submitted it, redid it, resubmitted it, and repeated this cycle until very recently.
It was finally accepted.
Several of the figures I redid prior to publication because I’ve gotten a lot better at making figures, but the paper, for the most part, was frozen in time. We didn’t do more, but we clarified a lot of the things we had done. The dozens of edits to the paper did improve it I think. It’s probably clearer now than it was when we first submitted it about four years ago, but it was a journey to get from there to here. It’s only after the fact that I can look back and see just how detrimental the experience was for me. I’ve “only” written three other papers and co-authored two since robot paper, but none have had anything happen that was close to the experience I had with robot paper.
Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe it was a learning experience. Maybe it really wasn’t that big of an advancement. Maybe the publication process wasn’t as bad as I think it was. There are a lot of maybe’s, but the truth is now that it’s over I don’t really care why it happened, just that the work was finally accepted as worth publishing.
After all of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one cared about the result or used any of the things we designed for prosthetics/robotics. It’s been four or five years now and I’ve moved on from it. I’m doing other things that I hope will be better received. So far so good. I’ll always have a love hate relationship with robot paper. I love what I did and it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever made. I just hate that it wasn’t enough.
In any case, we’ve made the paper open access, because all science should be. So if you want to read about the thing that tormented me for almost the entirety of my academic research career, well then you can, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.