Friday, August 15, 2008


The topic of publishing was brought up in a comment a couple days ago (and how students and advisors argue about it frequently), and it brings many thoughts to mind.

When I was a second year grad student, I submitted a paper, and it got rejected, as many papers do. My advisor (who is tenured/chaired) took the comments to heart - as he always does - and said we shouldn't bother resubmitting it. He never argues with a journal. I agree - this is very bizarre behavior for a man. However, I view it as simply further evidence backing up my statements that he is a truly bizarre man.

However, the reasons the journal/reviewer gave were extremely weak. If they had been along the lines of: the theory is flawed/the data was taken poorly/the analysis is incorrect/etc, then I would agree - we should not argue. However, this was NOT the case. The argument was: the manuscript is similar to a previous paper. Not true. The paper was significantly different from a previous paper. The reviewer (and there was only one) clearly did not "get" the point of the manuscript. In my opinion, this is grounds to request an additional review.

But, as I said, I was a second year grad student. At this point, I did not realize that my advisor was incompetent and I followed his advice. I also did not realize that it was "okay" to disagree with reviewers and to argue with journals. I learned this later on. (This was my second paper (ever), so I didn't have much experience on the whole submission process.)

In my fourth year, I wrote up a manuscript on other data and showed it to him. He said: I don't really think it is a strong paper, but if you want to submit it, then go ahead - but I don't think it will get in. If he had said this in my second year, I probably would have backed down. By my fourth year, I had a substantially different attitude. I even had colleagues who submitted papers sans advisor's names (and members of my thesis committee encouraged me to do as such).

So, I submitted. The paper flew through review (under 2 weeks) with glowing remarks. I have yet to have another paper come through with such remarks. And it got mega press. In under two years, it has gotten 20+ citations in journals like Nature and Science, which is unusual for a paper in my field. IE, it wasn't solving a crystal structure of a protein or about the climate or about the genome.

This experience officially made me doubt my advisor's opinion on submitting. I did before, but after this I had no faith. So, I decided to revisit the publication from my second year. It had always haunted me, in a way, because the co-author was an undergrad, and there were only three authors. So, it would be very important for this second author. I did a literature search - and nothing competitive with our results had been published in the interim (again, justification for the merit of our work!).

So, I decided to re-submit. I brought it up with my advisor, who said, sure go ahead and re-submit, but I don't really think it is that good (again, with the qualifier). Why, oh why did I not push it in my second year. So, since there clearly was no eminent threat of being scoped, I chose a rather highly ranked journal (impact factor>10). I contacted the undergrad to do one final read through (I made some changes, updated references, etc). And told him where I was submitting. And I warned him it would probably get rejected - the previous journal's IF was ~3. But, I figured, why not? The field was "hotter" now.

And, it got accepted. The undergrad was thrilled, to say the least. I was thrilled for him. And mildly amused at the whole process. In the end, we got a better publication than we would have originally. However, that part was pure luck.

The lesson: if you think a manuscript is worthwhile, it probably is. By the end of your PhD, you should be more of an expert in your tiny, tiny sliver of science than your advisor. If you aren't, than you aren't ready to graduate. What that means is that you know when some material is publishable and when it isn't. The best way to convince your advisor - write it up. A finished manuscript is harder to turn down than a hypothetical one.

And the process of writing the manuscript can make you realize that maybe there are pieces of data that you are, indeed, missing.

However, I will agree, that sometimes advisors simply won't give in. I didn't mention the two publications that my advisor isn't on.

(And, no, I do not base everything on citations or IFs. In fact, I hate both. But that is the subject of another post.)

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