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What to do when your paper is rejected

Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan
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What to do when your paper is rejected

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Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan

Your ideas are not bad. They are just not ready YET.

I regret to inform you that your paper was not accepted.

Sitting at my research-lab desk as a 2nd Year Ph.D. student, I had my first taste of a paper-rejection email. I sat and stared at my computer screen, hoping the words would somehow shuffle around and change. I couldn’t move my fingers to go to the next unread email. Shock, disbelief, disappointment, and the eventual self-questioning of whether I was good enough or my work was good enough. I hoped that none of the other graduate students sitting at their desks around me could see how rotten I felt.

The worst thing about academic publishing is that you’ll send a paper off for peer review for a conference/journal, with the sheer relief of simply having made the paper deadline, and you might wait months — months — before you hear back. Months where you hope for a positive answer. Months where you hope they liked your work. Months where you hope for external validation that you’re on the right track.

I regret to inform you.

If you think that these opening words are bad, wait till you read the words that follow them. The detailed reviews can be sometimes be even more crushing, especially when you read them as a second-year graduate student at the early stages of your Ph.D.

This work is not novel.
This work does not advance the state of the field.
The authors’ work does not have any impact.
This paper should not have been submitted to the conference.
(the final blow)

The despised nickname, “Reviewer number 2,” is often used by Ph.D. students to refer to reviewers who write these unhelpful, dismissive reviews.

When you read how people perceive your work, you start doubting yourself. You start wondering whether you ought to be in a Ph.D. program, in the first place. You start wondering whether your advisor — on reading these bits of external feedback — is also thinking the same thing, “Why on earth did I hire this student?”

It took me a while to reframe how I view paper rejections. While paper rejections still sting, I no longer view them as soul-crushing or mission-quitting.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Using the “No” to become a better author

They are not rejecting me. They are not rejecting my work. They are rejecting how I worded it.

My idea doesn’t suck. It’s my communication of it that sucks.

You see, if my idea was bad, my research advisors would not be spending their time and life chasing it, either. If my idea was that bad, there wouldn’t be an entire research community around it. The fact that I have peers at other universities and industries working on similar problems is validation that I am on the right track. My literature review of the field is validation that my idea doesn’t suck. The problem that I am working on doesn’t suck. The very existence of competitor Ph.D. students is living proof that I can be a Ph.D. student in the same field. I just need to know how. This is why a literature review is important — it’s not always about knowing the field. It’s about knowing that there are others working on similar problems. We can’t all be wrong.

I needed to tell myself again. My idea is not bad. I just needed to get better at communicating it. I need to learn how to write better, how to write more clearly, and how to express my ideas. I need to tell the story of my research in a more compelling away. I need to find the right words to sell what I believe in, to convey what I am passionate about, to articulate what I am willing to spend the next 4–5 years of my life doing in a research lab on the big bucks of a graduate-student stipend. I need to learn how others have succeeded in finding the right words.

Now, that, I could do.

  • I looked at all of the “Best Paper Award” publications in my field in the last 5 years. I looked at the structure of these papers, I looked at how they organized their thoughts, their related work, their experiments. I started to model my writing off them.
  • I studied my peers and their work. My peers are the Ph.D. students in my field whose papers are getting published. They’re on to something.
  • I read books and papers on how to write good papers. See the “Resources I learned from” section below.
  • I didn’t just write. I edited my writing ruthlessly.

Using the “No” to become a better reviewer

As a professor sitting at my desk in my own campus office 25 years later, you would think I would be immune to the crushing disappointment of paper-rejection emails by now. Nope. Every paper rejection still hurts. Even today. Faculty get their papers rejected all the time. And let’s not get started on our research proposals that get rejected.

My own paper rejections have also made me view my role differently as a reviewer of others’ papers. It’s my responsibility to worry about the Ph.D. students who are now dreaming about becoming faculty and who are eagerly submitting conference and journal papers even as I write this.

Yes, I want my reviews to be intellectually strong. But, I also view reviews as an opportunity to teach. Every time I hit “Submit” on my review of someone else’s paper, I always imagine a first-year graduate student at the receiving end of my review, especially if my review means that the paper will be rejected. I don’t want that graduate student to quit their Ph.D., doubt their abilities, or doubt a research career ahead of them. As professors, none of us wants to hurt a graduate student, or have them second-guess themselves. This is not why we become faculty members. Our jobs are to encourage, enlighten, teach, and nurture. Every paper review should be a learning moment, not a career-despairing moment. And, as reviewers, we should aspire to do better. It’s important to review as we would want to be reviewed.

Whenever I have to reject a paper, I use that as an opportunity to reframe my review. This is just as much a writing opportunity for me. I think of myself as an editor, not as a critic. I need to find the right words to turn a “no” into a “not yet.” I need to find the words to be constructive when a paper is not ready to be accepted. Some Ph.D. student out there poured their heart and months of work into the paper that I am reviewing, and it’s on me to write a review with just as much heart. I need to be specific and detailed about what they can improve on, and specific about what they’ve already nailed. I need to pass on the resources that someone passed on to me, and that made me a better writer. I want the student not to give up, and to find hope in the review, as tough as that sounds.

When I reject a paper, my review often reads like this.

Your paper is not yet ready for publication.
Here are the things that were well done: ……..
Here are the things that still need work: …….
Here are some resources to learn from, to revise your paper: ……
Good luck with your next submission!

It’s fantastic that there are so many conferences and so many students submitting papers to conferences. It means that the next generation of faculty is itching to go! The life of a Ph.D. student is not easy, and it’s all the more remarkable that the Ph.D. student chooses this life, knowing the grit that it takes to get through those years. That grit deserves recognition and respect. It’s our responsibility, as a community, to make sure that these students’ papers are up to scratch, but we can collectively help them get there. These are, after all, our future faculty colleagues.

The responsibility starts with me to be a better author first. Not just an author of my papers, but an author of my reviews of others’ papers. Better authors make better reviewers who, in turn, make better authors of others.

Resources I learned from

  • The Elements of Style, 4th Edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, July 1999.
  • How (and how not) to write a good systems paper, Roy Levin and David D. Redell, 1983.
  • How to increase the chances that your paper is accepted at SIGCOMM, Craig Partridge.
  • A referee’s plea, Mark Allman, May 2001.
  • How to write a first-class paper. Virginia Gewin, Nature, February 2018.
  • How to write a good scientific paper, Chris A. Mack, Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE), 2018.
  • How to write a systems paper, Pat Hanrahan, Fall 2015.
  • Why I gave your paper a Strong Reject, Matt Welsh, April 2016.
  • Why I gave your paper a Strong Accept, Matt Welsh, April 2016.