Monday, April 13, 2009

Please Please (Reject) Me

This may sound strange, but I was recently very relieved to get a negative review of a manuscript. Although it is quite possible that I have lost my mind, there is another explanation for my actions and emotions regarding this manuscript.

First, I should explain that the manuscript is not of the research-based sort that describes results of an investigation of a problem or hypothesis. I can't explain more, but it's relevant to the story that the document in question is not the classical sort of paper. It is more like a review, but of the type that is useful for organizing a disorganized or out-of-date aspect of a topic.

The document was assembled over the course of a year, through discussion with a small group of colleagues. The project was my idea so I took the lead, but, owing to the topic and publication venue, I did not have a choice about the other participants. I could have decided to do the project by myself, but when I initiated the project I thought it would be best to involve the other obvious people. I came to regret this decision, but once made, it could not be undone (easily).

Once the project was underway, it quickly became clear that I was an Outlier. We all agreed that this project should be done and a document written, but that was about all we agreed on. As time went on and it became clear that my vision for the project was fundamentally different from those of the others, I found myself in the minority on most issues. My choices were to compromise (a lot) or quit. Each time, after much thought and attempts to find another way, I decided it was more important that the overall project move forward than that I get my way.

Some decisions were put to a vote, and I lost every vote.

Finally we produced something that the others liked and that I didn't but that I thought was better than nothing. There was enough in it that was still sort of useful and with which I could agree, even if there were some parts that I hated.

And I admit that I just wanted to finish the thing. The rest of the group was comprised of extraordinarily aggressive men who used an impressive arsenal of obnoxious tactics to get their way, even on the most minor of issues. My husband kept asking "Why don't you just quit?". He didn't think it was worth fighting these guys all the time, but I balked at the thought of quitting. However unpleasant the process of working with this group was, it would have upset me more to quit. This project did not bring out the best in any of us.

Since the document was not a 'real' research paper, we had the option of publishing it as a sort of letter or editorial without review, but I decided that I wanted it reviewed. Even though I am an outlier (for many reasons) in this particular group of colleagues, I hoped that others in the scientific community might agree with me, even if only on some issues. And if no one did, then it might be easier for me to accept that I was simply wrong.

The document was reviewed. I do not have the official reviews yet, but one of the reviewers sent me his review in an unofficial way because he wanted to prepare me for the shock of his extremely negative comments. He was apologetic and wanted to make sure I was not too upset about what he wrote.

In fact, I was thrilled. The problems he has with the document are the same problems I have with the document. The suggestions he makes for fixing the problems would turn the document into a form very close to what I want it to be.

I thanked the reviewer profusely and said that I hoped he would submit exactly that version of his negative review. I explained the situation briefly so that he wouldn't think I was insane, and also, I admit, so that he wouldn't think that I held some of the views expressed in the document.

We are still waiting for the other reviews, so the situation is unresolved. I am imaging all sorts of reasons my colleagues might give for dismissing the negative comments, despite the fact that the reviewer is famous for being wise, thorough, and kind, but I will try not to be too prematurely cynical. And I am hoping that the other reviews are just as negative.

Have I learned anything from this experience?

Don't work with other people? (if the other people are rude and aggressive). I've written about working with jerks before. If you categorically refuse to work with jerks, you will spend most of your career alone. I'm not sure that's a realistic or good option, at least not for me.

I am ineffective in the face of an aggressive onslaught of arguments (even when I am right)? Yes, obviously I was ineffective in this case.

I am stubborn? Yes, but I knew that. I probably should have quit this project long ago, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

One thing I did learn is that, even when faced with people continually telling me that I am wrong and stupid about something, I never lost my core belief that at least some of my opinions were good and valid. That either means that I have confidence (typically a good thing to have) or that I refuse to believe I am wrong (not such a good thing).


John Vidale said...

The situation is perplexing. If I'm first author, the paper is as I like it. If I'm not, I phrase comments as suggestions, even if only one of my students is ahead of me in the author list - the buck stops with him.

Given aggressive co-authors, I think you should have stepped aside and pushed the leadership to someone who liked the way the work was going. It's a recipe for trouble if the mixmaster is not enthused about the paper.

Posting this is a bit risky. If the co-authors invested much effort, and knew you had encouraged a reviewer to submit negative comments, they would likely take offense.

Anonymous said...

That reviewer sounds like a gem. Here's hoping the editorial decision goes your way!

Tom said...

I explained the situation briefly so that he wouldn't think I was insane, and also, I admit, so that he wouldn't think that I held some of the views expressed in the document.

Question for you: Given the negative reception of this manuscript by reviewers, do you think it may have damaged your reputation any? I mean, one reviewer has spoken to you, but not all. May they have gotten the wrong impression?

For me, one of the morals of the story is ... know well ahead of time what the end product is going to resemble before working with a group of yahoos.

Femina said...

"...extraordinarily aggressive men who used an impressive arsenal of obnoxious tactics to get their way"

You don't by any chance feel like spilling the beans (in a generic anonymous kind of way) as to what these tactics were, do you?

I ask as someone who is not great at spotting or dealing with these sorts of tactics and for whom forewarned is forearmed.

Ms.PhD said...

I have been in these situations before. What I learned is to try to include at least one other person who will always be in my corner, and to figure out who is the most aggressive of the jerks and not include them, if at all possible. Even if it means picking a time when they can't come to the meetings, and letting them excuse themselves for that reason!

I do wonder if this is not one of the many cases where it was you vs. a bunch of guys? And whether having even one other woman involved (maybe even a junior one) would have helped?

And I wonder sometimes about whether women tend to try too hard to be inclusive, to our own detriment. I see this a lot from women, we ask advice/input and it makes us look weak or uncertain to certain kinds of men.

I'm thinking about organizing a review issue of a journal in my field, as it would be good for my CV.

However, I have been balking at the idea of having to deal with co-authors who are, in my case, somewhat aggressive but more seriously procrastinators in the extreme.

This post makes me think I'd be better off writing my own thing now, and maybe organizing a group issue some day in the future (or maybe never). Right now I can't see voluntarily taking on this kind of stress.

I don't have friends in high places who will be kind enough to contact me - more likely they would assume I was the cause of the idiocy, without asking.

It's always a bit of a double-edge sword when this happens with my manuscripts. Reviewers inevitably hate the same things I hated that my advisor insisted on saying. I'm glad they said so, but meanwhile my career is stalling out before it can begin. And yet, I retain the confidence and belief in my opinions.

Kevin said...

"Reviewers inevitably hate the same things I hated that my advisor insisted on saying. "

As an adviser, I am much more likely to tone down the enthusiasm of students than to push them to put in things they disagree with. I've always thought it was the advisers role to be voice of caution, not to push junk into papers!

Curt F. said...

Since this was apparently a review-y editorialish kind of piece, I wonder if you could have parleyed it into two papers, in a sort of "point-counterpoint" format. Some review journals invite this type of submission.

The difficulty, I guess, would have been getting your project team to "agree to disagree" in a constructive, productive way.

Anonymous said...

well unfortunately since things were put to vote and you lost each time, there's not much else that you could have done except (a) quit which you said was not an option, or (b) pull rank and say "well this is MY idea and MY project and I am the leader so we are going to do it MY way and screw you all who disagree!!"

Seriously, what would have been the fall out if you did the latter?

Anonymous said...

I wonder about privacy too, What would your coauthors say if they read this. I recall you mentioned something about more and more people knowing who you are. Just a thought. I suppose being tenured helps.

Anonymous said...

This post is interesting. I hope that I would never send in a ms with my name on it that I did not agree with. Not sure anyone could make me either. What were you hoping to get by sending in a ms you disagreed with? The respect of your co-authors???

Female Science Professor said...

I would never put my name on a science paper that I disagreed with, but this was a different kind of thing. There was a task to be done and various ways to do it. I didn't like how it was done, all my other coauthors did, and the overall goal was more-or-less accomplished.

Peter Pruyn said...

A few thoughts.

One difficulty of this situation is that there is no acceptable choice. If you quit, you violate your personal value of stick-with-it-ness. Stick with it and you get to be abused with questionable results. Given such options, I feel you are being too hard on yourself when you say, "...obviously I was ineffective in this case." It's not that you were ineffective; it's that the situation was Catch-22.

I sense that you got to where you are precisely because of your stick-with-it-ness. I propose that you celebrate that and make the best of the reviewer comments.

Researchers at the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College have spoken about how much of female faculty turnover is not necessarily due to any one cause that would show up in an exit interview (if there was an exit interview), but, rather, "death by a thousand paper cuts." Sounds like this experience was more like a gash than a cut.

Finally, and most disturbingly, there is research that suggests that female experts are more likely to be discounted in a group setting (see reference below). My only hope is that once such dynamics are named, committed intact teams will be able to discuss such dynamics and manage them appropriately.

For the sake of all future unborn daughters, I certainly hope so.


EliRabett said...

Why quit when you can walk away? As in, oh yes, haven't done that, I'll get to it sooner or very later.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate hearing about your struggles writing with others because I have similar issues. Since I'm still junior in my field, I have to acquiesce to others when we disagree, which is really frustrating. Unfortunately, some reviewers aren't going to be as discerning as yours was!