When to appeal a rejection

26 08 2017

BegA modified excerpt from my upcoming book for you to contemplate after your next rejection letter.

This is a delicate subject that requires some reflection. Early in my career, I believed the appeal process to be a waste of time. Having made one or two of them to no avail, and then having been on the receiving end of many appeals as a journal editor myself, I thought that it would be a rare occasion indeed when an appeal actually led to a reversal of the final decision.

It turns out that I was very wrong, but not in terms of simple functional probability that you might be thinking. Ironically, the harder it is to get a paper published in a journal, the higher the likelihood that an appeal following rejection will lead to a favourable outcome for the submitting authors. Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »

Dealing with rejection

8 02 2017

6360351663382153201743264721_ls_crying-menWe scientists can unfortunately be real bastards to each other, and no other interaction brings out that tendency more than peer review. Of course no one, no matter how experienced, likes to have a manuscript rejected. People hate to be on the receiving end of any criticism, and scientists are certainly no different. Many reviews can be harsh and unfair; many reviewers ‘miss the point’ or are just plain nasty.

It is inevitable that you will be rejected outright many times after the first attempt. Sometimes you can counter this negative decision via an appeal, but more often than not the rejection is final no matter what you could argue or modify. So your only recourse is move on to a lower-ranked journal. If you consistently submit to low-ranked journals, you would obviously receive far fewer rejections during the course of your scientific career, but you would also probably minimise the number of citations arising from your work as a consequence.

So your manuscript has been REJECTED. What now? The first thing to remember is that you and your colleagues have not been rejected, only your manuscript has. This might seem obvious as you read these words, but nearly everyone — save the chronically narcissistic — goes through some feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy following a rejection letter. At this point it is essential to remind yourself that your capacity to do science is not being judged here; rather, the most likely explanation is that given your strategy to maximise your paper’s citation potential, you have probably just overshot the target journal. What this really means is that the editor (and/or reviewers) are of the opinion that your paper is not likely to gain as many citations as they think papers in their journal should. Look closely at the rejection letter — does it say anything about “… lacking novelty …”? Read the rest of this entry »

Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

19 10 2015


Man and the environment are meant for each other” — Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia (2014)

I know the human being and the fish can co-exist peacefully” — George W. Bush, former President of the USA (2000)

It. Has. Finally. Been. Published.

Yes, my new book with Paul Ehrlich, published by University of Chicago Press, is now available to purchase in book shops and online distributors around the world. The blog post today is a little explanatory synopsis of why we wrote the book and what it contains, but of course the real ‘meat’ is in the book. I hope you enjoy it.

In Australia, you can purchase the hard copy through Footprint Books, and the Kindle version at Amazon Australia. I also suggest that Australians might find the best deals through Booko. Electronic versions are also available through Kobo and Google Play. In the US you can order directly from University of Chicago Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other book sellers. In the UK and Europe, the book is available from your country’s Amazon distributor. I imagine many chain and independent book sellers will be carrying the book by now, or will be soon.

My deepest thanks to all those who made it possible.

Our chance meeting in 2009 at Stanford University turned out to be auspicious, not least of which because of the publication this week of our co-authored book, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment by University of Chicago Press. As a mid-career ecologist (Bradshaw) based at the University of Adelaide, it was indeed an honour to meet one of the most famous scientists (Ehrlich) in my field. With a list of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s. Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year during the last four decades and experienced more of the country than most Australians. Together we have observed firsthand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, and the eyes we see through are trained as those of environmental scientists and evolutionary biologists.

So why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth? As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, histories of human colonisation and soil productivities, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both our countries are now experiencing. As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other’s mistakes.


Australia and the contiguous US are roughly equivalent in land area, both cultures are derived originally and principally from what is now the United Kingdom, and both are examples of super-consuming, super-wasting, wealthy, literate countries. Both countries also have environmental footprints that exceed most other countries on Earth, with some of the world’s highest per capita rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, water consumption, species extinctions and deforestation.  Read the rest of this entry »

The sticky subject of article authorship

2 10 2015

CriticVs.Shakespeare-copyI have a few ‘rules’ (a.k.a. ‘guidelines’) in my lab about the authorship of articles, but I’ve come to realise that each article requires its own finessing each time authorship is in question. After a lengthy discussion yesterday with the members of Franck Courchamp‘s lab, I decided I should probably write down my thoughts on this, one of the stickiest of subjects in the business of science.

The following discussion can be divided into to two main categories: (1) who to include as a co-author, and once the list of co-authors has been determined, (2) in what order should they be listed?

Before launching into discussing the issues related to Category 1, it is prudent to declare that there are as probably as many conventions as there are publishing scientists, and each discipline’s most general conventions differ across the scientific spectrum. I’m sure if you asked 10 people about what they considered appropriate, you could conceivably receive 10 different answers.

That said, I do still think there are some good-behaviour guidelines on authorship that one should strive to follow, all of which are based on my own experiences (both good and awful).

So who to include? It seems like a simple question superficially because clearly if someone contributed to writing a peer-reviewed article, he/she should be listed as a co-author. The problem really doesn’t concern the main author (the person who did most of the actual composition) because it’s clear here who that will be in almost every case. In most circumstances, this also happens to be the lead author (but more on that below). The question should really apply then to those individuals whose effort was more modest in the production of the final paper.

Strictly speaking, an ‘author’ should write words; but how many words do they need to write before being included? Would 10 suffice, or at least 10%? You can see why this is in itself a sticky subject because there are no established or accepted thresholds. Of course, science generally requires much more than just writing words: there are for most papers experiments to design, grants to obtain to fund them, data to collect, analysis and modelling to be done, figures and tables to prepare and finally, words to write. I’ll admit that I’ve co-authored many papers where I’ve done mainly one of those things (analysis, data collection, etc.), but I can also hold my hand over my heart and state that I’ve contributed more than a good deal to the actual writing of the paper in all circumstances where I’ve been listed as a co-author (the amount of which depends entirely on the lead author’s writing capacity). Read the rest of this entry »

How to review a scientific paper

30 09 2014

F6a00d834521baf69e200e55471d80f8833-800wiollowing one of the most popular posts on ConservationBytes.com, as well as in response to several requests, I’ve decided to provide a few pointers for early-career scientists for reviewing manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

Apart from publishing your first peer-reviewed paper – whether it’s in Nature or Corey’s Journal of Bullshit – receiving that first request to review a manuscript is one of the best indications that you’ve finally ‘made it’ as a recognised scientist. Finally, someone is acknowledging that you are an expert and that your opinions and critiques are important. You deserve to feel proud when this happens.

Of course, reviewing is the backbone of the scientific process, because it is the main component of science’s pursuit of objectivity (i.e., subjectivity reduction). No other human endeavour can claim likewise.

It is therefore essential to take the reviewing process seriously, even if you do so only from the entirely selfish perspective that if you do not, no one will seriously review your own work. It is therefore much more than an altruistic effort to advance human knowledge – it is at the very least a survival mechanism. Sooner or later if you get a reputation for providing bad reviews, or refuse to do them, your own publication track record will suffer as a result.

Just like there are probably as many different (successful) ways to write a scientific paper as there are journals, most people develop their own approaches for reviewing their colleagues’ work. But just as it’s my opinion that many journal editors do an awful job of editing, I know that many reviewers do rather a shit job at their assigned tasks. This perspective comes from many years as an author, a reviewer, an editor and a mentor.

So take my advice as you will – hopefully some of it will prove useful when you review manuscripts. Read the rest of this entry »

Time to put significance out of its misery

28 07 2014

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll be no stranger to my views on what I believe is one of the most abused, and therefore now meaningless, words in scientific writing: ‘significance’ and her adjective sister, ‘significant’. I hold that it should be stricken entirely from the language of science writing.

Most science writing has become burdened with archaic language that perhaps at one time meant something, but now given the ubiquity of certain terms in most walks of life and their subsequent misapplication, many terms no longer have a precise meaning. Given that good scientific writing must ideally strive to employ the language of precision, transparency and simplicity, now-useless terminology should be completely expunged from our vocabulary.

‘Significance’ is just such a term.

Most interviews on radio or television, most lectures by politicians or business leaders, and nearly all presentations by academics at meetings of learned societies invoke ‘significant’ merely to add emphasis to the discourse. Usually it involves some sort of comparison – a ‘significant’ decline, a ‘significant’ change or a ‘significant’ number relative to some other number in the past or in some other place, and so on. Rarely is the word quantified: how much has the trend declined, how much did it change and how many is that ‘number’? What is ‘significant’ to a mouse is rather unimportant to an elephant, so most uses are as entirely subjective qualifiers employed to add some sort of ‘expert’ emphasis to the phenomenon under discussion. To most, ‘significant’ just sounds more authoritative, educated and erudite than ‘a lot’ or ‘big’. This is, of course, complete rubbish because it is the practice of using big words to hide the fact that the speaker isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is.

While I could occasionally forgive non-scientists for not quantifying their use of ‘significance’ because they haven’t necessarily been trained to do so, I utterly condemn scientists who use the word that way. We are specifically trained to quantify, so throwing ‘significant’ around without a very clear quantification (it changed by x amount, it declined by 50 % in two years, etc.) runs counter to the very essence of our discipline. To make matters worse, you can often hear a vocal emphasis placed on the word when uttered, along with a patronising hand gesture, to make that subjectivity even more obvious.

If you are a scientist reading this, then you are surely waiting for my rationale as to why we should also ignore the word’s statistical meaning. While I’ve explained this before, it bears repeating. Read the rest of this entry »

Be a good reviewer, but be a better editor

6 06 2014
© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

© evileditor.blogspot.com.au

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been at this for a while, or maybe it’s a real trend. Regardless, many of my colleagues and I are now of the opinion that the quality of editing in scientific journals is on the downhill slide.

Yes – we (scientists) all complain about negative decisions from journals to which we’ve submitted our work. Being rejected is part of the process. Aiming high is necessary for academic success, but when a negative decision is made on the basis of (often one) appalling review, it’s a little harder to swallow.

I suppose I can accept the inevitability of declining review quality for the simple reason that there are now SO MANY papers to review that finding willing volunteers is difficult. This means that there will always be people who only glance cursorily at the paper, miss the detail and recommend rejection based on their own misunderstanding or bias. It’s far easier to skim a paper and try to find a reason to reject than actually putting in the time to appraise the work critically and fairly.

This means that the traditional model of basing the decision to accept or reject a manuscript on only two reviews is fraught because the probability of receiving poor reviews is rising. For example, a certain undisclosed journal of unquestionably high quality for which I edit does not accept anything less than six recommendations for reviewers per manuscript, and none that I’m aware of is accepted or rejected based on only two reviews. But I think this is the exception rather than the rule – there are simply too many journals now of low to medium quality to be able to get that many reviewers to agree to review.

I won’t spend too much time trying to encourage you to do the best job you can when reviewing – that should go without saying. Remember what goes around comes around. If you are a shit reviewer, you will receive shit reviews. Read the rest of this entry »