Monday, October 16, 2017

A PhD Nightmare: How a ‘Safe’ Paper Turned Into a ‘Horror’ Paper

Recently the last paper from my PhD has been accepted for publication. The paper describes the impact of current and potential future land-use intensification on bird species richness in Transylvania, Romania. Although the paper is maybe not groundbreaking, I always thought that it is still a relevant contribution to the scientific literature, based on our large field efforts, its statistical soundness and because it was well written. A solid paper. But instead, getting the paper published has been a tough ride. 
While we thought bats were difficult to publish (see our previous blog post on a rejection journey five years ago), we have now seen that birds can be even harder to get into journals. Ironically, this paper was considered the ‘safe paper’ of my PhD work. I was one of those lucky students that was part of a well-planned research project including great supervision. The bird work of my PhD was carefully planned and designed, was based on pilot studies and was set in a region rich in (protected) bird species. Very soon, however, my ‘safe’ paper turned into my ‘horror’ paper, with high levels of frustration, a shattered confidence, and – in the end – lots of sarcasm and laughter.
Here goes the story how my ‘safe’ paper was turned into my ‘horror’ paper.
Journal 1: Submitted Dec 2013, rejected with review Feb 2014: Lacking novelty and generality, and lacking clarity and focus of the analysis.
Journal 2: Submitted Feb 2014, rejected with review Mar 2014: Too broad discussion and lacking strong conclusions/management recommendations.
After these first two rejections, we made major changes to the manuscript. We narrowed down the manuscript considerably by deleting a part on species traits, and worked on the clarity of our methods section.
Journal 3: Submitted May 2014, rejected without review: Not general enough in concept, scope and approach.
Journal 4: Submitted May 2014, rejected with review Sep 2014: Lacking novelty.
Journal 5: Submitted Oct 2014, rejected with review Dec 2014: Lacking novelty, and lacking clarity in the methodology and results. As one reviewer put it: having a more complicated and complex design than other studies should not stand for novelty in scientific research.
By the time the paper was rejected 5 times I was pretty desperate and frustrated to hear over and over that the study lacked novelty. I figured that we couldn’t change that much on the novelty of our study’s outcome. However, another frequent critique was around the clarity of the methods and results, something I thought we could improve. Therefore, to give the paper a new and fresh boost, we received help from a new co-author. We re-analysed the entire paper focusing solely on species richness (taking out a part on bird communities), rewrote the entire paper for clarity and to put into a broader context, and even put in some pretty pictures to illustrate traditional farming landscapes. Now with our paper in a new jacket I was convinced we would be luckier in the review process.
Journal 6: Submitted Jun 2015, rejected with review Aug 2015: Methodology limited the study’s conclusion and its capacity to go beyond a regional example. For example, it was critiqued that the model averaging approach used poses limitations and regression coefficients should be used instead.
Journal 7: Submitted Aug 2015, rejected with review Sep 2015: Flawed study design which was deemed uncorrectable without significant reanalysis. Although reviewer 1 had significant problems with our study design, reviewer 2 seemed to be less unhappy: The study is well introduced (I particularly liked the introduction of traditional farming landscapes), the study design is appropriate, the analyses generally robust (although please see comment below), and the results clear, and the discussion well considered.
Journal 8: Submitted Nov 2015, rejected with review Dec 2015: Methodology – given our objectives and sampling design we used the wrong analytical unit.
Journal 9: Submitted Jan 2016, rejected with review Feb 2016: Lack of novelty, trivial findings and not taking into account the rarity of species (something we had excluded from the manuscript due to other reviewer comments).
Journal 10: Submitted Feb 2016, rejected with review June 2016: Goal of the work not addressed.
Journal 11: Submitted Sep 2016, Minor revisions Jan 2017, Submitted revised manuscript Jul 2017 (after maternity leave), Accepted Jul 2017. Hurrah, the reviewers liked the paper a lot!!
Having had 10 rejections on this paper, mostly after review, means that approximately 25 (!) reviewers were involved in getting this paper published. Importantly, of those reviewers probably half of them could have been satisfied with major revisions. Like in the example under journal 7, usually one of the reviewers did not dislike our paper that much, but I guess one more negative review is enough for a rejection. 
Even more interesting, we published two similar papers on butterflies and plants from the same region, based on the same study design and using similar analysis. While this paper on birds got continuous critique that our methodology was not clear, flawed, or limited, these other two papers on plants and butterflies received positive constructive reviews without much complaints about its novelty and/or study design. I am still not sure why this paper had such a hard time, is it just birds or something else, but I am happy it is finally out there! Enjoy the reading and you can always contact me for further clarifications on its methods or novelty J.

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