By the way, Al is still looking for his whale shark tags (shown at right), which are somewhere in the South Texas area! - Zen
Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides:
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.
Shakespeare – King Lear
This is a post about shame. Specifically it’s about a special type of shame that I suspect many (most?) scientists feel and few discuss. It’s a shame that I have struggled with for my entire career, including grad school. I dared to share a glimpse of it recently in that most public of forums, Twitter, and learned that perhaps I was not alone. Emboldened by social media connections to folks I know both well and not at all, I am taking the next step of exploring my shame publicly, in the hope that we can learn more about this phenomenon.
There exists on my hard drive a folder into which I loathe copying files, but only slightly less than I would loathe deleting them all together. It is a folder called “Aborted Manuscripts” and it is this folder which is the source of my shame. It is a graveyard of stupid ideas and of great ones poorly executed, of unfinished cogitations, of journal rejections, of unresponsive colleagues and of frustrating students. It’s a roadmap documenting 15 years of science (read: “me”) not doing what science (read: “me”) is supposed to do – get published.
When the emotions subside, here’s what I see in that folder, as objectively as I can class them:
- Jumping the gun. Sometimes it just wasn't ready to publish; my enthusiasm outstripped either my ability, or the data, or both. More studies were needed and if they were done, which they often weren't, the previous work was contradicted or became irrelevant somehow. These are the ones where I shake my head and smile at my own naïveté. What was I thinking?
- My fault. It was a good idea and good work, but some part of the work or the publishing thereof, was mishandled and I have to accept the blame. Usually, but not always, it was an issue of time management; I either couldn't make the time to finish it, or for whatever reason it dragged on so long that it was no longer interesting or I lost motivation. I include in this category the last of my dissertation papers, which was perfectly good but got lost in the haze of moving on to employed life on another continent. I have a couple of others where my failings more directly affect other folks, and these are the true source of 90% of my shame.
- Someone else’s fault. I do have a couple where I can squarely blame someone else for not finishing some critical aspect of the work. I bet you they’ve all forgotten about it by now, but I haven’t. Maybe I should.
- Rejection. I only have one that is a journal rejection. This one causes me more confusion than anything, because I still don’t really understand why it was rejected. Four times. (Well, two were Science and Nature, so I guess it’s been rejected by “real” journals twice). Sigh.
I don’t have answers for these questions, nor have I resolved which option to pursue. Perhaps you can help me decide in the comments section below. More importantly though, I’d really like to hear about whether others have “Aborted Manuscripts” folders of their own and, if so, how do you feel about them and what have you done with them? I think this is perhaps an important part of scientific life that we're not talking about, or at least not talking about enough.
Postscript from Zen: I had a few papers that waited about five to six years to be published. So manuscript resurrection can happen! That’s the first and most important point.
I currently have one manuscript that hasn’t yet found a home. I have a couple of projects that never quite made it to the manuscript stage, at least not yet.
I wrote a bit about how to decide when it’s time to publish a project over at Scientopia’s Guest Blog earlier this week.
There is some information in the research literature about this. This paper by Casey and Blackburn looks mainly at reasons for rejection, but deals with “orphaned” manuscripts a little as well.