Previously in this series: On Rejection (Part 1: The Descent)
Research is fundamentally a human endeavor: it is about the communication of ideas between human beings, engaged in an eternal quest to understand the world around us and make it better. There is therefore nothing worse than putting all your heart and soul into writing a paper in an effort to communicate your latest and greatest ideas to others, only to receive the following message in your inbox:
On behalf of the TopCon 2015 program committee, I regret to inform you that your paper #123 has not been selected to appear in the conference. Your reviews are included below. We hope you find them useful in revising your paper for publication in another forum.
Yes, this message is signed by another human being. Yes, that human being appears to be generous, offering you feedback in a sincere effort to help you improve your work. But no, in fact, this is not a message from another human being, and there is nothing sincere about it. It is a form letter, filled out by a machine, a machine that says coldly, “You are not worthy.”
Of course, we all know that the mechanical nature of that rejection is a façade, a charade, an ultimately futile attempt to conceal the identities of the true culprits who are responsible for the mistreatment of your work: the reviewers. Those bastards have deliberately misunderstood your contribution for their own twisted ends, and the machine is covering for them. But not for long! It is time to go down to the cellar, switch on the lonely light bulb, and dust off…the voodoo dolls.
Ah, the voodoo dolls. They have been with you, like the stuffed animals they are, from the very beginning, since your first rejection. Some are old and tattered, with repeated wounds from your early years as a budding researcher. Others are new and pristine — you may not even remember acquiring them. But they are all there, one for each of your colleagues: no one is above suspicion.
You begin to read over the TopCon reviews again as if you were a Talmudic scholar scouring the Torah for obscure clues to God’s true intent. Except here you are looking for anything — a turn of phrase, an absurd claim, an idiosyncratic style of capitalization — anything that might tip you off to who has done this terrible thing to you, so that you can mete out the Old Testament justice the evildoer so richly deserves.
Let’s see: Reviewer B’s obvious self-citation was a dead giveaway of their identity, but you have never actually met this person and don’t know much about their work, so it’s hard to get much satisfaction out of skewering them. I mean, maybe their paper from <noname conference> <last year> was actually interesting. Probably not, but who knows. You certainly can’t be bothered to go read it now and find out.
As for Reviewer C: they did give you a weak accept after all, but at the same time they had the temerity to suggest that your paper might be better off as a journal article. A journal article?! Nobody, and I mean nobody, reads journal articles. [Note: If you are not a computer scientist and this sounds like a bizarre comment to you, please stay tuned for a future post on conferences vs. journals in CS.] The whole point of your submitting to TopCon was so someone would actually read your paper, and now Reviewer C is telling you that, because your paper is too deep and important to explain clearly in the space of a conference paper, you should go submit it to a venue where no one will read it? What bullshit! You start to rile yourself up into a lather of rage, until you realize that unfortunately the review was bland enough to have been written by absolutely anybody, so you’ll have to direct your bloodlust elsewhere.
Your glance returns to the first review. There aren’t too many people Reviewer A could be. First of all, this person seems to be actually familiar with the recent work in your area and has made intelligent comments in the “detailed” section of their review that suggest they know to some extent what they’re talking about. Second, the reviewer is clearly on the PC of TopCon and is not conflicted with you. That narrows it down to about two people, an American and a Brit. And of those two, you know it has to be the Brit, since they complimented you on your “jolly good use of colour”.
The identity of the culprit is not surprising, but it’s rather disappointing. This person is someone you actually respect. They write good papers, they study important problems, they have high standards. How could they have come to the conclusion that your work is too “complex”? You clearly stated otherwise in the introduction to your paper! “Our approach simplifies and unifies many existing approaches, as well as extending their expressive power.” Did they miss that sentence? Plus, haven’t they read their own papers? In this field, everybody’s work is super-complicated. It’s a hard topic, and simple solutions don’t scale. What are they complaining about?
Anyway, it’s time for justice to be served. You prepare the implements of torture, and after a brief moment of silence for your fallen paper, you grab hold of the effigy of Reviewer A with determination. You are finally face-to-face with the murderer of your masterwork, and ready to exact vengeance!
Only, at the last second, there’s one thing that gives you pause: you’re a reviewer, too. What if you rejected someone else’s paper recently and they figured out it was you? What if they’re about to attack a voodoo doll of you in their cellar? In fact, given what a hardass reviewer you are, and how shamelessly you cite your own papers when writing reviews, this is almost certainly the case. Come to think of it, you have been feeling some sharp pains in your abdomen lately.
“Ah, that’s foolishness. No one believes in this voodoo stuff anyway!” you think to yourself. At this point, you notice that you are holding a creepy-looking doll in one hand and a power tool in the other. You put them down, turn off the light, and go upstairs.
To be continued…