The academic publishing process: A lesson in antifragility

Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (M.A.N. Madrid) 02

Image: Mosaico Trabajos Hércules (M.A.N. Madrid) 02 by Luis García under CC BY SA 2.0

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. 

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same;

the antifragile gets better”

Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Sheree Bekker and Dr Bridie Scott-Parker have teamed up to write this post on their experiences of the academic publishing process – they provide reflections from the point of view of a rookie researcher (SB) and a more experienced researcher (BSP). 

[Sheree Bekker] Congratulations rained in when I published my first academic paper. I had been open about my publishing journey on social media, and had shared each step it had taken me over the course of eighteen months – with rejections and revisions aplenty. The academic publishing process can be daunting for a rookie researcher, and sharing my failures and then ultimate success with my community on social media gave me a place to both vent and celebrate with others who had been through the process many times before.

As most academics do, I have now come to expect rejection. There is nothing unusual about such in academia – research is built on peer-review and journals with high standards and even higher rejection rates. Rejection is both a rite of passage and a way of life for academics. We are reminded of this often through corridor conversations, mentorship, and our own experiences.

Yet failure is not openly and honestly shared or spoken about in the wider sphere of academia. Sure, we all know that failure is the name of the game, but it is not really spoken about. I remember this negative CV doing the rounds on social media last year – and how radical it seemed at the time that someone was willing to share all their failures (gasp!) in an arena where a career – and for many academics self-worth – is tied to wins. Yet wins cannot be achieved without the failures. Go figure.

I am a big advocate for sharing our life’s work on social media, but have often wondered why we only share our ‘wins’. Do the failures speak to a lack of competency? No, I don’t believe so. Declaring a failure for the world to see speaks to shame and vulnerability – and also to courage and commitment. Now, I am not suggesting that all academics share all their failures all of the time – for I am told that you just get to a point where it does not bother you any longer as there are just too many to share – but I do believe that we owe it to emerging academics to, at the very least, open up the conversation a little more. Indeed, a Guardian piece recently reminded us academics: you are going to fail, so learn how to do it better.

The opposite of fragility is not resilience or robustness, it is antifragility. The ability to be poised to benefit or take advantage of stress, errors and change, the way, say, the mythological Hydra generated two new heads, each time one was cut off. Perhaps it is this antifragility that we need to cultivate as emerging researchers, rather than mere stubborn grit. Growing and learning out of our academic challenges, rather than merely ploughing through them.

[Bridie Scott-Parker] Seven years later, I still recall the daunting – nay terrifying – experience of submitting my first manuscript for peer review. While the paper from my Honours thesis emerged quite organically over a month or so (hilarious that I thought this took forever to happen), I actually spent more than 6 hours frantically checking everything was attached correctly, screens were completed, etcetera, then reading the entire PDF generated by the journal’s online submission system, before clicking ‘yes I want to submit this article for peer-review’ (and no I won’t change my mind because I am not allowed to….). Then the dreaded reviews arrived and I was crushed. Clearly I was a complete failure as a researcher, an academic, and as a human, and I should abandon all hope and live in a cave for the remainder of my life! Again, hilarious as my supervisors said that the comments were pretty good! I could see no good and I took some persuading that it is not personal. Having survived the review-revise-respond-review-revise-respond merry-go-round many many times since then, I have the benefit of hindsight to see that those reviews were indeed quite favourable. I also have the benefit of understanding that this is a normal part of disseminating findings, and that as researchers, academics, and authors, our skills are strengthened considerably each time we receive constructive feedback.

Please note also that I don’t live in fairy land. Sometimes reviews are one or two sentences along the lines of ‘this is rubbish, go away’ or ‘this is good and could be improved by some minor changes’, without actually providing any guidance regarding what was good, what was less good, and how to improve the manuscript. Such reviews are a waste of time for the reviewer, the editor who manages the review process, and the authors who are trying their best to share their research in an engaging and informative manner.

I have found over time that I have become the ‘poster child’ for antifragility. Take all feedback on board – good and bad – and learn from it. Where are my research and writing strengths? Where are my research and writing weakness? Don’t be afraid to ask peers and colleagues for unbiased feedback regarding your strengths and weaknesses. This information will only help you in the long run.

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as a mentor to a group of PhD students as they traversed the steeplechase-like process of preparing and submitting a paper for peer review. While I have no experience or skills in Indonesian diglostics, storm runoff, and conceptualisation of climate change adaptation, I have antifragility. I shared my own experiences and tips and tricks I have discovered to make the writing process that little bit easier. I also shared what reviewers look for, and cautioned against easy ways to ‘annoy’ reviewers and editors (my personal all-time favourite, don’t use any punctuation!). Yes, I completed my doctoral dissertation by peer-reviewed publication, and yes, I have a steady stream of post-doctoral peer-reviewed publications. However what you don’t see is the many frogs I proverbially had to kiss before the manuscripts turned into princes. My personal best (not my own project, I am pleased to say) was 18 different versions submitted to 9 different journals, and 3 email conversations between myself as corresponding author and the journal editor, before the paper was finally accepted. Each time the paper was revised, and sometimes it was resubmitted to the journal that provided the reviewer feedback (if not outright rejected). Yes, this is frustrating, but the final article (my silk purse) is so much better that the original submission (the sow’s ear). Bear in mind also that revising a manuscript in light of reviewers’ comments – even when you have done so 4 times – does not guarantee that it will be published within that journal.

Again, antifragility is the way to go 🙂