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The iceberg illusion

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 27, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 22


I just came across a great image by educator, author, and sketchnoter Sylvia Duckworth. It is called “The Iceberg Illusion,” and I can guarantee that it will put a smile on the face of pretty much any scientist who sees it.

A poster about the five stages of academic paper rejection respones.
Credit: ACS Axial

The image is of an iceberg in the sea. It is divided into two segments, with the top (smaller) part showing a clear sky, calm waters, and two notes: “Success is an iceberg” and “What people see.” The bottom part of the image shows the other (larger) side of the iceberg, deep in the water surrounded by words such as “Persistence,” “Failure,” “Sacrifice,” “Disappointment,” “Discipline,” and “Hard work.” This side represents what people don’t see.

Scientists will definitely identify with this. The iceberg is each one of them. Anyone who has spent any length of time in the lab knows that when you are doing research, you spend most of your waking hours deep in the water: working hard, dedicated to your science, dealing with failed experiments, pushing yourself to get over disappointment as quickly as possible, and planning the next set of experiments.

Related to this is an editorial titled “The Five Stages of Rejection,” by William B. Tolman and P. Shiv Halasyamani, recently published in an issue of Inorganic Chemistry. The editorial is also about the deep-in-the-water side of the iceberg. It describes—humorously—the emotions that researchers go through after their papers have been rejected by their journal of choice. The editorial plays off the idea that when people experience grief, they go through five kinds of emotions in this order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.

The authors are spot on in drawing this parallel between paper rejection and grief, and there are plenty of examples of scientists going through this troubled cycle of emotions. You only have to follow a group of scientists on social media and wait long enough. The good news is that for those at the bottom of the curve, there is a lot of advice, support, and encouragement from the scientific community, often from complete strangers.

But the rejection of a paper is only one of the many things that scientists experience on a regular basis that can send them down the grief curve. There is also denial of tenure, failure of a key experiment, not getting that lab job you wanted, or spending months of work in the lab trying to get a synthetic procedure to work only to be scooped by a competing group that you have collaborated with in the past.

From Nobel Prize winners to starting junior faculty, we all have had papers rejected. The question is, what do you do next?
P. Shiv Halasyamani and William B. Tolman, Inorganic Chemistry

The editorial finishes with a final thought acknowledging that editors and reviewers, as the working scientists that they are, have also experienced those five stages when their papers have been rejected. “We understand,” the authors conclude. I’d concede that many understand but also offer that many do not. There is such a thing as the dreaded reviewer number 3.

Be gentle, reviewer 3! Chemists are a resilient bunch, and the stages of grief are all too familiar to most. Yet think twice before wielding your power and sending your peers deep into the frozen waters. Make it as quick a dive as possible, and share the promise of the clear skies to come.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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