who is reading

[By ‘you’ I mean me, but it’s easier to say ‘you’] You spend sleepless nights and frustrating days working on a problem, pushing the limits of your data-analysis, algorithmic and analytical know-how, following obscure and not-so-obscure leads through the literature,  until, one day, it clicks. Your model actually fits the data. And no one has even seen data like this before. You’ve made a scientific discovery!

eurekaA colleague who hears you gushing about the result suggests you submit it to Nature. Although you have only written up bits and pieces during the course of the research, it’s too late now, those bits have become the “Nature” paper.

Even in this incomplete state, the “Nature” paper changes you. It makes you feel important, special. You go to conferences and are surprised to find that a lot of other researchers have “Nature” papers.

conferenceAfter a bit of initial angst that they may actually have your “Nature” paper, you wonder a) if Nature will have enough room and b) if these people seem a bit delusional, am I delusional too?

As you spend weeks to months doing the last 10% of the work to make the paper 100% ready for submission, you try to handle the anxiety of getting scooped. Mornings are the worst, as you read arxiv or Google News headlines (because of course, any paper that did what your “Nature” paper does would capture the headlines).

checking newsUntil one day it happens. Your office mate has spotted a Nature (no quotes) paper on X, and your “Nature” paper is on X. Your stomach turns, you quickly skim the paper. Relief: the paper says X, it’s not your X.


After that scare, your work pace gets even crazier. Gotta finish that last 1%, triple-check all results. You send the paper to a few people who regularly publish in Nature. When they say they like it, you’re over the moon. And if they ask where it’s going to, you reluctantly admit your aspirations.

where are you submitting to?When you’re not working, you daydream. You imagine your PhD advisor, mom, dad, long-ago flame just happening to read your paper, because they all read Nature or at least used to or at least used to say they do.

who is readingYou’ve delayed as long as possible, but it is time to do the final formatting. You create a new folder, and give it a name e.g. “Nature2012” which will forever serve as a painful reminder of your unsuccessful attempt if the paper is rejected.

the folderNow you are ready to begin formatting. Inexplicably, you are asked to take your perfectly well-formatted paper, tear out the figures, upload them as separate files (which you will have to rename, resize, and resort), separate out the figure captions (to ensure that the reviewers will have the most difficult time figuring out what you are talking about when referring to a figure), and then wait for the submission system to glue them back together in the most impractical and unreadable form possible. This will take hours to days.

formatting the submissionFinally, you submit. It’s a strange feeling. The creation you have labored so hard for is now in someone else’s hands. There is emptiness. You start to think about other things in life besides the “Nature” paper. Life returns to “normal”. Then…


gloom[To be continued in other fine publication venues…]


  12 Responses to “the “Nature” paper”

  1. On occasion, I have gotten such desk rejections with rude comments to boot—like this one from a PNAS editor (which was at the end of a long diatribe about why our paper sucks and isn’t worth wasting the time of referees):

    “I agree with the authors that [the stuff we studied] are worth further attention. Indeed I believe they need to invest in this for their own work so that it can be clearly situated in the modern network modeling literature. The present paper fails in this regard.”

    The editor’s basic complaint with our work was that we didn’t do it in exactly the way he/she would have done it—but at least he/she agreed that the problem itself was worthy of a fancy journal.

  2. This is wonderful — text, style and drawings — but leaves me in breathless lack of completion. What happened? Do have to go to G. Scholar to learn?

  3. I wish I knew… The post is as up-to-date as can be :).

  4. I completely sympathize! You try reminding yourself that Nature is a for-profit journal and so their editorial decisions are in part based on trying to maximize advertising revenue and other non-scientific things, and that your paper isn’t really a genetics or microbiology paper and so technically wouldn’t fall within the topic of 80% of what they publish (and what 99% of their advertisements cover). You also tell yourself that it’s such a competitive process to get published in Nature that many random factors are working against you. And, you tell yourself that maybe Science or PNAS will recognize what an interesting scientific result you have. (And by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’.)
    p.s. Was that a power law in first drawing?!

  5. Ironically, it is a bit about genetics! And no, that was not a power-law, unless you consider y=-x a power law :p. The y-coordinates are derived from empirical distributions (the vast majority of which are power-law) and the x-coordinate is a measured parameter. Thanks for the sympathies, even if they are coming from Nature+Science published author. Ahem.

  6. Lada: this is brilliant. Alas, been there, done that. Ten times.

  7. Nick: doesn’t this still give you a > 50% acceptance rate?

  8. Sadness! I know how hard you worked on that paper and how good it was. It will be tedious to reformat, but I have no doubts it’ll find a good home in another top-tier venue. I haven’t heard back yet about my “Science” paper, but I think your sketches will mitigate the pain if it’s bad news. Thanks for writing such a charming piece!

  9. This is funny, beautiful and cute :-). I enjoyed it very much! Thanks for the post and for sharing it on FB! 🙂

  10. My record for rejection from a journal is 13 minutes. Was from Current Biology though, not Nature.

  11. Moira, no news is good news. Fingers crossed for your Science (no quotes!) paper.

  12. I really liked the use of images in this post, to capture the human side of such experiences. I think telling the story using images, especially one such emotive as this is helps to engage others, and stick in mind for longer. Waiting on part 2 of the post now when your paper finds a new home.

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