“Where there is much light the shade is deepest”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Science is all about success and failure is often assumed to be bad for the academic career. That’s how many peers think – especially those in their early career stage who then think they should better stay off academia. But that is a fallacy. In contrast, failure is an inherent part of success as things that don’t work out for whatever reason give opportunities to learn from – and to improve. Yet in the academic world, we only highlight success: About the new paper published, the new grant received, the new boost in h-factor, and the new award won, or any other new achievement made. Failure, on the opposite, is often concealed. Looking at shiny CVs from “high-performers” or “over-achievers” we only see their brilliant outcomes. A CV hence turns into a biased representation of the relative roles of failure and success during a career. If you ask successful people (no matter if they are in academia or any other business) what make them successful, failure becomes a cornerstone in their story.
Recently some people revealed their so-called Shadow CV – a CV listing all the things that went wrong in their career (see here and here). Rejected papers, smashed grant proposals, unconsidered job applications, and failed job interviews, to name a few. I pretty much liked the idea but friends and colleagues keep telling me that it might not be a wise decision to release an own Shadow CV if you are still early in your career. Indeed it might be more comfortable to show your failures when you “made it” and can act from a safe (read: tenured) position. But what can young people who strive for an academic career learn from this mindset, when young peers refuse to talk about failure, only to safeguard their career prospects? Isn’t this the exact bias in reporting success that is driving people mad from the very beginning?
Therefore, I decided to start a series on this blog devoted to the misrepresentation of failure in academia. My failures. A new sub-mission. It’s not a pure Shadow CV as I don’t aim for a complete list of all my failings (I think I can’t even list all of them). Instead, I want to highlight and discuss concrete examples, which I could proudly include in my Shadow CV, with the intention to discuss why I failed and what I will learn from it. My goal is to show you – the interested reader – that failure is crucial for your development whether it is in your professional of private life.
So let’s start with Ep. 1.
Ep.1: a devastating review because of poor writing
“[…] the MS is still a very long way from being acceptable as the writing requires considerable work […] The authors must all make a significant effort to dramatically improve the writing for this to be a suitable submission”
― Anonymous Editor
This quote was part of the intro of a multiple page long deconstruction of an editor from the US who assessed the revision of a paper I work on with some colleagues – none of them are native speakers. When first reading this I was really crushed (and criticism needs to hurt sometimes) as we took a lot of efforts in language editing and even submitted it to a native speaker for proofreading. Yet the text was apparently still not satisfying – and the editor was definitely right on that. After the first shock on the devastating evaluation I found the editor comments very helpful and constructive – not only to improve the specific issues in the text but also to identify the main reasons leading to the problems with it. Here are the main points I recognised and how I dealt with them to improve the manuscript:
Coauthors writing specific sections disrupt the flow. Take the responsibility to streamline!
The manuscript is structured into different sections and for each one co-author was responsible. As each author has a different style to write – and a different level of experience – the whole manuscript is studded with breaks in tone and structure. As the first author on this paper, I needed to put it all together but I only did part of the job. I wrote the general introduction and the outlook section while I largely kept the different tone of the particular sections written by my co-authors in the manuscript. However, part of providing a good story arc is to have a manuscript where thoughts are presented in a similar tone. Disrupting tone means disrupting flow means doing a poor job for the reader. Therefore, I spend a lot of energy in aligning the text. While it is impossible (and not needed) to have exactly the same style (then you need to rewrite everything yourself, making the work of your co-authors obsolete), you can profoundly improve the text when focus on the tone.
Decide wisely on who does the proofreading. Don’t expect a perfect text from a perfect grammar.
There are many aspects in language editing. In our first revision, we asked a native speaker to correct our English. And I think our proofreader made a good job. The text is fine in terms of grammar and punctuation. What the editor criticised can be mostly summarised as sentence structure and linkage of paragraphs. Especially clear topic sentences were lacking in some parts of the manuscript. These are the sorts of errors that have a lot to do with experience in academic writing – not with knowing rules of punctuation or grammar. To optimise your proofreading efforts you may drive better when asking a senior native speaker who has published a lot (ideally in an area close to your own). He/She will have the experience and “an eye for” good phrasing. The good news is that you will get better at it the more you write.
Clearly identify the audience you want to reach out to.
Another point that I learnt is that every article format will have its unique properties when it comes to structure and storytelling. And a review article is hence different from a research article. Moreover depending on who one wants to reach out to, a review article can be written in entirely different directions. For instance, you could write a review to identify gaps in current knowledge or even focus towards a very specific gap which is buried under the existing literature. The focus of those reviews is always straight forward pointed towards the gap you want to highlight (e.g. to frame interesting new research questions on that particular topic). These articles aim for a highly specific audience that has quite some expertise in that particular field and you can consider some previous knowledge in your audience and build on existing, yet specific, schemes. And then there are overviews: Review papers that aim to inform a general audience and provide a concise introduction to a particular topic. Here, identifying narrow gaps in knowledge is secondary. The primary purpose is to provide the reader with an exhaustive, yet easy to understand, overview into the topic and the existing literature. In the first round of reviews, we recognised that the reviewers’ expectation was to read a review identifying one or several gaps for specialists instead of an overview for people new into the topic. We missed to clearly stress out who our intended audience is, and may cause wrong expectations of the paper and that leave reader unsatisfied.
When you learn something new you need to apply it and you will fail in the beginning
Writing this review article for an international journal was definitely a new experience for me for multiple reasons:
- It was the first time ever I wrote a review article which, as mentioned above, is a slightly different type of writing than the classical research paper.
- The way we wrote it was new in delegating entire sections to an expert and be responsible for coordinating the whole work and embed it into an overarching topic. It feels like editing a book (a small book though) with contributed chapters (topical sections).
- I tried to implement new knowledge I learned from reading Writing Science from Joshua Schimel (If you haven’t done so already you should read it). That said, I tried to apply to write an appealing story that attracts the reader. One critique that came from the Editor was pointed to some words I wrote that seemed to be too colloquial for the Editor’s taste. I think colloquial is fine, as long as the words are precise and don’t leave room for speculation. Colloquial helps readers to enter a new topic to orientate while jargon does the opposite.
The Bottomline is that chances are high you won’t succeed the first time you do something new. You will make errors, and you will fail. And that is ok. Get up and learn from it! And don’t blame it on somebody else except yourself. Next time you will do better. With the feedback we got now, the manuscript will be much improved and hopefully finally accepted. Maybe you will stumble across it in the future. Maybe you will find it helpful.