Are All Citations Created Equal?

14. August 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.
 
Dear Pablo, I am confused about what works to cite in my scientific papers. Should I cite only the papers that helped me with my research? Or should I expand the list to include those that I found clearly wrong or even misleading? –Bruno, Italy.
 
I believe the proper approach is to cite everything that you actually used during your research. This includes seminal papers that may have inspired your project, articles on the methods you used, papers presenting similar previous work, and even research that you may consider incorrect or biased—although you should mention why you think it is invalid. This is an important part of the scientific process, and it will help your colleagues in the future.
 
Your question brings up an issue that I have long found troubling. As you know, the number of citations a scientist receives on his or her papers can be a deciding factor in receiving grants, academic jobs and prestige. The so-called h-index, referring to the number of papers that a scientist has with the same or higher number of citations, is a particularly important metric. For instance, if I have an h-index of 41, that means that 41 of my articles have received 41 or more citations. Some time ago, I covered this issue in more detail in my other blog in Spanish.
 
Although the number of citations is a better measure of scientific performance than simply counting the number of published papers, it is far from perfect. There are many possible problems with this system. For example, the differences in the number of publications and citations among different scientific fields generally make it difficult to compare between subject areas.
 
You can get an automatic count of citations on an article in Google Scholar or Web of Science, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that citations are not all equal—maybe you know a scientist whose work has a large number of citations, but some of them are actually negative. To avoid problems like this, I propose that we classify citations into four categories. I’ve listed them below with some examples obtained from actual papers.
 
Seminal citations:
“We followed the approach proposed and first implemented by (ref) to perform the current experiment…”
 
Positive citations:
“The results of figure 5 are in good agreement with those presented in (ref)”
“Figure 3 compares our results with those of previous works (ref)”
 
Neutral citations:
“Although we followed the same procedure, we were not able to reproduce their results. This may be due to some individual variability. However, several other authors’ findings were similar to ours.”

Negative citations:
“The suggestion by (ref) is clearly incorrect…”
“An additional problem in this study is the surprising lack of details provided on some of the most relevant methods and procedures used.”
 
I understand the technical difficulty of classifying different types of citations, but this system would provide a more accurate depiction of scientific value. Appropriate software could classify every citation within these categories, and each would be rated with points. For instance, seminal citations would be worth two points, positive ones would be worth one, neutral citations would have no points and negative citations would be negative one point.
 
A few decades ago, many of us were unhappy with the mere counting of papers as a measure of success, and the current system has helped address that. But other issues have cropped up. We could not begin to imagine at that time the large emphasis that would be placed on citation counts today. Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate.
 
Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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Building a Good Team: The Rule of 8 Percent

15. May 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Pablo: I am a young faculty member in a physics department working to establish myself, and I need the help of good students and post-docs to move forward. I was surprised to find that dealing with the personal issues within my group is even more difficult than obtaining funding. Do you have any advice on how to form a good team? Andreas, U.S.A.

Building and managing a good team is a challenge in all fields, particularly during the early stages of your career. Many scientists struggle with this, and there is no simple trick that can guarantee your success. However, I can offer some advice to help you along the way.

In an ideal world, all of the people on your team would work together productively and without conflict. However, in practice, that likely won’t be the case. My experience and that of many of my colleagues leads me to believe in the “rule of 8 percent” -- the idea that, in most group settings, roughly 8 percent of the people will be problematic to work with.

You will invest a lot of time and energy in your group members: training and teaching them, introducing them to other colleagues, promoting them, etc. This is normal and appropriate; it only becomes a problem when you receive little in return for your efforts. When you reach the point where you feel that your time is being wasted, it is time to address the issue. Sometimes, regardless of what you do, you will not be able to turn people into good colleagues.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify the “8 percent” individuals at the outset, since it takes time to get to know people and their work habits. If possible, you should start new employees with a short training period as a trial before offering a longer-term position. However, this is not always an option due to the policies of academic institutions.

So, if someone in your group is making your life miserable, try to stay calm. First, have a conversation with him or her about the problems you are having. Sometimes it is possible to resolve even serious conflicts through open, honest communication. If this doesn’t work , you may want to suggest that the person leave your group. If you can think of another position for which he or she would be a better fit, try to help him or her make a smooth transition. If this is not possible, do your best to remove the person from your important projects and be sure that any sensitive information is difficult to access. Talk to university officials for help and stay firm. If you do nothing and allow the situation to get out of control, it could demoralize your strong contributors and hurt the group as a whole. The sooner you act, the better off you will be.

Although group problems can seem overwhelming, the good news is that the majority of your team should be much easier to work with. Focus on identifying everyone’s strengths and how they can complement one another. Finding what your students love to do and delegating their activities accordingly is a crucial part of your job as team leader. Although I have certainly worked with some difficult people over the course of my career, they are not the ones who stick out in my mind. More important are the other 92 percent of my students and colleagues who have been a joy to work with.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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Do I Really Have to Go to All Those Meetings?

2. April 2013

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to adapt and republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Pablo: I have a faculty position and am rather active in research. I publish about one paper per year, but I never attend conferences or meetings because I hate traveling and I am not very good at giving talks. Do you think I will be able to further advance in my scientific career? Why do meetings still seem to be so important in this Internet era? Are there any alternatives? –Andrew, Canada

Many scientists wonder how important it is to go to different meetings: How many should they attend, and which meetings should they choose? I travel so often that I used to joke with my colleagues that I sometimes felt more like a traveling salesman than a professor!

Science is a social field, so getting acquainted with colleagues is a fundamental part of this business. I know some people who travel nearly all the time, some who go on a few trips per year and others who never attend any meetings at all. It is therefore possible to have a career without attending many conferences, but in my opinion one cannot be very successful (sorry!). The personal aspect is critical—everyone likes to put a face to a familiar name, and you will have more opportunities for collaboration with this type of exposure. You need to make yourself and your research known, and to take the opportunity to meet others in your field. There is no replacement for direct, face-to-face contact, although it is true that Skype and teleconferences can save you a few trips.

The number of meetings that you should attend depends on many variables, including your field and where you are in your career. Lack of funding can be an obstacle, but even if you are short of money, remember that this will be a good investment for your future. In many cases, with good planning and low-cost airfares, you can stay within a reasonable budget. In general, regardless of other factors, you should always try to accept invitations to give invited lectures. Taking part in this “invitation” circuit is crucial for advancing your career. It is a part of the system and a way to promote your research and yourself.

In short, you should plan to attend and participate in at least some meetings. I assure you that I understand how difficult it can be to travel. However, in this case, it’s in your best interest to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Initially, go to small meetings rather than large conferences. You will have easier access to key people, and the social interaction is usually much better. If you’re worried about your presentation skills, check out my blog post for some tips on giving successful talks.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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Lessons from an Editorial Term

5. July 2012

Pablo Artal

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal recently finished his second and final term as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America A. Here, he shares his advice to authors and reviewers based on his six years of experience.

For scientists, writing is as vital as planning and executing experiments. Soon after a researcher has published a few articles in a field, it is typical for him or her to be asked to serve as a reviewer. This can be looked at as both a responsibility to the community and a career-development tool for yourself.

When I became an editor, I gained a whole new perspective. For those authors and reviewers who have not yet served as an editor, perhaps you can learn something from my experiences.

Be thorough and professional. I believe that a research area’s strength is related to the quality of the reviewers for its journals. Good reviewers behave like invisible mentors—combing through the data, suggesting additional experiments and giving specific, actionable feedback.

Expect to be treated equal to your colleagues. If you are an editor for long enough, you may have to reject a paper submitted by a friend or close colleague. A fundamental principle for editing and reviewing is that every author should be treated equally. If you can’t do this, you should not edit the paper. Real friends understand that you have to follow the same rules for everybody.  

Be generous with citations. Most authors are very gracious about citing the work of others. Of course, there are some who avoiding citing other groups in favor of noting their own previous work. Self-citations are in many cases necessary. However, when relevant papers from others are missing, it can signal a low-quality paper to an editor. So be generous; it’s good for others and good for you.

Be alert for plagiarism. A fundamental task for editors is to detect and reject articles that are either clearly wrong or direct copies of previously published articles (plagiarism). More sophisticated forms of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, can be difficult to find. I realized that many cases occur due to lack of author education or differing norms. For example, some researchers do not view it as wrong to duplicate their own research. Part of the editor’s job is to clearly communicate what is acceptable, what is not, and why. 

Clearly articulate the purpose of your paper. Sometimes a paper receives reviews indicating that it seems to be correct, but the point of the research is not clear. In a good journal, these papers are often rejected. Before submitting an article, be honest with yourself: Is this a paper I would like to read myself? Does it advance the field?

Don’t assume friends make the best reviewers. Most journals, including JOSA A, ask the author for reviewer recommendations. Usually, authors tend to suggest someone they know well. I was initially surprised in cases when I followed an author’s recommendation and received reviews that were perhaps unduly negative. Surprisingly, the most critical reviews can come from close colleagues—possibly because they are the ones who are closest to the details of your research area. Be aware of the possibility of bias, both positive and negative.

Review as you would like to be reviewed. OSA journals would not be possible without the tireless work of devoted volunteers. However, there are a few people who consistently refuse to review papers. It is not acceptable to systematically avoid this duty if you are an active scientist. Think twice when you are asked to review a paper, remembering the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

Get it right. As an editor, I was worried about the possibility that I would accept a paper that was completely wrong. A paper whose conclusions miss the mark is not necessarily a problem; there are many of those out there and they are consubstantial with scientific development. However, if a published paper contains simple and fundamental mistakes, the editor is to blame, so be careful.

Serving as an editor was a great experience that I would highly recommend. You learn more about your field and human nature. Hopefully it will make you a better scientist and person.

Pablo Artal (pablo@um.es) is an OSA fellow and professor of Optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. His blog covers optical research and related aspects (http://pabloartal.blogspot.com/).

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Advice to a Self-Plagiarist

2. September 2011

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his own popular blog, in which he fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear professor, I am a Ph.D. student who would like to have as many published papers as possible. I do not care if I repeat or manipulate something. I am not worried about what some old guys feel is or is not ethical; it is easy to talk about ethics when your salary is good and secure forever. This is my research; if I can have 7 papers, that would be better than 5. Can you help me to maximize the number of my published papers? I am prepared to do a lot of extra work on data and camouflage writing. –Name withheld.  

This is a bizarre question I received some time ago. My first reaction was that it must be a joke. My second reaction was that this person was stupid to talk so openly about taking actions that are so clearly unethical. Then I basically forgot about it until I recently became involved in several real cases involving OSA journals, in which some young (and sometimes not-so-young) authors were purposefully trying to act in the way described in the question. So I decided to devote this post to the complex problem of self-plagiarism.

I already dedicated a post some time ago to the topic of plagiarism. Mostly everyone recognizes that as an unethical practice that should be punished. However, the situation of self-plagiarism is not so clear. Many people do not even consider the publication of duplicative manuscripts—which is sometimes referred to as “salami” publications (I prefer “chorizo slices”)—to be bad behavior, arguing that they can do what they want with their results. They may also rationalize that duplicative publication helps disseminate their results to different communities.

But the bigger picture is that self-plagiarism impedes scientific progress by flooding the system with weak and redundant information. It can also hurt your career. Sure, it seems to benefit you if you merely count the number of papers you’ve published. But whenever someone assesses your body of work more closely, they will notice the redundancy. The proof of your fault will be there forever! Some other points for the self-plagiarist to remember:

Beware of anti-plagiarism software. Although every scientific journal faces this problem in one way or another, not many openly address it. So I liked it when I recently read an editorial in the journal Anaesthesia in which the editor recognized that the editorial team had detected an increased number of duplicate submissions. He was not sure if this was by chance or simply because the journal (like many others, including OSA journals) had recently started to use a software called Cross Check.

When Cross Check or similar software becomes the norm, life will become more complicated for folks such as my correspondent. Still, a refined self-plagiarist is typically not so naïve that he or she will simply copy and paste parts of an existing paper into other multiple ones. A clever person will do something more sophisticated.

For example, rather than exactly replicating text or figures, he or she will write a different introduction that expresses the same basic ideas, or include one paper with more details on methodology and another with more mathematical descriptions. He or she will also be careful to make minor adjustments to the titles and names of sections. For example:

Title paper 1: Facial tissues: A study on relative comfort
Title paper 2: Subjects’ responses on soft paper in contact to facial skin

If you know an area well, you can write lots of different titles while evading automatic software detectors.

Even if you bypass software, you will not be safe from your colleagues. At least one reviewer is likely to notice similarities among duplicative manuscripts. The same reviewer could receive your manuscripts from different journals nearly simultaneously, for example. And playing with submission times won’t necessarily work, since it is possible that the reviewer will remember. This has happened to me several times, and it is a joy for reviewers to say to the editor: Here you have a clearly duplicated paper. We all love that! Most editors will follow the reviewer's advice in these cases.

Mind your supervisor. For graduate students and post-docs, your supervisor’s role is to ensure that the papers you submit are all truly independent, so he or she should be monitoring your submissions. If you were to submit a duplicative article that included the names of the supervisor and others without telling them, your colleagues would likely find out very quickly, since most journals inform all the authors on the submission quickly. It is nevertheless possible that, in some cases, a supervisor will not contact the journal and agree to the submission, possibly to avoid other problems. If, on the other hand, you choose to submit a paper in your name alone and you are caught, you will embark on a solitary and difficult adventure.

Quality is better than quantity. Another common practice—which is not technically unethical but is inadvisable—is to publish papers showing countless minor variations on addressing a problem. In other words, you produce different results that are of just enough interest to merit another paper in a not-very-good but peer-reviewed publication. It may feel great to rack up the publications, but remember that, in the long run, your career will be judged more on the impact of your research (citations, invited talks…) than on the actual amount of what you produced.

Be a refined scientist instead of a refined self-plagiarist. So, dear friend… I believe you have the full capability to become a refined self-plagiarist; I have now told you all the ways that you can multiply your results. But my real advice is: Use your skills to produce a few good, solid papers. And instead of applying your cleverness to duplicating your work in many publications, use it to do original and interesting research.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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How to Have a Successful Academic Career in Science

10. March 2011

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Prof. Artal: After several years working as a post-doc, I have just obtained a tenure-track academic position. What advice do you have for someone who is looking to embark on a successful independent career as a scientist. --Helena, North Carolina, U.S.A.

You have to behave now as an independent researcher, and I am sure that you and your new institution have the highest expectations for you. First, I am glad that you consider me a successful researcher, or at least someone who can provide valuable information to achieve that goal. To be honest, I am not sure if my comments will be helpful; everyone needs to find his or her own path. But here is some general advice, much of which is common sense.

 Ask the right questions. You need to have your own interesting and new ideas and your own important questions to be explored and eventually answered. This is critical. At this point, you know your field and you have the basic technical abilities needed to ask good questions and hopefully obtain some answers. You can frame your questions at any time—in bed, at meetings, driving... Of course, you will have to organize them later, and that is the difficult part.

Work hard and manage your time wisely. I presume your plan is to dedicate your time to your research projects nearly without limit. Hard work and organizational skills are key factors. Be generous with your time and efforts. If you are also teaching, do the best you can, but try to limit your dedication to teaching to what is reasonable. Academic life also usually demands that you spend time in useless meetings. Be strict about setting limits and attending only what is important for you.

Of course, the most difficult balance to strike is between work and your family or personal life. Everyone must decide for themselves how to do this. But keep in mind that you cannot be in the lab the whole day and every single weekend—nor should you be. Learn to take time off, and don’t work on holidays.

You will need money. Writing good grant applications is difficult, and I will not cover that here, but, first and foremost, it requires having a good idea or solution to a problem.

Select your lab members wisely. The ability (or luck) to have the best lab members is extremely important. It is better to start working alone than to have mediocre and unmotivated students working for you. Hiring a problematic team member would affect your ability to succeed. Of course, it is very difficult to know that in advance—but start by always asking for references when talking to students—preferably from those who you trust in your field. I have been extremely lucky in this area.

You also need to make friends within the scientific community in which you are working. Try to collaborate more than you compete, and keep in mind that you will have contact with some of these people for many years into the future. Building and maintaining good personal relationships with other colleagues is critical.

Focus and finish. In the first years and perhaps always, the risk of spreading yourself too thin is quite high. Try to focus and to finish all of your experiments and projects before taking on others. It is natural to always want to explore new areas, but it is better to wait until your current projects are solid enough for you to report on. Writing and presenting at meetings is a good way to maintain your focus.

Balance exposure and modesty. You should actively participate in scientific events, but you should also try to balance your exposure with reasonable modesty. We always know less than we should, and there will always be somebody else who is better or smarter. Be sure that you never underestimate any of your audiences.

Quality over quantity. In the long term, the quality of your research will outweigh its quantity. Keep your own standards high. This will help you to establish a (good) reputation in the field. That will be your most important asset.

Enjoy yourself. Of course, this will not be possible every minute, but you need to have fun and enjoy what you do. Then you will be able to transfer this enthusiasm to others and engage them in your research.

Most of this advice should apply to all levels of scientists, from those in their early student days to well-recognized senior-level scientists. Although this is an incomplete list, I hope you find it somewhat useful. I wish you the best of luck!

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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How to Make Your Conference Presentation Shine

22. October 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics.

Dear Prof. Artal: As a graduate student, I have some experience presenting my research at meetings. But I must confess that I always feel extremely nervous and I am not satisfied with my talks. Could you please advise me on how to improve my presentation skills? --Clare, Holland.

Scientific meetings are very important for science and for scientists. They are even more critical for those of you starting your career as Ph.D. students. So, you should try to go to as many as possible. Approach your supervisor on this issue directly. I think all students should attend a minimum of one international meeting per year.

Perhaps the best reason to attend conferences is to get to know the important people working in your area. Networking is key for advancing your career. And of course you will also meet new friends from all over the world and have fun together. As for your question, here are some general guidelines for improving your presentation skills.

Before the conference, select your abstract wisely. Be sure you have something solid to present. Making a presentation is stressful enough without having to worry about the strength of your research. If your work is weak, the audience and moderators may be tough of you when asking you questions—although this is often dependent on your field and the specific meeting.

Show the audience your own enthusiasm for your results. Try to communicate what you enjoyed about your research and share your passion for your topic with the group. You spent a lot of your time working on this and you want to show why it was important.

Understand that no research is finished or perfect. Be prepared to recognize any weakness or non-complete part of your work. Don’t be afraid to state these things directly. However, if you are asked about additional issues with your work, do not try to hide any unclear parts of it. On the contrary, openly discuss limitations or difficulties.

Present a complete context for your work. Do not forget to introduce the area and mention why you wanted to study your particular topic before discussing your results. Also mention the main implications, potential applications and future areas for further investigation.

Don’t put too much information in your presentation. More details are not necessarily better. Be sure that your talk remains within the time allotted for it and ALWAYS practice your talk several times alone—or, even better, in front of your advisor—in advance of the meeting.

Make slides clear and easy to be read. Avoid small letters and low contrast. Pictures and schemes are important and, please, do not include tables full of small numbers that no one can see.

Don’t worry if you’re not a native English speaker. Most in the audience will not be affected by your accent, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. Simply try to speak as loudly and as clearly as you can. Avoid difficult expressions and try to go right to the point. In your first presentations, you can read some of the slides to help guide the audience. However, I would NOT recommend reading the entire presentation. It is not very natural, and you will not learn much that way.

Try to enjoy the moment. It’s natural to be nervous, but don’t let it get the best of you. Good presentations are essential for your scientific career, but your career is a lifelong work in progress. If things don’t go perfectly, you can always learn from it for your next presentation.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

 

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Peer Review and You: How to Bounce Back from Rejection

15. September 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics. For more advice on mastering the peer review process, see our related post on Peer Review 101.

Dear Prof. Artal: I am a postdoc working in physics in an eastern European country. I published several articles in high-impact journals during my Ph.D. thesis. However, the first article I submitted from my new research was rejected. I am disappointed since I believe the research was good (in fact the best I ever did). Moreover, the reasons for the rejection were not convincing. I feel very depressed and I am even thinking about quitting my research career. What can I do? Alexander, Kiev, Ukraine.

Research papers, together with conference presentations, are the major outputs in research activities. No research is actually complete until it is published and accessible to the whole scientific community. In addition, careers, grants, reputation and promotions depend on the number and quality of the publications… so if a paper is rejected, it can feel really miserable.

But perhaps Alexander would be relieved to know that every scientist had some rejected papers in his or her career. So, first of all, this is not the end, but actually something quite normal. You can be even more relieved to know that there are well-known and important discoveries that were initially rejected! Relax.

I am in a good position to address Alexander’s question. First, I am a scientist with long experience collaborating with editors and reviewers on my own work. I also serve as editor for two international journals, so I have had to deal with other scientists and, yes, sometimes I must reject their papers.

You need to recognize honestly the importance of your research. This is something you can learn from your mentors, and do not be shy about asking your colleagues. In many cases, reviewers and editors are right; perhaps you overestimated your own research. If this is the case, ask for advice and recognize the situation. Plan more experiments, rewrite the paper or add a new model to complete the paper.

In most high-quality journals, you will receive at least two reviews, and most likely you will be asked to revise the manuscript. It is also common in some journals to have a direct rejection based on the large number of manuscript they receive. This argument is quite subjective and difficult to change, so if this is the case of your rejected paper, perhaps the best option is simply to resubmit it to another journal.

If you firmly believe the reviews were incorrect, write the editor an appeal letter. In it, you need to demonstrate point by point every detail of the review that you contest. If you are right, the editor should reconsider the decision and eventually your paper may be sent to different reviewers.

It is true, however, that in some cases the communication with journals may be quite frustrating for the authors. I can share with you a recent (and bad!) experience that I had. We prepared a manuscript on a topic I believe was quite novel and that provided interesting results with potential applications. The paper was sent to one of the top journals in ophthalmology. We were asked to revise the manuscript on three occasions with very detailed description of every minor change.

After a year and a half of making painstaking revisions, I received a letter from the editor telling me that the paper was rejected because the priority of the paper was low for the journal! You can imagine my reaction. I felt as bad as you may be feeling now. This is in my opinion an example of a bad editorial behavior. If a rejection is to be made on subjective criteria such as space and priority, it should be done as soon as possible.

Address every comment. Of course, it may happen that a paper is rejected after a revision if the authors are not able to address the reviewer’s comments. One typical mistake from some authors is to perform no revisions or only very minor ones, ignoring important comments from reviewers. You should always take very seriously any revision requests, and apply the same level of dedication or even more than in the initial preparation of the paper. Prepare a letter where every change and every argument is clearly listed. You do need to address every comment in some way; if you elect not to make a change, state the reason why. Most papers are greatly improved by the revision process, so take advantage of that.

It’s not always about the science. What can be even most frustrating is when rejections are based on the order in which competing research is submitted to a journal. Several years ago, in a study performed during one of my former student’s Ph.D. thesis, we measured the change with age of the aberrations of the cornea. We showed that corneal aberrations increase slightly with age, and that the lens exhibits a more significant change. We reported this first in a conference, but another group followed our idea very quickly, replicated the study and submitted a paper before that we did. A few months later, our work was rejected because the journal already had a similar paper on the topic. This happens sometimes, and it feels bad when it does. In any case, our study was finally published in another
excellent journal and has been widely used and cited since then.

Don’t be too anxious concerning papers. In particular, try to be calm when addressing reviewers and editors. Be firm, but not aggressive. Hopefully the research will be finally published, but if not, it won’t be the first time.  Every scientist could tell you a similar story about their own rejected manuscripts.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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