In 1936, Albert Einstein scolded the editor of Physical Review for sharing his manuscript with reviewers, who wrote highly critical reviews of the work. In 1937, Nature magazine rejected Hans Krebs’ paper on what we now call “The Krebs Cycle.” And in the ‘60s, Lynn Margulis’ groundbreaking paper on evolution by endosymbiosis was rejected by fifteen journals. Incidents like these are so well known because scientists love rejection stories.
In fact, there’s a whole genre that can be described as “rejection lit”: documentation of scientists being turned down in various ways, including rejection letters from journals or job search committees. The Web abounds with lists of important papers that have been rejected. Hypothetical rejections have been written for some classic papers as a form of parody. Scientists’ autobiographies are also filled with rejection stories. Institutional rejections are popular, too: for example, Harvard professor George Church has the letter with the decision to expel him from Duke University’s Ph.D. program on his website.
None of this is specific to science; in just about every creative field, from writing to music, people have been exchanging rejection receipts. But science rejection lit got a boost recently when Johannes Haushofer released his “CV of Failures”—a detailed list of the Princeton professor’s academic rejections that went viral on social media. It includes rejections from jobs, fellowships and journals, and even an advisor’s refusal to write Haushofer a letter of recommendation for positions at top-tier departments. In response, some scientists shared their own rejection memorabilia.
Why are scientists so fascinated by rejections? Statistically, rejections are entirely unsurprising. The low acceptance rates of prestigious journals, the scarcity of jobs and the capricious nature of committees guarantee that virtually everyone will be rejected at some point. Scientists are acutely aware of these facts, yet the fascination with rejection persists.
Apart from being a source of comfort, one explanation for the fascination is the increasing pressure on academic scientists to self-promote. Scientific journals and institutes encourage use of social media partly as a way to advance careers and “network.” Through social media, we are inundated with our colleagues’ rosy image of their professional life. As anthropologist David Graeber put it, not mincing words, “There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers.” And for the same reason that advertising tends to work, the sense that some people have an unalloyed record of success may creep in. This makes rejection seem, in a way, novel.
A more fundamental reason for the appeal of rejection lit is that rejections poke holes in the mythical “Scientific Method” —and the ingrained belief that science, as a whole, progresses rationally. If undisputed methods of experimentation and evaluation of data existed, then projects that are later deemed groundbreaking wouldn’t be rejected so frequently. Rejections are reminders that scientific inquiry doesn’t follow the cartoon that’s often taught in science classes.
Setting aside why they’re appealing, rejections can reveal a lot about the scientific enterprise, and are worth studying. The difficulty is that only select rejections make it into the literature. A record of rejection is circulated only when it belongs to someone who’s been successful enough to make rejection seem erroneous. Yet the impact of rejections on the course of science is perhaps greatest when those rejected don’t go on to become popular. (Or when rejection really does terminate an avenue of research.)
Those types of rejections, unfortunately, are generally expunged from the scientific record. For instance, even the most avant-garde open access journals only publish peer reviews of accepted manuscripts. Projects like the Paper Rejection Repository aim to correct that, though such initiatives are rare and prone to other selection biases. In short, true rejection is hard to find, but might be worth looking for.