I usually write about innovative university technology in the context of university patenting and licensing strategies, a process called “technology transfer.” Right now, however, I’ve got scholarly publishing on my mind. After all, scholarly journals have been, and remain, the largest conduit of university know-how to the rest of the world. Cautious, esoteric and incremental as scientific journal articles may appear to be, scholarly publications are the undisputed powerhouse of university knowledge sharing. In contrast, university-owned patents are a tiny little channel of knowledge transfer.
But setting all that aside, my recent experience with scholarly publishing is a bit more personal. In fact, just today, I received my first boilerplate rejection letter from the biggest and baddest scholarly journal of them all, Science. Why in the heck did I labor to write 24 drafts, sculpting and shaping my tender, yet brilliant idea into an article worthy of the deities in charge of Science magazine? Good question.
After submitting my article a few weeks ago, I felt like a Class B celebrity, eagerly watching her mailbox for the thick envelope containing the wedding invitation from Buckingham Palace. This morning, my inbox suddenly presented me a long-awaited email from the editors at Science. Oh, the disappointment! The burn of my impaired dignity at the letter’s vague, yet condescending tone, spiced with the ultimate insult! Turns out that my article “was not given a high priority rating during the initial screening process … therefore will not be sent out for in-depth review.” You mean that after two weeks of writing draft after draft in a stiff, academic writing style, after enduring nights of fevered dreams in which I edited and re-edited the same four pages,<em> nobody at the magazine even read my fricken’ article?</em> Ouch.
Fortunately, I am coping bravely with the impersonal sting of rejection that’s a necessary but still difficult part of the article submission process. As luck would have it, just last week I read English comedian’s Russell Brand’s brilliant autobiography of his errant, drug-addled youth and subsequent rehabilitation, My Booky Wook. Russell Brand has a way of putting his finger precisely on the crux of one’s struggles to make sense of it all. When asked by an interviewer whether he would be attending the Royal Wedding, Brand answered thusly: “There are two answers to that question. One, I was not invited, and two, yes I will be attending.”
Like Russell Brand dissed by the Royals, I imagine myself being asked by an interviewer if one of my articles will someday be presented in the hallowed annals of a top scholarly journal. To answer this question, I will swagger effeminately across the stage (a la Brand) and respond: “There are two answers to that question. One, the reviewers probably won’t agree that my article is of sufficient discipline, novelty, and general significance to be of interest to a scholarly audience, and two, they probably won’t read it.”
Like most people on this planet, I’m not on a university payroll, nor am I a regular on the “I nominate you for the prize and in exchange, you nominate me for the prize” academic backscratching circuit. In fact, I never really liked organized group learning (aka school) that much. Yet, there’s a part of me that remains hostage to the siren’s call of establishment approval made all the more tantalizing by scholarly publishing’s relentless clubbiness and humorless adherence to its role as Knowledge Gatekeeper. Knowing I’m not now — nor never will be — welcomed into the Great Bearded Tribe makes the dream of having my intellectual work eventually accepted that much more compelling. Hmm… Maybe I shouldn’t admit to that.
The music, media and entertainment industries have been cracked open by the inflow of gifted so-called “amateurs” that produce, sell and distribute their own work. In contrast, the world of scholarly publishing still remains tightly centralized. During the random moments I bump up against the world of academic publishing, I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be dismayed by the confident myopia of many who toil inside the editorial fences, pruning and weeding small gardens of knowledge that resemble a bonsai tree stuffed into a glass jar.
It’s a tough balance. Part of the value of academic writing is that it’s highly formulaic and is contributed by a select body of scholars who have spent years in a structured screening process. Yet, the downside of a long screening process is that the people who finally make it through and obtain life-long tenure become long-term incumbents. Incumbency can lead to blindness. Intellectual incumbency can take the form of resistance to people with diverse backgrounds and the easy dismissal of innovative thought, that, in the eyes of an official expert, appears to be simply wrong.
I suspect that from the vantage point of the Gatekeeper on the receiving end of the “submit” button, the timidly offered, unwashed intellectual offerings of writers, analysts and bloggers seem risky. Why would anyone gamble by introducing the work of an unknown author whose thinking diverges from a field’s accepted truths? Innovative thought, by nature, is unfamiliar thought. This dichotomy between accepted theory and innovative thought represents a dilemma for the academic journal editor whose greatest fear is typically not that their journal lacks broad impact or features articles that are dull or poorly written. Instead, the greatest fear of a journal editor is that they publish an article whose claims later turn out to be flawed or even untrue. Caution is good and understandable but at what point does the scholarly gatekeeping process tip over into clubbiness?
Unfortunately, to those attempting to contribute new written knowledge from outside the academic fence, the gates to the world of formal scholarship simply appear closed, and the article selection process a capricious blend of the random crossed with the political. The submission process to Science magazine reminds me of the Harry Potter series where the role of Muggles (humans) is to be saved, to be worked around, to be acted upon by wiser and more powerful wizards. In today’s world of scholarly publishing, for better or for worse, most articles are not contributed by Muggles. Research journals are comprised mostly of the writings of battle-weary, veteran professional academics who already know one another’s work. Unlike us Muggles, professional scholars have earned their position of power by living in a chilly, obscure castle for years, warmed only by a cuddly velvet magic cloak that enables its wearer to smell scholarly “rigor” (or the lack therof) a mile away.
It’s not so bad on the outside, however. After all, according to Russell Brand, the Royal Wedding wasn’t *that* great. The whole event was, after all, “just some posh people exchanging jewelry.” If I just keep trying, maybe someday, my articles on university innovation strategies will finally be accepted somewhere. And, to celebrate, I too, will be invited to exclusive events (the more expensive the better) to humbly mingle with my betters. I’m envisioning some kind of remote ski lodge or perhaps a guarded medieval castle that requires helicopter delivery of the other posh, scholarly guests.
Onwards. I’m going to submit my brilliant and world-changing article about a newer and better method to measure university technology transfer activity to another scholarly journal. But wait! Lest you judge me harshly for my recent rejection, almost nobody gets their articles published by <em>Science</em> magazine. This proud little warning offered on Science’s web site made me feel better.
“Because of the stiff competition for space in the journal, Science now accepts less than 8% of the original research papers submitted. Most submissions are evaluated by the staff editors and our Board of Reviewing Editors for potential significance, quality, and interest. The Board, composed of more than 140 leading scientists worldwide, evaluates manuscripts electronically with a 48-hour turnaround and provides prompt, expert assessment and input into editorial decisions and the selection of reviewers. About 80% of submitted manuscripts are rejected during this initial screening stage, usually within one week to 10 days.”
I don’t know the 140 leading wizards — I mean scientists — that comprise Board of Reviewing Editors from Adam and I suspect they have no idea who I am, either. Fair enough. What I don’t understand is how in the heck these 140 incumbents are deciding which 8% of the submitted articles have potential significance, quality and interest. Especially if they have to do work all this magic in less than 48 hours! (By the way, my rejection took three weeks, not ten days.)
In the spirit of demystifying this entire affair, for those unfamiliar with the process of submitting scholarly articles, here’s my rejection letter in all its glory. The letter was signed by Brad Wible, PhD, the Senior Editor at Science who is responsible for the topics of education and policy. Dr. Wible fortunately, appears to have sufficient intellectual fortitude to have survived the whole ordeal of having to reject yet another unsolicited article from a grimy Muggle/Commoner. However, I’ll bet that probably somebody else inside the gates was the actual reader of the article, right? Maybe one of those 140 scientists.
The sender of the email, Anita Wynn, to be the Editorial Coordinator who has to do the dirty work of telling people they got rejected on Dr. Wible’s behalf since he’s too busy (Sir, there’s a feature in Outlook that enables other people to send emails in your name. Let me know if you’d like me to show you how to use it). Oh yes, I’m not a Dr. in either the medical or phd sense of the word, but thanks for the accolade, I guess?
One final thought: it did soften the blow a bit to be told that the Science editor’s decision to reject my undeniably soon-to-be world-changing paper was not a reflection of the quality of my research but rather of the magazine’s stringent space limitations. I’ll bet that’s what the Royals told a lot of their disappointed wanna-be guests.
From: “Anita Wynn”
Date: August 2, 2011 10:15:14 AM EDT
Subject: Science Submission 1211138
Dr. Melba Kurman
Triple Helix Innovation
Dear Dr. Kurman:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript “An index-based measure of university technology transfer activity” to Science. Because your manuscript was not given a high priority rating during the initial screening process, we will not be able to send it out for in-depth review. Although your analysis is interesting, we feel that the scope and focus of your paper make it more appropriate for a more specialized journal. We are therefore notifying you so that you can seek publication elsewhere.
We now receive many more interesting papers than we can publish. We therefore send for in-depth review only those papers most likely to be ultimately published in Science. Papers are selected on the basis of discipline, novelty, and general significance, in addition to the usual criteria for publication in specialized journals. Therefore, our decision is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of your research but rather of our stringent space limitations.
We wish you every success when you submit the paper elsewhere.
Brad Wible, Ph.D.
Melba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.