On Rejection and Acceptance Rates

A while ago, I posted about the emotionally difficult challenges of research. I mentioned half-jokingly at the end of that post that I would in the future write a post about another challenge: rejection.

Since some of the students in my group just submitted their first papers to the peer review process, I figured I’d actually go through with that plan now. We just submitted three papers to the KDD research track, which, when I last checked, has an acceptance rate of just under 20%. That means a few things. In expectation, 0.6 of my group’s papers will be accepted, and the MAP estimate (and marginal decoding) of how many papers will be accepted is zero.

Of course, the actual likelihood of acceptance or rejection is dependent on the quality of the work, but as we’ve seen recently from, e.g., the NIPS experiment, paper quality doesn’t have as certain an effect as we’d hope. What makes a scientific contribution worthy of acceptance is a very subjective concept, so even the best papers have a chance of landing some reviewers who just won’t be convinced.

So given these realizations, when submitting work for peer review, one must be somewhat prepared for rejection. It sounds easy, right? We know acceptance rates are low; we know it’s not personal; we know the reviewers that decide our fates are doing the best they can with very limited time. If we were perfectly rational, logic-based beings, there’d be no problem here. Just keep improving your work and trying again and again.

Of course, we aren’t purely rational and logical. Being rejected is one of the most difficult and painful parts of a researcher’s life. It genuinely hurts. As scientists, we want to be rational about it, but the visceral reaction to reading “we regret to inform you” comes with a plethora of painful emotions, from disappointment and sadness, to fear and anger.

The reason I thought it might be useful to write a post like this is similar to that of my previous post inspired by the TED talk. Scientists are often trained to ignore these emotions. We don’t talk about them much. We often try to only discuss the rational, actionable parts of rejection. “Use the feedback, and make the research better.” But the reality for me is closer to “get feedback, feel terrible, doubt yourself, blame system, blame yourself, briefly consider quitting, feel embarrassed for having these reactions, seek support from non-scientist friends and family, get back to work pretending you’re not hurt, eventually really get back to work.”

This whole ordeal is invariably part of the job. But like the emotional challenge of facing uncertainty and “the cloud” in research, it would be helpful to acknowledge that it is okay, normal, and expected to have these emotional reactions. That doesn’t preclude the more rational advice I’ve seen around, but I’d like not to perpetuate the fantasy that we can be perfectly rational about this whole process.

Eventually, once we realize that these emotions are normal, perhaps then it will be easier to filter them. Then we can find which emotions are useful, and work toward getting the ones that are not useful (i.e., most of them) out of our systems. Perhaps knowing that these emotions are a shared experience can help us manage them more easily.

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