Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to deal with the fear of publishing your scientific results

Do you fear submitting you work for publication? There are several reasons for this fear. 

“I feel I don’t have enough data, or data which is good enough.” 

“I have high expectations about the work and fear how the scientific community will react.” 

“I fear the possibility of being embarrassed if I make any mistake.”

“It must be seminal and I fear what others will think of me if I deliver less than that”.

I get it. Every good scientist strives for perfection and that’s excellent. But understanding the puzzle of reality describing the world goes through realizing that we need your piece of the puzzle. So it is very important to learn in dealing with the fear of publishing your results and overcome it.

I remember an episode with a friend during my PhD period. There’s a measurement technique called Laser Doppler Velocimetry  (LDV) where you make single point measurements of the velocity of particles which follow the fluid flow. And there’s another technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) where you take 2 images within a short time interval and through adequate algorithms discern the particles position in both to extract a 2D velocity map of the fluid flow. 

Now. My friend was making LDV measurements, but the locations where so many, and he considered a lot of different experimental conditions, that people at a conference where he presented his work thought he was doing PIV! But, he rarely submitted his results for peer-review to a journal.

The point: he had new knowledge he could publish, but he didn’t. And sometimes I heard him saying – “Hey! These guys published a work similar to mine!” – and he gradually became unmotivated. My question at the time was: “why is he afraid of publishing his results?”

Why was he afraid of submitting his knowledge to the scientific community for an assessment and ask feedback?

1. Be humble

”Data is not enough or good enough.” I get it. You don’t make a curve with 2 points in it. You need to have enough data to study any topic whether it is experimental or numerical. And you also need reliable data, otherwise, your analysis can be misguided. But data will never be enough. And as long as you make a good analysis of the possible sources of error, how do you know you have something worthy of publication?

There’s only one way. Submit it to your peers. It’s not a matter of courage, but humility. There’s no such thing as the perfect paper. But this leads to a second reason for the fear of publishing your work.

2. Be prepared

“What if reviewers reject the paper?” No one likes to have his work rejected. We put ourselves entirely in that work and work hard to produce a document with our results and analysis, and in a few unreasonable sentences – yes, these things happen – a reviewer rejects the paper and the editor endorses. 

This happened to me in several occasions. The more or less ability to deal with rejection influences your fear of submitting your work the next time. It is important to face rejection as a way to improve your science. Your research life doesn’t depend on a paper’s acceptance. Your performance does. This is hard, but instead of focusing on what you feel, focus on how can this rejection help you improve.

Prepare yourself for rejection, but in a positive and constructive way. A lot of famous writers, like Stephen King, faced rejection numerous times. But they knew why they were writing and kept submitting their writing. If you know why you research, don’t let fear stop you from sharing your knowledge with the world.

3. Be rigorous and gentle

The kind of review. On the other side, literally, reviewers should be more careful about their reviews. Authors work hard to synthesize their results, but for some, English is not their native language, and I disagree with journals when we have to pay someone to do that job. If we’re obliged to publish in English because it gradually became a universal language to communicate science, this should be a free service. 

But in most cases, bad reviews are fear-mongerers, and you’ll think twice before attempting to publish your results. For those who review, you should write the review like it is being done to you. It’s the Golden Rule applied to peer-reviewing. Any paper I recommend for rejection is more demanding that papers I accept. I cannot reject because I don’t “like” what the authors did. I have to ground my recommendation on solid explicit concerns about the work, but I feel obliged to provide suggestions on how can the authors improve.

We are a scientific “community”. We only have to act like one. Therefore, as reviewers, be rigorous, but gentle.

QUESTION: Do you have any experience about dealing with this fear of publishing your work?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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