Wall of Shame & Schadenfreude

In my graduate school days, we had something called ‘The Scathing Wall’, a small bulletin board which provided some outlet for one of our greatest frustrations—dealing with the reviews that came back from a journal after we had submitted a manuscript. On the margins of a few particularly unpleasant reviews, some in the lab had scribbled their complaints about the unintelligible things the (anonymous) reviewers had written, the unmitigated idiocy of the reviewers, or the intransigence of the action editor.

This humble Wall served a valuable educational function, giving insight into the  journal publication process that was otherwise very opaque to a beginning researcher like myself. Seeing the failures of others in my lab could help save me from making the same mistakes, as well as make me less discouraged by the rejection of my own work by journals—on the Wall I could see that it happened even to my scientific idols.

The example of that little bulletin board has inspired me to create larger installations, for the entire departments at which I’ve taught, that I call ‘Walls of Shame & Schadenfreude’. I think they help plug an important gap in the average PhD program’s curriculum—what to expect when submitting to journals and how to deal with reviewers and editors. The best pieces on the Walls are probably those that show an extended back-and-forth between journal and author of manuscript submissions and re-submissions, rejection letters, responses to reviewers, appeals of the editor’s decision, and eventual publication. Students can see the even professors sometimes have to go through hell to get their work published. To gather material for the Wall, I sent the email pasted below to everyone in my department. I hope this post will inspire others to do something similar at other universities.

Dear fellow academics,

Please submit the most hurtful reviews of your manuscripts and grants to the School’s unofficial and in-development Wall of Shame & Schadenfreude.

The idea is a bulletin board, to be located in the postgraduate area, to educate postgraduates about the publication process. Various members of the school, from lowly lecturers to lofty professors, would display examples from journals of action letters and reviews which reject their manuscripts or grant applications. Only particularly vicious, demeaning, or dismissive reviews will be accepted.  This Wall of Shame & Schadenfreude would show that even the most respected researchers among us can and do fail.  Members of the school, especially lecturers and postgrads, might visit the Wall each time another of their papers were rejected, for inspiration during the revision and resubmission process.  Also the WoSS would be a continuing source of amusement and, of course, the fine pleasures of Schadenfreude shoud not be underestimated.  Especially educational would be if a negative review could be annotated with marginalia by the submitter, to narrate the history of the manuscript, for example explaining how many times and to how many journals the manuscript was submitted, or pointing out the inanities of the review, or highlighting the particularly risible parts.

There should be some redaction of reviewer identities in the reviews in order to protect the confidentiality of the review process, but the identity of the person rejected should not be redacted, as exposing this—that even the mighty among us receive harsh rejections—is part of the point.  As to the location of the wall’s erection, it should be a private and humble, albeit soon to be hallowed, place. We would not want a chancellor, APAG committee, or other humorless entity to stumble upon this shrine. A suitable location may be a portion of the postgraduate ‘fishbowl’ glass walls that enclose the kitchen area.

Please send me an email if you have any demeaning reviews that you’d consider contributing. It seems unlikely that I will be overwhelmed with submissions, but I’m hoping that a brave few are self-deprecating enough to get us started.

UPDATE: Some discussion of this in Friendfeed.


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