The Stress of Academic Publishing

September 12, 2017

T he adage is "publish or perish" but everyone knows the odds aren’t even. For most academics who submit a manuscript to a desirable publisher or journal, the painful reality is that perishing is the far more likely outcome.

In 2013 a study of nearly 12,000 manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals published by the American Psychological Association found that 76 percent were rejected, and at top journals, rejection rates soared over 90 percent. Most researchers, under pressure to publish, are familiar with the stressful experience of awaiting a ruling, all the while knowing that the manuscript into which they poured blood, sweat, and (sometimes literal) tears is likely to be harshly critiqued and ultimately rejected.

Intrigued by that aspect of academic culture, our research team at the University of California at Riverside placed a mirror under the microscope to look at how academics cope with the stress of awaiting manuscript decisions.

We sent inquiries to academic email lists in dozens of fields asking researchers to tell us about a manuscript they currently had under review. In the end, 130 researchers answered the call. We asked them about themselves (e.g., demographics, academic position, personality traits), about the characteristics of a manuscript they had under review (e.g., authorship order, where they had submitted it), and about how they were coping (e.g., current emotions and strategies) with the uncertainty of awaiting a publishing decision.

The idea was not that academics have cornered the market on difficult waiting periods. Everyone faces stressful uncertainty at some point — awaiting the outcome of a job interview, the results of a diagnostic test, or the college-admissions decisions. The discomfort associated with such experiences varies widely depending on the individual and the nature of the situation.

In academe, we wanted to see who was handling the stress of publish or perish productively, and who wasn’t. Uncertainty can be profoundly anxiety-provoking, even more so than receiving bad news — there’s a reason for idioms like "the waiting is the hardest part." Worse, the anxious and repetitive thoughts characteristic of worry are associated with myriad harmful consequences.

Who has the most difficulty waiting? Our findings suggest that although the experience of waiting is rarely pleasant for anyone, some people find it far more stressful than others. In general, researchers who rated themselves higher in the trait of neuroticism or who characteristically adopted a more pessimistic outlook tended to suffer more when waiting for a manuscript decision. Some academics find it difficult to tolerate uncertainty or are unskilled at regulating their emotions, which predicted greater stress as well.

More specific to the context of academia was the role of personal academic history. Do you have a strong memory of the first time you had a paper accepted for publication? If so, awaiting a manuscript decision may be easier for you than for people who don’t.

On the one hand, academics inexperienced with the perils of publishing may have a hard time waiting — much like newcomers to the job market tend to be particularly nervous about callbacks. On the other hand, new scholars may be wildly optimistic about their chances of getting published, and thus more excited than anxious. Some first-time submitters might assume that their manuscript is destined for greatness — after all, they likely spent months or even years perfecting the work — only to get their first taste of the rejection that more experienced academics have come to expect.

Our study compared those two possibilities and found that experience — not naïveté — begets ease. That is, academics who had fewer publications and fewer current submissions reported: (a) more difficulty waiting overall, (b) more intrusive thoughts about the upcoming manuscript decision, and (c) more anxiety about their uncertainty. They also spent more energy mentally bracing for the worst.

Perhaps more-experienced researchers adapt to the cycle of rejection, resubmission, and eventual publication, or perhaps the gravity of any given publication diminishes as one’s CV grows longer. In fact, academics in our study who had more publications placed less importance on getting the relevant manuscript published.

Unsurprisingly, then, the group of participants who had the hardest time awaiting a manuscript decision was also the group with the fewest publications, on average: graduate students. We found that graduate students reported suffering more intrusive thoughts as they waited compared with postdocs and tenure-track faculty. These nascent academics also spent more energy bracing for the worst and reported the poorest coping skills of any group. Apparently naïve optimism is not a virtue inherent to the early years of an academic career.

When is it hardest to wait? To some extent, the likelihood of publication reflects the time and energy that a researcher puts into a manuscript. Greater investment of effort might translate to greater confidence in the quality of the work — along the lines of, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." That leads scholars to be more optimistic and less worried about manuscripts on which they took the lead.

Additionally, people who invest the most in a project are likely to be particularly motivated to see the fruits of their labor pay off. Research on wishful thinking reveals that the more people want something, the more they tend to be optimistic (even unrealistically so) that it will come to pass. On the other hand, greater investment in a manuscript also raise the stakes for those who sacrificed in hopes of securing its publication, which could make the wait for a manuscript decision all the more stressful.

In fact, we found that higher authorship position, greater investment of effort relative to the other authors, and fewer total authors on a paper predicted more intrusive thoughts about the publishing decision, more anxiety, and more difficulty coping during the wait. In those cases, authors also reported checking the online manuscript-submission site for updates more often than most writers, which may represent a type of behavioral rumination. Thus, it seems that stakes outweigh wishful thinking when it comes to predicting people’s experiences awaiting a manuscript decision.

A related factor is the importance a researcher places on a particular manuscript. Although each individual publication contributes to a successful career, all papers are not created equal. Some manuscripts are more groundbreaking, more central to one’s area of interest, or more necessary for career advancement than others.

We wondered whether a manuscript’s importance to an author would make the waiting more stressful (due to so much at stake) or less (due to wishful thinking about its significance). We asked participants how important publication of their manuscript would be for their career and found that people awaiting decisions on more "important" manuscripts were more anxious, reported more intrusive thoughts about the publishing decision, and had more difficulty waiting for it. Participants awaiting personally important decisions even said they would pay money to get a decision sooner.

Experience proves that even the most promising submission can meet with rejection. In our study, we found that academics submitting a particular paper for the first time estimated only a 50-percent chance of eventual publication at their first-choice journal. Academics were far more optimistic about invited resubmissions, predicting on average an 80-percent chance of success.

Resubmissions are, in fact, more likely to receive a positive decision. However, success upon resubmission is far from guaranteed, and once researchers see the glimmer of hope that a resubmission opportunity provides, they may have more difficulty putting it out of their mind as they await the decision. In our study, participants reported that a resubmission produced more intrusive thoughts about the manuscript than did the initial one — but not more anxiety.

So waiting for a publishing verdict is hard. So what? Publishing is as central to academic life as skill with a bat is to a baseball player. Unfortunately, because of the uncertainty surrounding the process, researchers may experience high levels of anxiety and waste copious amounts of mental energy focusing on an outcome that is utterly out of their control.

Perhaps even more important than feelings of distress associated with this type of career uncertainty is what people ultimately do in the face of publishing failure. Academic life is fraught with rejection, making persistence a valuable asset. In fact, we asked our participants what they planned to do if the manuscript was rejected and found that the strategy of bracing for the worst seemed to undermine their plans to "buck up" and try again in the face of failure.

Specifically, people who were most intent on bracing for the worst planned to try something easier (e.g., submitting to a lower-ranked journal) if their manuscript was rejected, whereas people who avoided worst-case-scenario thinking were prepared to try again with a similar degree of aspiration. Research on the psychology of expectations consistently shows that bracing protects people from the emotional blow of failure, but our findings suggest that it might also undermine academics’ motivation. They hesitate to repeat the experience of heightened uncertainty that accompanies the pursuit of an ambitious goal.

Although we have focused on identifying people for whom, and situations in which, waiting is particularly difficult, we could instead put an optimistic spin on our findings: It gets better — at least for those who remain in the publishing game for the long haul. The anxiety of waiting for a publishing decision becomes more manageable as graduate students, postdocs, and assistant professors gain experience in publishing. Tenured professors, who presumably have been in the publication game the longest, reported the fewest intrusive thoughts about a manuscript decision they were awaiting, and spent the least amount of mental effort bracing for the worst.

Of course, academics are people, too, and we all experience uncertainty both within and outside of the career domain. Waiting for anything is rarely easy, but distress over the outcome of a manuscript submission may relent with time and publishing experience — and not just if you are a tenured professor.

Our study showed that the level of distress you experience as a graduate student or an assistant professor — awaiting word from a journal — may also lessen as you gain wisdom about how and where to invest your publishing effort, about which outcomes are important to you, and about the coping mechanisms you have at your disposal.

Michael D. Dooley is a fifth-year graduate student in social and personality psychology and Kate Sweeny is an associate professor of psychology — both at the University of California at Riverside.