Everybody faces manuscript rejection, even a Nobel Laureate

Everybody faces manuscript rejection, even a Nobel Laureate

Dr. Tim Hunt is renowned for his work on cell cycle regulation for which he won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Dr. Lee Hartwell and Dr. Paul Nurse. Dr. Hunt discovered cyclins, proteins that are crucial for mitosis and other cell cycle transitions. Before this, the concentrate of his research was on the control of haemoglobin synthesis in crimson blood cells. After a long and successful academic career that culminated with him as a principal scientist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK), Dr. Hunt is presently retired.

In the first segment of our interview, I asked Dr. Hunt to share his practice winning the Nobel Prize and in the 2nd segment, he told us more about how he developed an interest in biology. In this concluding segment, Dr. Hunt and I discuss larger issues related to research – how researchers should aim for the Nobel Prize, what abilities they should develop, how they should go after their instinct, learn to adapt, and so on. Dr. Hunt also says that perseverance, hard work, grit, ambition, and patience are the qualities that will help you build a successful research career. This concluding interview segment is total of nuggets of wisdom from Dr. Hunt. 

Let’s talk about research in general. Do you think conducting research is lighter today, owing to technological advancements? Or, is it just more competitive? Maybe, you could talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced over your career.

To be frank, when I commenced out, the devices available to us were crude. I can think of many examples here. Our department did not have a photocopier because the machines were far too expensive and only big corporations could afford them. Now, they are much more affordable. We only had a mechanical calculator, which took a long time to perform calculations. We used the university mainframe computer to work out the results of simultaneous equations. You had to type out both program and data on punched gauze, which you couldn’t indeed proofread. So mistakes were common and the program would just display, for example, “error on line 17” because you made a stupid typing error. You strung up up your little tapes in a little plastic bag on a hook in the computing lab and came back the following morning to see whether it had run, and often it hadn’t run because there was a typo. Today, you and I are having real-time conversation despite being thousands of miles apart. This ease of communication was not possible in my time. A lot has switched. The same holds true for research: you see developments you couldn’t conceive of in those days.

Now, I think the problem is that everybody has access to the same mechanisms and it’s fairly hard to stay ahead of the game, unless you can invent a fresh technology altogether. The research scene today is very competitive. There are most likely more scientists working in my own field than ever before. I often joke to junior researchers about how glad I am that I am not 20-something years old anymore, because I sense that it’s rough out there. The implements are very advanced and problems that you thought would never ever be attacked have been attacked. I never thought we would know as much in my lifetime as we know today, particularly about areas like developmental biology. It’s fantastic, but it’s also truly hard.

Publication is also an significant part of every researcher’s career. What kind of challenges did you face? Was your manuscript ever rejected?

Of course, I’ve had my manuscripts rejected! It’s very uncommon, almost unknown to get a letter from the editor telling, “We love your paper! We’ll publish it without any switches.” The most amusing letter I received from a journal was about the work that eventually got me the Nobel Prize. The editor said something to the effect that the journal would publish my paper, but “in nothing like its present form”. I had to rewrite it entirely and without any fresh data: the editor found the very first version to be way over the top and euphoric. To tell the truth, I knew that I’d made an significant discovery, but I failed to explain it effectively. One of my weaknesses is that I’ve never been very good at writing essays or reviews.

But dealing with rejection wasn’t that difficult. I admit that when we began out, it was a bit lighter to get published because things weren’t so competitive. There weren’t so many researchers from the same field. We weren’t particularly well known in our field. But I never had a paper rejected that I thought should have been published. Fairly often, my papers did need a lot of revision or did not meet with a positive initial reception. It’s fairly dynamic—sometimes you get through slickly and sometimes papers that you are not particularly proud of are accepted very lightly. I think you win some and lose some.

Across my career, I learned that when you detect something significant, it usually meets with some resistance. I think this is partly because people don’t like fresh ideas and partly because they are slightly jealous that they did not make that discovery in the very first place. Such competition certainly exists among researchers, even senior ones. It’s human nature.

But rejection is part of the process. I am presently in talks with a colleague about revising his paper, which is still under review and revision a entire year after it was very first submitted. I feel that in the case of this paper, the reviewers are asking for irrelevant switches and are failing to grip the concentrate of the paper. For me, as an author, it’s about the larger perspective rather than the finer details. As a reviewer, I did care about the fine details if it was clear that the authors had made a mistake or that those details were absolutely relevant to the paper. But if a paper is interesting and is making an significant contribution, I would say that reviewers should stop nit-picking. If the authors have made mistakes along the way, they will be corrected soon enough. I am not telling that we should publish bad or incorrect science. But we should also not delay the publication of promising discoveries because of a compulsive need to improve someone else’s work to impossibly high standards.

Then did winning the Nobel Prize improve your acceptance rate with journals?

I don’t think it made any difference. If anything, journal editors and reviewers possibly became stricter. Incidentally, my last paper, of which I am rather proud actually, was published in Science, but was rejected without a review by Nature. I am not too astonished about this, because things are so specialized these days. So it doesn’t matter who you are. If your work is good, your paper will be accepted, but if it is rejected, you should attempt again. There are genuine matters of taste as well in this business.

Sometimes, I think, scientists embark believing that anything they say is brilliant. That is why they find it difficult to deal with journal rejection. I think that the publication system reputable journals adopt is fairly fair. If your paper is rejected, it could be because either the data are not sufficient or you haven’t communicated clearly. Mostly, it’s the latter and I can tell this from being a reviewer myself. Sometimes, you can’t make head or tail of an introductory paragraph and wish that the author had spent some time explaining his or her work better.

So Dr. Hunt, what would you say are the essential abilities a researcher needs to have to stay ahead of this competitive game?

I don’t think there is any sort of plain response to that. Growing up in Cambridge, I knew a lot of Nobel Laureates and I think the one thing that was most striking was their heterogeneity—some of them were very clever, some not so clever; some were modest, some were arrogant. They worked on a broad diversity of things in a broad multitude of ways. The only common thing was that there was a certain simpleness about them when you took a deeper look at their personalities. It’s fine to work on indeed complicated brainy problems, but you should be able to understand it meticulously and boil it down to something truly plain. When I embarked out, I rather think we were attempting to be far too clever and sophisticated, whereas all we needed to do was to keep things plain. I see this tendency in many youthful researchers: they learn too much and make things very grandiose. They don’t concentrate on the essentials. They don’t get back to basics. I think it is crucial to go back to the basics and keep things plain. On the entire, it is significant to reminisce that albeit there are many ways to succeed, there are even more ways to fail.

What about work life balance? Do you think it is possible for researchers to have a life after work or outside the lab?

Well, I confess that when I was engrossed in research, I did not have a family and spent long hours in the lab. I did spend a lot of time away from home. In my case, I did my most significant work during my summer assignments. I would go away for Two or Trio months every summer and train. I don’t think I could have done this if I’d had a family to look after. My work occupied almost all my time and I infrequently took holidays or even weekends off. But it was also joy, surrounded by lots of people, youthful and old.

You do have to travel to attend meetings, sometimes in very nice places, because that is an significant part of being a scientist. But during my career, sitting on the beach doing nothing would have seemed like an awful waste of time to me. I do admire people who can organize their time and be super-efficient. So there are both types of researchers – those who can manage their time and those who can’t. But in either case, it’s harsh. When you are truly on the track of something as a researcher, it becomes an obsession and it’s difficult to know when to stop.

You’ve already given us some gems of advice for researchers. But let’s come back to the Nobel Prize. In a movie lecture, you remarked that if you (Tim Hunt) can win the Nobel Prize, anybody can. That’s a truly powerful statement because winning the Nobel is most likely the largest wish of any researcher. So what would you say one has to do to win it? Give us the secret recipe!

Haha! Well, I think you certainly have to be fortunate, and in my practice, intelligent scientists who also work hard seem to get luckier. My lump of advice to researchers aspiring to make it big: Keep your feet on the ground, your eyes on the horizon, and your nose to the grindstone. It is a matter of not getting lazy and being on the lookout for clues. I think the one thing I have been fairly good at is realizing the significance of little clues when they come along. If there’s something, an idea or a hunch, at the back of your mind but you haven’t been able to figure out how to solve the problem, keep at it – go after your instinct instead of waiting for the problem to solve itself. I don’t think I have ever known a problem yield to direct attack actually. So find other ways to get answers.

While pursuing a research question, you will realize that there are problems you can attack directly and there are those you can’t because you don’t know enough about them. So you have to attempt different ways to find a solution; and this is where luck plays a part. I do think that success also depends on being in the right place at the right time.

Mere luck and hard work are not enough. Ambition is significant, too. During a latest interview with Miranda Robertson, I said that, fairly often, Nobel Prizes are given for things that people thought were unlikely to achieve. For example, when I was still in college, people said that DNA sequencing was unlikely. But Fred Sanger proved everybody wrong. Another example is that of the ribosome. We were instructed that the structure of the ribosome could never be fully exposed because it was too complicated and ribosomes would never crystalize. Even if they did crystalize, there would be too much data to decipher. It was a formidable problem, but people did tackle it. Now we know what the ribosome looks like and you can pretty much see how they work! So a certain degree of ambition is necessary. It is okay to attempt the unlikely, but wait until you see a crack, a way in.

Thank you for the excellent conversation, Dr. Hunt!

Read the very first two segments of our interview with Dr. Tim Hunt:

  • Part 1: Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt on what it’s like to win a Nobel Prize
  • Part Two: The most difficult aspect of research is to find a good problem to work on, says Dr. Tim Hunt

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