dealing with last-minute publishing terror
April 20, 2019 2:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been in a state of low-level anxiety for the last several months regarding an academic journal article I am not qualified to write about and really struggled with. Now I have to do the final proofs, I'm paralyzed with horror. I seriously don't want this to be published. But I can't back out. Please help give me strength to see this through and not care about what happens after...

Long story short, I got roped into a collaborative project with some other folks and ended up researching and writing on a topic I was excited about but which it quickly became clear that I am very unqualified to write about. The research was hard and I really struggled to pull it together, and frankly, most of the article is ass-covering, and objectively bad. Everyone else's contributions are amazing. Somehow it got through peer review, but it was very, very rushed -- one of our collaborators had an in with a journal and they got it pushed through the review process, and I don't believe my article got nearly the kind of going over/skewering it should have. Lots of people have looked at it and have been nice and encouraging about it, but I mostly believe they are trying to be kind to me (and one or two people I sent it to ghosted on me rather than give me feedback). Anyway, it went through review, now it's in proofs, and the proofs are due today. And for the whole of the past week I have been putting it off, literally physically nauseous every time I try to open it to do the check, until today, when it is absolutely finally due. And here I am writing this rather than dealing with it.

I should say that I write quite a few things (for instance, another article coming out this year which I am proud of and think is excellent) and this is the only article in the past several years I have had this level of anxiety about. It's partly because it's not really in my field (though it is my first contribution to a field I want to move into and eventually be taken seriously in) and I know the people who are in that field will absolutely crap on it. I also know that a lot of people are watching what I write (this will be the first journal article I publish since my monograph came out) and I absolutely hate to think how much and how humiliatingly this will bomb. I also know all about imposter syndrome etc, but just knowing about that is not really helpful at the moment. And also, I don't have these feelings about my other articles.

I guess I'm asking for some kind of a perspective check on all these feelings, and perhaps some short motivational essays, thoughts & coping mechanisms to fortify me as I go back to these *&*$ proofs. Every time I think about how people will see this article after it's published, I freeze up and can't breathe, and I have crazy fantasies about disappearing, running away, just pulling out of the whole thing. I know I won't even want to look at my article when it's published, but I can't stop others looking at it. But I can't back out of it. So please help me find the strength somehow to see this thing through to the end...

Anonymous to protect my academic/publishing identity.
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Of all the people who’ve seen it, has anyone except you suggested that it’s below par? That’s sometimes a useful gauge of how much imposter syndrome is at play.
posted by penguin pie at 3:17 AM on April 20, 2019 [9 favorites]

(Sorry just saw you mention that talk of imposter syndrome is not useful, but it really leapt out at me that you don’t mention anyone else having concerns about it and in fact mention people being complimentary about it...)
posted by penguin pie at 3:20 AM on April 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I still cringe at parts of an article I wrote that got into a top 5 general science journal. I still wonder if maybe I benefitted from some lack of oversight. 8 years later.

One thing that helps that helps me get perspective is to think of how much I admire and respect my peers and coauthors. And at some point, me being hard on our work is the same as me being a picky jerk to them. So I tell myself: X, Y and Z are great scholars and institutions, I should show them a little respect and lighten up.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:33 AM on April 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Academic journals are not the Internet. Even if your article is objectively bad (which seems like a big "if"), nobody is going to read it and say, "The author of this is now my nemesis, and I shall not rest until they are destroyed."

They'll skim it, think, "Meh; seems useless." and forget all about it by lunchtime. It won't be the worst article in that issue of the journal.

Did you falsify data or plagiarize or do anything else awful? No? Then don't worry about it. Being inadequately enlightening is far from the worst academic sin.
posted by sourcequench at 4:42 AM on April 20, 2019 [38 favorites]

Think of it this way: Even if people in the field do crap all over it you are now a player. So stay in the field and do better next time. Poor reviews are a five-yard penalty, not a sentence of excommunication. Others in the field have also received poor reviews. You take your lumps, pick yourself up, and keep on going.
posted by mono blanco at 6:03 AM on April 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

This is probably not possible, but: is there _any_ way you can have your name on the article changed to a pseudonym?
posted by amtho at 7:08 AM on April 20, 2019

Disregard if this is in the sciences. If this is in the humanities, the peer review process is sometimes as rigorous as it should be but sometimes . .. just weirdly not rigorous these days. It seems to me that as everyone is busier and busier, people often spend less time on service work like peer reviews. And sometimes a journal wants to fill an issue quickly and things get rushed through, and the author who thinks they'll have time to edit substantively based on anonymous peer suggestions doesn't get that step of the process. This has happened to me and it's quite alarming. Anyway EVERYONE has the odd article that isn't very good. Look at the prolific academics you admire. They have some amazing pieces and then they just have a few smaller tossaway things that are less notable. In a collected volume, there are absolutely always important articles that everyone circulates and then sort of filler pieces that don't get a lot of attention. If yours is the latter this time, it doesn't matter. It's a line on your CV. Go write something better ASAP and attention will be directed to that. You can't be as accomplished in an area that you're just starting to research as people who have devoted years to it. It's important to acknowledge to yourself that this is your first effort in this area, that it's not fully developed to the depth it would be if you had been longer immersed in this area and that -- like all good academics -- you're learning and growing. You can have some humility and reality about it without raking yourself over the coals as if you're a terrible person for not being an expert yet.
posted by nantucket at 7:15 AM on April 20, 2019 [11 favorites]

I also know that a lot of people are watching what I write

Sometimes our anxiety leads us to believe that we are the focus of a lot more attention than we actually are. You're at the stage of your career where you've only just published your first book? Unless it was vastly controversial or got a ton of mainstream attention, they're...really just not. Your old advisor will probably care. Sure, some of your friends/old grad school cohort may read it, if they have the time. But generally no one is waiting with bated breath for an early journal article by a junior scholar. And if it's not particularly good or interesting, no one will remember it in two years.
posted by praemunire at 8:40 AM on April 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Who have you asked to look it over? Are they in NewField themselves? If they are, I think their reactions are likely to be a reasonable estimate of the response you’ll receive to the paper. (If that winds up not holding true, now you know to go to different people for pre-publication feedback next time.)
posted by eirias at 8:48 AM on April 20, 2019

I agree with what several commenters have already said. There are always going to be a few outputs you publish in your career that will, for one reason or another, mortify you. This is normal. For instance, I couldn’t look at journal article I had published a couple of years ago after noticing that there was a stonking great typo in the third line of the abstract. The very idea of the article’s existence made me anxious. It took me a while to come round to the idea that the existence of the typo and the overall quality of the article were, in fact, two unrelated things.

In cases like these, it’s always best to ask yourself: “where is this anxiety really coming from?” In the case of my article with the typo in the abstract, it was the fear that no one would ever read it. I’d put a huge amount of archival research into a narrow topic with a very niche readership. This had made me ambivalent about the piece right through the process of writing it, and the freak out over the typo was just the final expression of my wider misgivings. In your case, you say that this is your first contribution to a field you very much want to get into. Could it be that your anxiety is connected to your insecurities about conducting research in this new area? That it might be harder than you had thought to transfer your existing expertise over to it? Those are entirely OK feelings to have, but to deal with them, you’ll need to confront them head on, and not through a haze of more general anxiety.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:05 AM on April 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’ve heard some people successfully reframe bad cases of imposter syndrome as celebrating successfully conning your peers. Despite how you feel inside, everyone is treating you like a skilled professional, and it’s more likely that your self-assessment is skewed than that all of these people’s are. I don’t know if that’s helpful to you or not, but congratulations! You’ve published! That in and of itself is an accomplishment. Unless you take a particularly bombastic tone, people aren’t going to be falling over themselves to “crap on your work.” So, even if the article is as bad as you seem to think, 1) it’s still published, which is pretty much always a good thing, and 2) the chances that this will go bad are slim.

It’s normal to have some anxiety over sending back the final proofs, btw. Take comfort in the fact that this has been reviewed by your collaborators, your reviewers, your editor, and likely a copy editor. In the end they all have your back and want this paper to succeed.
posted by estelahe at 11:51 AM on April 20, 2019

Just check for language errors in the proofs; this is not the time for new research.

If only your part is bad and the other parts amazing, the article overall can’t be all bad.

No one is going to skewer you because one part of one article isn’t very good.

You’re in the uncomfortable position that you already know enough to determine that you’ll need to learn more, which 1) puts you ahead of the happy beginners in the Dunning Kruger zone and 2) tells you to study more. Send off the proofs and do more research for the next article.
posted by meijusa at 12:04 AM on April 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the worst case, if you don’t send a response, some typo might still be in there if no one else went over your part. I assume at least one of your collaborators will have read the article.
posted by meijusa at 12:05 AM on April 21, 2019

It's really unlikely many people are going to read it. Probably lots of people will read the abstract. Maybe quite a few will read the intro and the conclusions. If it actually is not very good, very few of them will read any further than that, so they won't actually know HOW bad it is :) (I'm taking you at your word here that it actually is bad, but others have said, it's likely not to be as awful as you think.)

I have one article I published a few years ago that I feel similarly about. I suspect I actually made errors in the analysis, because it's just far enough outside my area that I don't know what I don't know. I didn't find errors, and the people I asked didn't find any, and the peer reviewers didn't either, but it doesn't mean there aren't some. And I cringe whenever I recall it. But you know what? No one has ever said anything about it. I suspect no one I know ever read it, actually, even though it's in a journal they all subscribe to. Certainly it hasn't been cited much and for once I don't mind that. But I was early in my career then, and I did what I could. It was a very useful line on my CV. And for the few people who did read it, I think there we probably a few useful takeaways even if it was just in the background section or the description of the data.

Maybe it would help to find the bits of this paper that you think could be useful or interesting to a reader even if the paper as a whole is not, and then to focus on this.

On a similar note, once I gave a paper at a conference where I was terrified. It was a high profile conference and I didn't know much about the topic, and I had a bunch of new data I had collected and a vague idea of how to analyse it but hadn't made much progress. A colleague reassured me by saying that academics are big nerds and I was going to give them some examples and data that they hadn't seen before and that would make them happy even if they didn't pay any attention to what I said about that examples and data.
posted by lollusc at 9:35 PM on April 21, 2019

A positive spin: maybe the way you framed the topic or explained a concept will make something click for a reader of a paper. Even if what you wrote was a snapshot of a naive way of looking at the topic, which you’ve already evolved beyond, maybe that is just the inroad some reader will need, to help evolve their own thinking. I’ve heard it said that experts don’t always make effective teachers, because their understanding of the field is so advanced that they’ve forgotten the types of things they struggled with when they were just getting into the field. Well, now you have that snapshot, and it could potentially serve as a bridge for others. Congrats on getting through it!
posted by mantecol at 4:58 AM on April 22, 2019

Somehow it got through peer review, but it was very, very rushed -- one of our collaborators had an in with a journal and they got it pushed through the review process, and I don't believe my article got nearly the kind of going over/skewering it should have.

These suspicions sound odd to me. Having connections at a journal might get the article's foot in the door, but if this is a reputable journal, then this is not likely to subvert the peer review process. Expedited review is something many journals offer, and should not be viewed as a lack of rigor.

The strange thing here is that you claim your work is subpar, but you are also simultaneously claiming to know better than literally everyone else involved in publishing this piece-- your co-authors, the editors at the journal, the peer reviewers, the managing editor, the copyeditors, the proofreaders-- there have been dozens of people who have had the chance to say "a-HA! These particular sections of this article are bad, actually!!!!!" None of them did. Why do you think you are more of an authority than they are?

Also, to be honest, a lot of pretty terrible scholarly writing gets published every day. It isn't a big deal. Unless your sections are fraudulent or misrepresenting data, then it doesn't actually matter, and no one will notice.

Not returning the proofs on time is probably the most self-destructive thing you could do, actually. What if you miss an egregious error that ends up in print because the journal had to proceed to publication without your feedback? I think confessing to a co-author that their name was spelled wrong because you couldn't bear to look at the proofs would be MUCH worse than feeling like you have published something that is not quite up to your preferred standards.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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