Well, it’s been a while, but things are finally moving. I had planned to let the news out gradually, but things in fact came to a close in record time. The Paper is finished, after many mighty tussles between me and my supervisor. Our writing styles are very different. His is sparse, terse, barely saying the minimum. Mine is discursive, expansive, segueing from one side of the story to another, weighing everything up to the extent sometimes that my main point gets lost in a mist. Ultimately his different take on my writing style has helped me become less diffident, more direct, more authoritative, to actually take responsibility for defending my work as it deserves. Together we reach a generally effective compromise that presents our ideas appropriately.
Last week we finally got the Paper more or less complete. The third co-author got back to us after last weekend with the most minor of minor suggestions, and a good deal of praise. And indeed I do feel glad of her praise because collective writing is something that has taken me a while to adapt to. I also feel a good deal of debt to this woman because it was her initial interpretation of my data that shaped the ultimate direction of this paper, that has made it the mutated creature it has become, and that has given it more authority and importance that it might otherwise have had. And that idea, that application of a concept most widely used by botanists to birdsong, has also shaped the direction of my PhD. Long ago this paper was supposed to be two, and I was due to be first author on one, and this co-author was to be first author on the other. However, the findings were so interrelated that it became impossible to demarcate the boundary between them, and we ended up surrendering and making the two parts a single whole again. But that left me as the first author, which overall was fair enough, as I had done the fieldwork, the initial interpretation was based on my Master’s project, for all the latter’s limitations. And ultimately, especially when this person left for another job abroad, it was my writing that made the paper, the more so over this summer past. It is my work now, I am delved into the depths of its possibilities, I am the one who has articulated the idea clearly enough, shaped it finely enough, for it to get heard. However, I am just conscious of my debt. But I am also proud of the fact that I have made this idea my own. It’s a handing on of a baton, but it illustrates the tensions of collaborative work, where the boundaries of ownership are.
The Paper is completely transformed, an entirely different entity from its beginnings, and a much more complete and mature being even from its first submission to this particular journal many months ago. A lot of the work that has gone into it lately has arisen due to the concerns of one particular reviewer, and I have to say I really value the peer-review process. This person’s doubts, concerns, scepticism, are what has made me really invest in grappling with the theory, so now I feel I know it, at least in its broad scope, as well as anybody. It has matured me as a scientist, whereby I have been transformed from the co-author who was the least experienced, the one whose knowledge was the most superficial, to the one who is now the expert. I know this stuff inside out. Not perfectly, not completely, but better, more intimately and more widely than either of my two co-authors now. So my gratitude extends to this particular reviewer, in particular. S/he forced me to really engage with this material, and for that I am profoundly in their debt. And their scepticism was thankfully balanced by the other reviewer’s enthusiasm almost from the outset. The two different of view again help to bring the Paper properly into focus.
Anyway, we sent it off again last Thursday, fingers and toes crossed. My supervisor warned me that it could be a month before we heard anything back. I was just grateful that it was finally off my hands, standing on its own two feet again, heading out into the world. Now I could finally get on with my acoustic analysis, begin to turn my mind to the completion of my literature review, which itself has also been redirected by my struggles to get the paper completed. The next morning, I was not long up, just getting ready to leave my flat to head into the office when I checked my mobile. A message from my supervisor “The paper has been accepted!!!” About 18 hours after we had sent it off! Obviously the editor had made an editorial decision, it was not going out to the reviewers again. Obviously also, all that hard work to hone our argument, had worked. My work. My struggles. I had convinced him!
I raced into the office, and my office mates were absolutely delighted for me. The editor had emailed me himself (my supervisor is the corresponding author) all the way from Texas! And he’s looking for a photograph of our study species. We may even make the front cover! My second supervisor, who I have a long, if intermittent, history with, as he taught me when I was an undergraduate a quarter of a century ago, is taking me out to lunch to celebrate.
So I’ve arrived. I’m a first author on a peer-reviewed paper in an international journal. The ghosts of the past are finally banished. I’m a proper scientist at last!