Do gender and imposter syndrome influence where scientists submit their manuscripts?

A recent conversation with a colleague got me wondering: do men and women differ in whether they are more likely to submit work to “top” journals? More specifically: are men more likely to stretch with a submission, and women more likely to play it safe?

The topic came up when a friend and I were discussing where we were planning on submitting various papers we’re working on, and how that can be influenced by collaborators. At some point during the conversation, this morphed into a question of how one decides what journal to submit to, and, since I’d been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome, I started to wonder if imposter syndrome influences where people submit work. If it does, and if the general paradigm that women suffer imposter syndrome at higher rates is true, then you’d expect that women would be less likely submit a paper to a journal that’s a bit of a reach than men are. If you aren’t convinced you belong in the game in the first place, are you really going to aim to be on the first-string squad?

As I thought about this, I realized that the shift towards double-blind peer review might allow us to collect data on this. (Why do I think we need data from double-blinded peer review to address this question? Because there’s clear evidence for unintentional biases in the way people judge work by men vs. women.) With double-blind review, it should be possible to see if there is a higher acceptance rate for papers submitted by women than by men. (I don’t mean a higher acceptance rate relative to what the rate was prior to double-blind review.) I think a higher acceptance rate would indicate more of a strategy of playing it safe. Then again, if a paper had been reviewed but rejected from higher tier journals, that could improve it enough to improve its chances in the next round of review, so it’s possible my prediction wouldn’t hold in the real world, even if women really do tend to adopt more of a “safe” strategy when submitting.

My guess is that, yes, at some level, feelings of being an imposter influence where people submit their work. But I’m guessing it’s a relatively small effect, and that such a comparison wouldn’t reveal a significant effect. But that’s just a guess — I would love to see data on this!

Even if there is a big effect of gender on where people think to submit, given that the decision of where to submit is often influenced by several authors, such an effect might be masked by the influence of coauthors. I also think there is probably an effect of career stage (though I don’t think this is necessarily a monotonic relationship), and that effect might be larger. Perhaps a grad student submitting her first paper might not think of a high profile journal, but her advisor is likely to steer her that way if it seems like it stands a chance.

For me, personally, I’m not sure if being a woman with imposter syndrome has an effect on where I submit. I definitely have imposter syndrome. But I think that I tend to be an optimist, and I think I’ve been fairly realistic about where to submit papers. I most certainly have had my share of rejections, so I don’t think I’m being overly safe in terms of where I submit. Then again, when I think back to the papers where I was primarily responsible for deciding where to submit it, those probably have a lower rejection rate than the ones where I decided with others.

Do you think your gender or imposter syndrome influences where you submit your work? Have you noticed gender differences when discussing where to submit work? And do you think imposter syndrome influences how likely people are to submit to top journals?

34 thoughts on “Do gender and imposter syndrome influence where scientists submit their manuscripts?

  1. It’s an interesting set of questions, Meg. First of all I should say that I’m coming at this as someone who is agnostic about whether or not “impostor syndrome” (IS) exists. I used to be a firm believer but conversations with my partner, who is a psychotherapist, have led me to wonder whether we’re using this label as a way of bagging up and psychologising a whole range of (actually quite natural) emotions centred around personal uncertainties, insecurities, lack of confidence, etc. She has some strong arguments in this regard.

    This aside, and assuming that something like IS exists, I think that gender is only one of a number of possible influences, and others include ethnicity and class. Speaking personally as the first university-educated member of my immediate family, who grew up in the coal mining and ship building communities of the north-east of England, and who really did not do well at school, I have to say that I can trace my own insecurities as a scientist back to this background. Those insecurities are very real and I doubt will ever go away, no matter how many well received papers I publish.

    But on one level I’m happy to live with such insecurities as (I think) it stops me getting complacent and falling into the trap of feeling that I “deserve” to be successful, and that pearls of wisdom will always flow from my mouth or keyboard, no matter what crap I utter (HT JamesWatsonSaidWhat?!)

    • Ooh, I would love to talk with you and your partner about whether IS exists! That sounds like it would be a fascinating conversation. And, yes, I totally agree that there are a lot of things that influence imposter syndrome, with gender being just one of those. Race/ethnicity, class, first gen status all surely influence it, too.

      • This is really interesting.

        So if people privileged on all fronts (race, gender and class and etc) also feel impostor syndrome (which I beieve they do), does that serve as evidence for Jeff’s partner’s claim that it is just a label for natural human emotions. And if that’s true are we better served to talk about it that way?, or is impostor syndrome still a useful short-hand phrase (and it certainly sounds better to my ear than the 1930s phrasing of neuroses or 1960s hangups)?

        I have to say I spend a lot of time with graduate students reassuring them that impostor syndrome is an extremely common (if not universal) mindset. Just hearing they’re not a alone/unique is usually highly reassuring.

    • Interesting comments from your partner, Jeff. I’d always thought that when people referred to imposter “syndrome”, they didn’t literally mean a syndrome in the sense of a diagnosable psychological illness. Rather, they just used the term as a shorthand for lack of professional confidence arising from certain sources. Maybe I’ve been misunderstanding all this time?

      I agree that thinking of imposter syndrome as a diagnosable medical condition is probably a little dubious. This gets into the whole minefield of what a psychological “illness” is, which I’m sure your partner knows far more about than me! My own knowledge is limited to having read Making Us Crazy many years ago, about how the sausage gets made when deciding what “diseases” should be included in the DSM and how they should be defined.

      • Don’t get me wrong, Karin wasn’t suggesting that it had been thought of as an illness or medical condition. But it’s certainly been considered as “diagnosable” in the sense that it can be “treated”, in much the same way as (to use Karin’s specialism as an example) relationship problems can be diagnosed and worked on within a therapeutic setting. Wikipedia’s actually got quite a good summary of this:

  2. Interesting question Meg, but hard to get at, I think. Like you, I suspect the effect is small if it’s there at all, and that it’s only one of many things (many of them much stronger effects) that affect our choices of where to submit.
    For instance, getting your papers accepted at a decently high rate might indicate that you’re aiming too low in some sense because you underrate the quality of your own work. But as you note, it’s consistent with all sorts of other possibilities. You’re a good judge of where your mss will fit best and you’re smart enough not to “reach” (reaching has real downsides, of course; it’s not all upside). You often get second opinions from colleagues or Axios Review before deciding where to submit. Your own insecurities spur you to polish your mss to a high gloss before submitting rather than rushing them off your desk…

  3. Let me provide three alternative hypotheses to why group collaborations tend to get submitted to get submitted to higher journals:

    H2) As has been discussed before (e.g. Jeremy’s analysis of what makes a Mercer award-winning paper), top journals tend to value papers that attack a problem from multiple perspectives simultaneously (theory, data, experiment, field, etc). That happens easier in a group – indeed is the reason for putting a group together.

    H3) Mob psychology – there is fairly good evidence that people in crowds will behave differently than alone. The feeling of personal accountability drops, people egg each other on a bit and also try to be outrageous go be noticed, and positive feedback loops are at play and slightly more crazy things get done. Maybe submitting to Science is just an example of mob psychology!

    H4) Getting together a group is costly in time and money (and keeping it cohesive takes even more energy). So there is a natural tendency to feel like this investment has to be justified by a higher result than could be achieved alone. This is probably a bit irrational because its not like a summer in the field on a solo project is nothing!

    In all seriousness, having been part of a number of different collaborations that have made a decision to submit to Science or Nature I think H2-H4 are all at play. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve been part of a collaboration that settled for anything less than Ecology Letters as an acceptable target (even though the individuals participating are all reasonable and certainly don’t send everyone of their individual papers out that high).

    • Re: your H2 Brian, Mercer Award papers also tend to be authored by single individuals, single lab groups, or small collaborations. Though I haven’t looked at whether they tend to have fewer authors than the average ecology paper–they may not.

      “Maybe submitting to Science is just an example of mob psychology!”

      Aaaaannnd we have a thread winner! 🙂

      “I’m not sure I’ve been part of a collaboration that settled for anything less than Ecology Letters as an acceptable target”

      You mean working groups specifically, right? Not just any ol’ collaboration?

      And even with respect to working groups, your mileage may vary. I’ve only ever been in a couple of working groups, but I don’t recall either aiming for Ecology Letters or higher. We picked our target journals the way I do when I’m on my lonesome–we thought about where the ms would fit well, not “where’s the highest we could possibly aim if we spin this right?”

      • I guess I’m biased towards working groups, but it is a slipper slope. Two people working together – yes plenty of examples of not submitting high. Two people and associated students/lab members. Three people collaborating. Four fully independent people collaborating. By that time I think behavior starts to look not that different from a working group.

    • Re: H2: Yes, I think, to go back to the example of me and Spencer collaborating that I brought up in yesterday’s posts, I think our collaboration works so well in part because we approach questions from different angles. I often feel that by far the most critical review is getting to a point where we both agree on something — so, with collaboration, going through the process of writing up the manuscript can be a very effective, critical review process. It’s harder to get that prior to submission with work that isn’t as collaborative, especially as the culture of doing friendly reviews has decreased. (I think there’s an editorial calling for an increase in the number of friendly reviews, but I can’t find it right now and am running late.)

      • Hochberg et al. called for an increase in friendly reviews in their EcoLetts editorial on the “tragedy of the reviewer commons”. Which is just wishful thinking, I think.

      • Ah, yes, that’s it. I was thinking it was the McPeek et al. Golden Review paper, but then saw it wasn’t that, and didn’t have time to keep looking. Thanks! 🙂

      • In the one philosophy of science book and the many scientist bios I’ve read recently, a common trait identified of very successful scientists is the ability to go ahead with your work as if your theory/model is correct, while at the same time critically evaluating it to see where it breaks down.

        “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

        For any one individual, this is incredibly difficult. All too often you either fall in love with a pet hypothesis and ignore evidence to the contrary, or are too paralysed by contradictions to move forward. The collaboration you described seems like an awesome way to get around this. Work closely with someone that is interested in similar questions, but approaches them from a different angle. That way, half of your combined cognitive power can go forward assuming that your theory/model/hypothesis is correct and bravely delve into the implications, while the other half forces you to take a good hard look at where your pet theory breaks down.

  4. Interesting post and conversation!
    IS – Like Jeremy Fox, I’ve always considered it a term applied to an amalgamation of different things. Can it be diagnosed and treated? Only as much as the individual factors that lead to insecurities can be diagnosed and treated. Can anyone, even the most privileged, feel insecure? Yes. Are less privileged more likely to feel that, and are their insecurities reinforced by systemic aspects of our society? Yes.

    About your post, Meg – I think that you’re making a really really good point. In my own personal experience, I definitely am not very inclined to submit where I think rejection is likely. I have a reasonable, but not outstanding, publication record (papers in Ecology, Evolution, Ecology Letters, New Phytologist, Molecular Ecology, Current Biology, Proc Roy Soc, Evol. Apps, J of Ecology and J of Evo Biology, and other more specialized journals in my field but not yet Science, Nature, or PNAS). Of the 65 papers I’ve published, only 6 were ever rejected. Two of those were submitted to Nature by male colleagues who were the lead authors on them, three others were collaborative, only one rejected paper was primarily my work and I didn’t aim particularly high (shakes fist at Oikos). I’ve only ever had one paper submitted, rejected, and not resubmitted – a collaborative opinion piece. (This relates, btw, to the discussion on twitter not too long ago about the value, or lack thereof, of listing manuscripts in press – people seemed to think that many manuscripts never see the light of day – that’s not generally true in my case).

    Is that rejection rate low? I have no idea, not knowing what others experience. Have I aimed too low? Perhaps. If we assume the answer is ‘yes’, then why have I aimed low? One, I’ve had experiences with Nature and Science surrounding ethical issues, and not found the editorial board, of Science in particular, interested in scientific truth or holding up ethics in science, and so frankly am skeptical of those journals. Secondly, and more generally, it is definitely true that I rarely think others will actually be interested in what I do.

    It would be fascinating to collect data on submissions and rejections, perhaps linked to who decided about where to submit. Most papers have multiple authors these days, but there’s also a difference between highly collaborative work and work that one person primarily does with a bit of welcome help and input here and there from the other contributors. Of course, who has time for that! I’m already eating into my AM writing time…

    • Point well made that just because everybody feels impostor syndrome doesn’t mean it is not a different or more intense and more externally driven experience for less privileged groups

      Wow – >90% accept rate and in great journals too! That is pretty impressive. I think I am more around the 50% level. I vaguely recall a survey of senior scientists that found that to be about the average level (although I don’t recall the details).

      Quite aside from what everybody is currently doing, you raise the interesting question of what is right or optimal. Of course that question can be asked from the point of view of the individual and the field I do think there is a bit of the tragedy of the commons here where individual and field-wide interests are not necessarily aligned. And of course different people legitimately have different priorities and goals so the “right” level of risk/rejection-tolerance differs from person to person.

    • Wow, this is such an interesting comment! I would say that your personal rejection rate is very low, but I suppose I don’t know what is a typical one. I agree that it would be fascinating to collect data on this. Jeremy has a post showing his shadow CV:
      which lays out his rejections. I’ve considered making one, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. My rejection rate would be much higher than yours! This post by Joshua Weitz, which raises the concept of an R-index (for Rejection-index) is also interesting and relevant:

    • @Ruth Hufbauer:

      Agree with Brian and Meg–I think your rejection rate and other associated rates (like # of papers you gave up on due to rejections) are unusually low. There are various surveys on this–one was by Tim Blackburn in an ecology journal (TREE, I think) back in the late 90s or early oughts if memory serves.

      Agree with Brian that it’s hard to say what the “optimal” rate is for any given individual. I certainly wouldn’t conclude that your rate is suboptimal just because it’s unusual.

      • Yes, Ruth’s acceptance rate is very high – but was the 90% first time acceptance or acceptance after rejection then resubmission?

        In contrast my rejection rate for 2014 was almost the mirror image: 7 out of 8 papers rejected (or at least needing major revision which won’t be done until this year). But the one that was accepted was in Science which, frankly, balances the scales as far as I’m concerned because it’s a tick on my bucket list, and it impresses my senior management and grant funding agencies, rightly or wrongly and taking on board all the comments about why we shouldn’t be kow-towing to the Science/Nature hegemony, what a biased system they run, etc. etc. 🙂

      • Jeff – I’m assuming the number being discussed is final outcome with a single journal, not including major revision, minor revision, or even revise and resubmit. 90% accept while including those would have to be godlike!

  5. Long before I had ever heard of the term “impostor syndrome” I described my feelings thusly: “Whenever I am in a room of competent people, I constantly fear that they will suddenly realize that I do not belong among them.” This, and not vague feelings of inadequacy or struggle, is my own definition of impostor syndrome, and I have found it shared by many.

  6. You had some interesting thoughts there. I’m a postdoc in ecology. I think I’ve played quite safe usually when choosing a journal for my manuscripts. But I’m glad that my professor had high ambitions when we were submitting my first paper and it got accepted to a top-quality journal. I’m right now thinking where to submit my latest manuscript and I’m convinced that I want to aim high. So, I just need to get the idea through also the coauthors. 😉

  7. I suspect from my observations of friends and colleagues that there is a gender bias with imposter syndrome, or perhaps that it just has worse effects on females (several very good female colleagues have either left or are considering leaving academia). I personally probably suffer from IS quite badly, and can believe that it would effect which journals people submit to. Even though the pragmatic side of my brain knows that all scientists get lots of papers rejected, I still get hit hard when 1st author papers of mine are rejected. It makes me doubt my judgement, and I have thoughts along the lines of “I must be a crap scientist if I think the work is good but the reviewers think it is lousy” and then “I’m not sure there’s any point aiming for high impact journals, I’ll just put in a lot of effort and it will be rejected anyway”. So far I’ve managed to battle these thoughts, but just having had another paper rejected I must admit that it gets me down, and even though I believe I am a good scientist I wonder whether I am not emotionally robust enough for academia. I think one of the major issues here is that there is an expectation (from ourselves?, from our institutions?) that, to justify an academic position, all of us should be publishing papers in top journals. Given the number of scientists in the world, the number of papers published, and the very small proportion of those papers that appear in top journals, it is simply unrealistic that all of us can be top scientists. I wish the message was that ‘it’s good enough to be good enough’.

    • “Given the number of scientists in the world, the number of papers published, and the very small proportion of those papers that appear in top journals, it is simply unrealistic that all of us can be top scientists.”

      This is an important issue. It’s my impression that it’s starting to be recognized in the context of NSF and NIH grants–that it’s not necessarily realistic for even top research universities to expect that tenure-track faculty will get 1 or more big NSF or NIH grants before coming up for tenure (any US folks care to chime in on this?). But anecdotally, I don’t know that universities are taking the same attitude towards publications in leading journals. Not sure if they should or not, I think it depends on various factors. EDIT: Reading it again, that last sentence is poorly phrased. What I should’ve said was that I agree with you that universities need to have reasonable expectations in terms of publications. What’s unclear to me is whether what’s “reasonable” to expect has changed a lot just in the past few years. I should also have added that I feel for you, I think most scientists have had a distressing run of rejections at some point. I had one myself a coupe of years into my pre-tenure time at Calgary. My head of dept. at the time advised me to quit aiming so high with my publications and crank out some papers in less-selective journals to keep building my cv. I stuck to my guns (I didn’t think I was reaching with my submissions) and it worked out, no doubt due in part to luck. And it also worked out for me because I think Calgary has reasonable expectations of its faculty. I know not everyone’s fortunate enough to work at a university where expectations are reasonable. I hope things work out for you as well.

  8. I do have known several instances of people who didn’t aim high enough with their submission because they felt like they didn’t feel like they quite belonged there, even though the work clearly did. So, in my opinion the answer to the question in the post is, “yes.”

    Here’s another question: what is the difference between being genuinely humble, and imposter syndrome? Is this a new name for an old thing. A humble person doesn’t brag about their accomplishments/status but you would think that a genuinely humble person doesn’t really view their status as anything to brag about or that they don’t deserve where a high status. Being humble is thought to be a good thing, but imposter syndrome doesn’t. I’m serious here, is there a difference?

    • Well, “imposter syndrome” seems to mean different things to different people. But as Meg and another commenter noted above, for them “imposter syndrome” is a feeling that you’re a fraud and that the competent people around you will soon see through you. Which does seem quite different (certainly quantitatively, and maybe qualitatively) from just being humble or non-arrogant about your own accomplishments.

      • That definition of ‘feeling like a fraud’ is pretty much how a humble person who is in a position of authority/esteem/power must feel. Like many others, I often feel like a fraud and I feel like it’s a leap of faith when I take others’ word for it most of the time.

  9. I think there probably is an Imposter Syndrome x Gender = Journal Choice interaction, but that maybe (a) it’s not measurable and (b) IMO this effect is probably much smaller than the IS vs. Non-IS difference. I know people who don’t suffer *at all* from IS, but I’m not one of them – I’ve felt it from day one, and even remember exactly the moment when I first felt “uh-oh, wtf am I doing here?”

    So in light of that, and since many of us are working on pre-proposals and probably feeling IS-overload, I thought I’d share this with you all. II read this in 6th grade and it has stayed with me ever since. I even keep a copy in the lab for us as an IS-antidote:

    “Once King Neriman’s councilors asked him to decide which of two warriors was the more courageous. Both did deeds of equal valor. But the first had the heart of a lion, bold and undaunted; while the heart of the second was filled always with dread, and fearful as a mouse.

    “Surely, O King,” said the councilors, “you must choose the first, for he is brave by his very nature; whereas the other is obliged to force bravery on himself.”

    “This is true,” said Neriman. “Therefore, I choose the second.”

    The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha
    Lloyd Alexander

    Hang in there!

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