One of my favourite lists on the internet is tucked away in the credits for the PHYLIP software. PHYLIP was authored by Joe Felsenstein, a professor at the University of Washington and expert on methods for phylogenetic inference. PHYLIP is a free package of programs for inferring phylogenies, and probably the first and oldest widely-distributed phylogenetic program. Programs like PHYLIP made phylogenetic approaches easily accessible to ecologists and evolutionary biologists. Apparently it took years to get from the idea for PHYLIP to funding, and Felsenstein memorializes this with his “No thanks to” list (below). The list includes reviewers and panels from the US Dept of Energy, NSF, and NIH that turned down his proposals and made comments like "The work has the potential to define the field for many years to come.... All agreed that the proposal is somewhat vague. There was also some concern that the proposed work is too ambitious.”
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There are obvious responses to this list, mostly relating to the short-sightedness of funding agencies, meaningless requirements for ‘broader impacts’, the fact that proposals might be improved through the process of multiple failed applications, and of course the benefit of being long-established and respected when posting such lists on your website. But what I always wonder about is how long do you hold on to an idea, a proposal, or a manuscript that it is repeatedly rejected, before you give up on it?
This question is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because personality is so intertwined with confidence about an idea’s success. We all know people who would argue that all their ideas are Nature-worthy, criticism be damned. Other people need to be convinced of the merit of their own ideas. Obviously past success probably helps with judgment – having experience in identifying good ideas builds confidence in your ability to do so again. But what is the line between self-confidence and self-delusion? Secondly, it is a reminder that lots of good ideas and good papers were rejected many times. In any case, I am curious whether people tend give up on an idea simply because they became discouraged at the prospects of getting it published, or because they lost faith in the idea, or a combination of both.