Dr. David Walter is a current member of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta (where I did my undergrad and M.Sc.; unfortunately, I was in the Psychology department then, and never met Dave) and he’s also an advisor to the Royal Alberta Museum on mite behaviour, ecology, and identification. You can also find him blogging at Macromite’s Blog where he has some quite amazing pictures. Dave sent me this great story of the perils of naming new species for Rejection Watch:
This only counts as a near rejection, so you may decide to reject it yourself, but your tale of meeting your nemesis at a poster at a conference reminded me of a similar encounter. I’m an acarologist and long ago got used to having my papers sent back with the ‘not of interest to our readership’ theme and soon found the journals that would find mites of interest or learned to hammer through the few papers that more general journals would accept and, other than a few bent nails that couldn’t be straightened, have had a reasonably successful career.
My graduate training was in both ecology and systematics, but at heart I was an ecologist and considered the taxonomy part just plain hard work with no reward. Still, when you need a name to hang some behaviour on, you may have to describe new species. Very early in my first postdoc I found that I was up to my 13th new species description. That seemed a bad sign and having just read an article in Smithsonian magazine about fear of the number 13, I was inspired to name my new species ‘triskadecaphobiae’. Well, first thing that went wrong was the word was too long to fit on a slide label, but by the time that I figured that out the paper was already off to the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.
Eventually the reviews came back on official forms (this was a long time ago) and the second problem appeared – whoever typed the form had misspelled triscadecaphobiae. Still, one review was okay, but the other is etched in my mind and went more or less like this: ‘Normally I would suggest accepting such a paper with minor revision, but because of the author’s obvious scientific immaturity as evidenced by his choice of a scientific name, I recommend rejection. A scientific name should march down the ages as a testimony to the good taste of the author …’ and so on for several stinging sentences.
Later, it turned out that a friend of mine was visiting the lab of the referee at the time my paper had arrived and the ref had come storming out of his office red-faced, waving my paper, and shouting ‘who is this arsehole Walter and who does he think he is?’ and possibly other less kind things that I have forgotten. It also turned out that another friend – we had been graduate students together – was a postdoc in this lab. I had previously named another species in honour of this student by appending the Latin for ‘belonging to’ (-ianus) to his name. This is perfectly correct (and went to a French journal, so they noticed nothing amiss), but of course, sounds rather asinine. ‘X-ianus’ was, basically, puerile and I suppose every time my friend saw the name he was annoyed and let people know it. So, I was reaping what I had sowed.
The editor of the journal, a famous entomologist who I suppose should remain nameless, was very nice and asked me for my opinion. I thought about the name for a while, considered the problem with the labels and a future of misspellings (not to mention my reputation), and suggested that I name the species after the editor – by appending an ‘i’ to his name. That worked perfectly and I was able to get past #13 and add another line to my CV. It was 20 years before I found the mite again, but it turns out to be common in the northern Great Plains, so the name has turned out to be both useful and honours a great entomologist.
I still manage to sneak a pun into a paper every now and then, and at least one species name has made a list of such irreverences (Funkotriplogynium iagobadius – species named after the King of Funk, James Brown, – but the genus was someone else’s and the species from one of my postgraduate students following in my mould and I just went along). So, I guess I’ve never really learned to grow-up completely, but I have become more circumspect (and insidious).
Even better, I ran into the referee in front of a poster at an Ent Soc meeting a couple of years later and stopped to introduce myself and admit to triskadecaphobiae. He turned out to be delightful and we subsequently enjoyed a productive correspondence. Turns out his comments to the editor were much less vitriolic than his comments to the author and he was simply taking the opportunity take me down a peg. Still, I wonder what will happen when I get to my 13th new genus …
I want to thank Dave for sending me that and remind you that Rejection Watch is driven entirely by reader submissions, so if you’ve been holding on to yours until now, get them into me! That email address again is firstname.lastname@example.org, so send me your best academic rejection story now, and I’ll throw in this free juicer*!
*Limit of 0 juicers per person