Mission Barbapapa: How to adjust yourself without compromising your essence?
Recently, I received a revise and resubmit from a journal. Those of you who are not academics may have absolutely no idea about ‘revise and resubmits’. The journals we try to publish in are peer-reviewed. A revise and resubmit means it is not a rejection (at least not yet), so it is still no guarantee for a publication, but there is a chance that your work may get published.
When the reviewers see some potential in a paper, they provide ‘constructive criticism’ (though not always) and provide feedback which would improve the manuscript. This sounds great, right? However, from what I understand, reviewers almost always interpret your paper from the theories they are familiar with and through the methodological approaches that they themselves employ. Therefore, their review is not always about your paper, but often it is about what they know and how they would have written it if they were you. Since I also started reviewing for journals, I also realise how I perceive others’ work based on what I already know (we have a term for this- ‘absorptive capacity’).
In sum, when responding to revise and resubmits, we have to navigate this important tension: the tension of adjusting yourself to an environment by making your paper relatable to the reviewer while keeping your work as distinct as possible to establish a unique contribution. Not only for revise and resubmits of course, this is a challenge that requires continuous awareness and reflection.
Optimal distinctiveness can be defined as the state that you are different from others like you (making you distinct), but not so different because you need to comply with certain norms and values. The concept comes from two theories, resource based theory and institutional theory. In a very simplistic and (perhaps) reductionist way, I can say that the resource based view suggests developing rare and distinct resources and capabilities in order to establish competitiveness. Institutional theory, on the other hand, explains many things, but here, it explains how we comply with the norms in our environments. Don’t you think we all have to achieve some “optimal distinctiveness” to survive?
This tension between conformity and differentiation/uniqueness is a critical problem when designing education systems. Essentially, education aims (or should aim, normatively speaking) to foster creativity. Though, as much as we believe that creativity comes from those that think differently, we also believe that to survive those “creative” guys also need to conform to our norms. At least, in reality, we have seen so many scientific publications that showed after several years spent in formal education, kids start losing their creative skills.
So, the term ‘norm’ is important here. Norm means “something typical or usual”. I mean, really, how can anyone be typical or usual? More importantly, how can one be unusual enough but not so unusual, so that others still can relate … Ahhh optimal distinctiveness…
My friend (to whom I dedicate this piece of writing), suggested that in cases where this tension feels unbearable or causing emotional struggles, I could imagine myself as the Barbapapas. Of course, after our lovely conversation, I checked Barbapapas. A cartoon with lovely music. And really interesting cartoon characters. The Barbapapa family change their shape, this is what makes them extraordinary. They are shape-shifters. But, at the end of the day, they always keep their colors.
Metaphorically speaking, no matter what the external pressures may be to comply with the norms, we should try to be like the Barbapapas. I guess the Barbapapa family is a great example of optimal distinctiveness. The Barbapapas take the shape of whatever animal they are close to. A great survival skill, because when you look like each other, you are relatable. But, they always keep their gorgeous and unique colors, as a sign of their true self.
We are not cartoon characters like the Barbapapas and we often forget that the crowd around us change all the time. We change the organisations we work for. We change our social circles. We start interacting with different families. Especially in the world that we live in, often we interact with people from different cultures. Conceptualising ourselves as Barbapapas can be a great survival skill. So, here we go! I am on a Mission: Barbapapa!