Today I got a STOC submission rejected. It's a technical result on which I (along with my coauthors) spent many months to build a fragile construction of techniques that had to be tweaked to fit together in just the right way. I had been working on it off and on since 2007, if not earlier. From a purely technical viewpoint, it may be my most intricate paper ever. So, what to make of this rejection?
Maybe they didn't like the paper because of all of its technicalities. In which case, in order to get papers accepted in the future, I should stick to less complicated projects.
Maybe they couldn't follow the arguments. In which case, in order to get papers accepted in the future, I should stick to less complicated projects.
Maybe they didn't appreciate the difficulties and thought it was poorly written. In which case, in order to get papers accepted in the future, I should stick to less complicated projects.
Maybe they didn't care for the result. In which case perhaps my time was not well invested - huge amounts of time spent solving a problem that people apparently don't care about. In which case, in order to get papers accepted in the future, I should stick to projects with a more immediate appeal.
Maybe the paper really was poorly written. Yet we spent months just on the writing, which was almost beyond us. Am I up to spending another couple of months on this proof to try and see if it can be streamlined? I don't think so. In which case, in order to get papers accepted in the future, I should stick to less complicated projects, where I master the big picture.
Maybe they were not impressed. I only imagine it's difficult because my brain doesn't work as fast as it used to when I was a student, but, actually, that result is not that hard. Hmm... I don't like that idea. I will need more evidence before I'm ready to entertain that possibility!
I had been planning to devote a good part of my time working on follow-up projects, digging deeper in even more technical developments. Maybe I should reconsider.
Or maybe I don't care. After all, what's tenure good for, if not to pursue our research interests even when the wind of fashion (or the majority's taste) blows in a different direction?
But maybe - gasp - a reviewer found a mistake in the proof! Since that proof is a bit too big to fit in the cache in my brain, I was only able to check it one part at a time, so an error is a real possibility. That's a worrisome thought... what if the result of our efforts fell apart?
Then, there is also the problem of advising students: maybe this rejection suggests that this research direction is not a good one to steer them towards, because it's high-effort, low-reward, and would not be good for their future job applications. That's another concern.
And that is how program committees shape the field.