The one question. Early during my doctoral thesis I was confronted with the one big question in life science. The one question that you should always ask yourself when doing research. “What is the paper going to look like?” Don’t get me wrong, there is much, much more to science than publishing, but in this post, I would like to reflect on our attitude towards publications and suggestions how we could do better. And this also includes myself.
Long term vs short term goals. One problem with publications is that the submission doesn’t come with a deadline. Therefore, you’re bound to procrastinate. Many publications are intermediate to long-term projects and these projects are always at danger of being pushed aside by immediate things in your daily routine, be it experiments, clinics, family, holidays, etc. This dilemma is nothing that you’re alone with as a scientist. The problem of combining short- and long term projects befalls many professions and people have written books about strategies to handle this. One of my favorite books is “Making Ideas Happen” by Scott Belsky, which deals with implementation of ideas, mainly for creative professionals. There are interesting parallels to the life of a scientist. Therefore, in a nutshell, we have put together the top 10 suggestions on how to get papers out faster. By the way, I don’t claim to be a know-it-all. I have a strong need to improve my writing habits.
1.) Develop a realistic expectation
Start with a realistic expectation of your time frame and your writing capabilities. I like to tell our students that once you think that a project is sufficiently complete to be “written up”, only 50% of the work is done. Writing, submitting, revising, rebutting takes up much more time than you think and you should factor this in to start with. Also, be realistic that if you’re a novice, your first draft is not likely to be very good. Be prepared that the final version will sound nothing like your first draft. Keep a beginner’s mind towards this and liberally accept and integrate suggestions. Spend much of time on your draft, but don’t cling to words.
2.) Write (use all the tricks out there that work for you)
No matter where you’re coming from, you can always improve and stay in shape. This is part of what this blog is actually about for me personally. Always say yes to writing. You develop a routine and get better at it over time. But you have start and keep going. By the way, writing is not only about the intellectual process of transforming your thoughts into words, but also about the purely technical aspects. I am writing most of this post on my iPhone with my infant son sleeping on my belly, trying to get faster at typing and not be disturbed by the miniature screen.
People will tell you that the day only has 24h and that you should focus. However, this way you’re at danger of procrastinating long term writing goals and sacrificing them for more immediate things. Use routines to keep you going. Some people like to write in the early mornings (I had a phase like this), others prefer the late night (works for me if the family allows it). Create a secure habitat for your writing and you will suddenly realize that 24h is much longer than you had thought. For example, one of my favorite places to write is Starbucks and I am always amazed how much I can get done there in 1-2 hours. My very favorite place it the Starbucks at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
4.) Gamify, make it personal, invest
Sometimes you are more invested in something if you actually invest. I got a small laptop for writing and blogging last year that eventually turned out to be a lemon and I sold it. However, by making an investment to set a signal to yourself that the act of writing is important to you. Make writing fun, make it personal and be cheeky. I have irritated some of my collaborators by constantly insisting on capitalizing Central Nervous System (“out of respect for the human brain”). Also, I was happy that I managed to slip the word “fulcrum” into the final full EuroEPINOMICS application, a reference to my favorite tv show Chuck. By making even the seemingly dull scientific writing personal, you will have a relationship with what you write and this will help you write more and better.
5.) Develop a “shipping” mindset
In “Making Ideas Happen”, Belsky tells a story about Seth Godin, one of the gurus of internet marketing. During a presentation, Godin showed a slide with a wide range of different products that he had developed. “Most of these products were failures. The only reason that I have at least some success is because I always ship.” Godin claims that he always tries to maintain a strict focus on execution, making sure that his products get to the point of being shippable. Now replace shipping with “submitting”. Always submit and make this your mindset. Once you have established a “shipping” attitude (“don’t stop until the paper is submitted”), it usually sticks and gets internalized. For example, I was virtually shocked a few months ago when one of our doctoral students told me straight out that she didn’t have time to help me write a review article. I just didn’t understand on a very conceptual level how she could decline this offer. This -of course- is more a reflection on myself than on others. I sometimes feel that I have managed to make myself crave for writing and publishing up to a point that I do not understand anymore when other people don’t see it that way. I have brainwashed myself.
But it sticks.
6.) Think LPU (and then don’t)
LPU is the least publishable unit, the miminum data you need to put together for a peer-reviewed paper. Some scientists like to chop up their data into very small pieces and publish this sequentially, which has it’s advantages and disadvantages. I am not saying that you should constantly run around LPU’ing, but developing an attitude of viewing data this way helps you stay sharp. In many cases, you will not want put together an LPU paper. Make sure that you always know why you don’t.
7.) Engage your social network
Remember that the days of the lonely genius scientist are over, if they ever existed. Chances are that you are part of a wider network of likeminded scientists and colleagues. Engage the people around you to nag you and push you. For example, as a preparation for this post, I have revived two papers that had accumulated and have passed this on to two of the junior coauthors with very explicit instructions for final revision and submission. By doing this, I wanted to make sure that I have put both papers on an inevitable path to submission. Even if I disappeared from the face of the earth by tomorrow morning, these submissions would take place.
8.) Break it down, identify obstacles, be proactive
A paper seems like an awful lot of work in the beginning and you might feel tempted not to open this large Excel table that you feel you didn’t fully understand in the first place anyway. It might help breaking this up into seemingly minuscule steps, little tasks that can be performed in 25-30 min. Much of this will seem superfluous in retrospect, but if you keep waiting for this one big chunk of time that will allow you to really dive deep into the project, this time may never come. Be proactive regarding obstacles. Again, in a collaborative world, you will probably be waiting for people to get back to you. If they are slow and you depend on them, write their passage for them even if it’s completely out of your league. There is always Google. Aim to be the person to push papers through and don’t be concerned about stepping on someone’s toes. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
9.) Don’t fool yourself (there is no such thing as a paper that is 80% written)
If somebody ever approaches you because he thinks that you can “quickly write something up”, please show him or her this post. There is no such thing. Every paper takes time, be it a brief write-up or a comprehensive study. Therefore, choose wisely what you want to write about. For clinicians, don’t do case reports unless you have a good reason to. They are not time savers. Also don’t believe in papers that are 80% written. This basically means that somebody wants to turf some writing onto you or wants to stake his or her claim for authorship. However, it can still take months for the first draft to circulate. Don’t be fooled by conference posters. They might ease the pressure for you to put something together, but they are not publications. They are good to get a ticket to a conference, but don’t accept that you put the draft aside since you have just presented your project as a poster.
10.) Realize that the story changes while writing
That’s the most important thing. Science is not only about pure facts, but also about how these facts are packaged and presented. The story usually changes tremendously during writing. I find this virtually unbelievable, but it’s like this every time. You create entire concepts, frameworks during writing that initially were little more than just crazy ideas. Be aware of this and enjoy it.