Writing Papers in a Timely Fashion

Kathy Borden, Curt Horvath, Rosanne Leipzig, Leslie Pick and Albert Siu

(K.Kaplan, S.K. Masur-editors)

Why you are not writing your manuscript:

  • The research is not complete
  • You don't have a block of free time
  • Your office is not clean
  • Women write fewer papers/year (but publish over longer period of their careers and their papers have a higher citation index). (Sonnert, G. Social Studies of Science 25:35-55, 1995)

However low "productivity" may contribute to a truncated academic career.

When do you start writing a manuscript?

  • Start writing when you see a story developing: Not after the first experiment and not after the last.
  • During the process of writing, you will generate ideas that will influence the on-going research. It may force you to design experiments that address less conclusive areas.
  • Organize the developing body of data into individual papers that form chapters of your work. Don't let it all accumulate into one enormous manuscript.
  • Educational and clinical research—you get one chance to do it right. Therefore, collect data and organize tables immediately. There is no time that is "too early" to start.
  • In interdisciplinary research, consider dividing components into manuscripts for different target audiences as the data are being collected.

Where do you start?

  • Figures: Put your data in Power Point or Photoshop figures as you collect it and you will have started the manuscript
  • Begin writing with the Methods section.
  • The Results section is the easiest story to tell, then the introduction and discussion.
  • Finish the introduction when all the rest of the manuscript is complete
  • Refine the abstract and title last.

How much data is sufficient for a complete paper?

  • There is a balance between quantity and quality. If possible follow the standard pattern for your field.
  • Better to write more papers per year than a mega paper every few years. Your publication is your contribution to your research area's knowledge and activities.
  • Don't wait too long to report a good story, because you will be scooped and have to publish it in a lesser journal.

Clinical research has special problems: many authors, many centers, long-term study and one hypothesis

  • Before and while you collect data, organize secondary papers, e.g., use a subset of the population/sample
  • One paper, one project is not optimal. Define facets in the beginning of the project for self-contained sub-topics.
  • Consider writing a review paper on the theory or topic by remodeling the information in your grant's background section.
  • Dilemma if minor paper "scoops" your major paper and project. Mine the database for subgroups.

Time management for junior faculty—how to balance doing experiments and writing manuscripts?

  • The mental switch is hard, set small goals, e.g., write one section of the results, generate a figure from new data.
  • Avoid "writing avoidance behavior": emails can be answered at the end of the day.
  • Develop a routine: For example, first hour every morning–before things get busy. Or write one paragraph a day. Or write all day on a weekend.
  • Publications are the most important product of your research – make writing a priority.
  • The only thing you can control is the actual writing of the manuscript — the review process is out of your control and will often take a long time.
  • If the paper is accepted with minor changes, discipline yourself to get it out the next day.

More writing strategies

  • Use an outline to establish a flow, then fill in with words. Describing the work to a colleague may help uncover the outline.
  • Write a fast draft – a sketch. Fill in the holes on later drafts.
  • Do talking points on index cards or Palm Pilot.
  • Try dictating while waiting for planes, while commuting to work.
  • Ask productive people how they approach writing manuscripts.

What to do if you've been "scooped"

  • It happens to everyone in exciting fields. Think of it as validation of your ideas.
  • Extend your study with one significant experiment and submit. You may have to submit to a journal with a lesser impact.
  • Try to get your manuscript published as quickly as possible so it's the same year.
  • If you learn about a paper as it's being generated, get yours done as rapidly as possible.
  • You can avoid being scooped by keeping abreast of the field. Through databases, research meetings, seminars.

Where should you publish?

  • Choose journals based upon manuscript topic, target audience and journal's impact factor (http://fusion.mssm.edu/levy/databases, CITATION INDEXES) (Impact factor influences A&P committees evaluation of publications.)
  • Aim high, especially if the report is newsworthy and timely. If not accepted, rapidly re-orient to the next choice.

The cover letter to the journal:

  • Suggest one or two reviewers to the editor.
  • Identify people who should not be asked: "non-preferred referees" (because you sense a conflict of interest).

What if your paper is rejected?

  • If they trash it, move on to another journal.
  • Sometimes it works to call the editors and explain that perhaps you didn't communicate effectively and would like to re-submit a revision. Never blame the reviewers.
  • If the review isn't clear, ask the editor to clarify so you can comply with a manuscript that will be accepted. Rewrite and resubmit if the study has merit but the manuscript doesn't (rather than merely a revision).

Should you contact a journal for "pre-screening" before submitting a manuscript?

  • Yes, if the journal requires an unusual format.
  • Yes, if the journal has a long turn-around time.
  • To propose an idea for a review article.

Is it important for academic promotion to diversify where and what you publish?

  • Not really. It doesn't help, but it won't hurt.
  • If you publish in one journal only, have the Chair explain why in the recommendation letter.

Have fun telling the world about your exciting new findings!

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