Otto Muskens Otto Muskens 21 April 2010

Unfinished manuscripts

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Posted in Getting published

On my desk, right in front of the computer screen, lies a pile of paper. This pile gives me headaches, keeps me awake at night, and is a source of frustration on sunny weekends. It is the pile of unfinished manuscripts, gathered and carried along from earlier positions as a postdoc. Every paper has a story attached to it. Some papers are only in their first version, hardly more than a collection of raw data. Others have seen many revisions, have passed the eyes of multiple co-authors, and have got stuck just before submission, because something just is not quite right. There are papers of PhD students, co-workers, and of myself as leading author. Some contain data taken two years ago.

I am wondering how others are dealing with their unpublished data. Do you have a drawer full of brilliant work yet to be published? Or are you completely up to date with your results? For some people, it may be a reason for boasting: look at how many data I still have on the shelf! For a starting academic, unpublished data can be a life saver in times that you are starting a new lab and you need results to cover the gaps in your publication record. However, the pile also represents months of painstaking experiments, data analysis, and theory, lying there going to waste and most importantly – not being cited.

As you progress in an academic career, it is unevitable that you get many tasks unrelated to science. Some of us teach, others take on administrative or management duties, organize conferences, or travel around the world giving talks. As the pressure increases from different sides, the time simply fails to catch up on writing these publications. The combination of guilt and work addiction leads to spending evenings, weekends, and holidays trying to wrap up some of the papers. Unfinished manuscripts have the tendency to take over your life.

Perhaps some results are like wine or cheese: they need time to ripen and to reach their full glory. Indeed too many papers are written in a rush, driven by the need to disseminate, gain citations, and show grant organizations that you are worth funding. On the other hand, maybe some data are simply not worth the additional energy to convert them into a publication, as it is already clear that they will not get picked up by a large community. Some results will only be bread-and-butter papers, useful to flesh out a CV but not world-shaking. Some people would choose not to publish small results and to go for the big hits. Maybe I am wrong, but to me even those less important results are still worth publishing.

As many others this week I was caught by surprise by the air traffic disruption. Luckily for me it happened just before I was leaving to a conference in Switzerland. The luxury of a partly empty agenda (most of it filled up rapidly again by teaching duties) gives some air to take another look at the pile and see if we can finish off one or two papers out of it. It will be a very good feeling when this happens.

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  1. Unregistered

    21 Apr 2010 2:47, David Stern

    Unfinished work nagging at one in the background all the time, is the worst aspect of academia IMHO. This includes papers to be revised to be resubmitted to journals.

  2. Mirjam

    25 Apr 2010 9:50, Mirjam

    I prefer to analyze data and wrap up papers as soon as possible, because it simply takes less time that way (when you only look at it once every two months it takes a while to really get back into it). But, I haven’t got a whole group working for me yet, so that may make a difference.
    With respect to your remark that “For a starting academic, unpublished data can be a life saver in times that you are starting a new lab and you need results to cover the gaps in your publication record.” I hope that this is a misconception and that people actually look at when and where the work was done when they look at your publication record. Old work should not count as output in a tenure decision.
    Finally, it is possible to get rid of a work addiction and feelings of guilt. Try it and it will make science much more fun and your personal life better!

  3. Otto Muskens

    25 Apr 2010 19:28, Otto Muskens

    Thanks Mirjam, I will try to keep in mind to work less and enjoy more ;). Of course people who evaluate tenure will look at results obtained from your new research. However there are many other ‘bean counters’ in research councils, European funding, and perhaps future employers, who just look for continuity in your track record – using databases like Web of Science. Setting up a group from scratch can (for an experimentalist at least) easily result in gaps of more than one year with no publications at all. Then it is helpful to have at least some publications still in the pipeline.

    From experience I find that most academic group leaders have a continuous backlog of at least a few publications lying around for more than one year before submission. But correct me if I am wrong.

  4. Unregistered

    28 Apr 2010 10:24, Vitaliy

    I would compare unfinished ideas with just born babies which should survive and should be protected. The problem however, is that ‘mother’ can not do it and for some reasons. What is then?
    In this case the ideas can be posted to broad audience and other people can support the ‘baby’. New collaboration and new life begins.

  5. Otto Muskens

    9 May 2010 18:45, Otto Muskens

    @Vitaliy, disclosing your unfinished ideas in the public domain may be noble and in the benefit of general progress of science. However, ideas are a valuable resource and I would be very careful to give them away for free. The whole system of science is based on giving and receiving credit for original research. In this context, sharing ideas takes place in form of well-written publications where the idea has crystallized. I rather wait one or two years to really make a good publication than to post the unfinished idea somewhere while it is not finished.

  6. Unregistered

    7 Jun 2010 14:26, danxian

    I spent the spare time on the unfinished ideas,because the working time is controlled strictly by the boss and I love my ideas so much.Dream for the day make plans myself!Then I will come back here to discuss the problem with you.

  7. Unregistered

    12 Aug 2010 2:22, Wolfgang

    The most annoying thing about unfinished manuscripts is when it is not your fault that everything is in stagnation. There are “collaborators” (should one say “saboteurs” rather?) that promise to send data, which they do not or their data evaluation is worser than you even imagined in any worst case scenario. The are supervisors who are not capable to even submit a fully formatted, totally finished paper. There are coworkers forgetting to measure something correct in the first place and then you have to go back, after you detected the errors. There are colleagues which you asked for some advice on a special topic of the manuscript which are not responding. This is more frustrating than everything you can blame on yourself and your ineffectiveness and incompetence.

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