The Paper Chase

So, the last few weeks of the year can often change the flow of research – it’s hard to push folks to do a two-week experiment without looking like Scrooge, so about this time industry-folk will often turn to taking care of things that we often push aside until “later”.  One is writing scientific papers.

Now grants and papers are the lifeblood in the “publish-or-perish” world of academics.  For industry people, they’re usually the “other” thing to get done.  It’s funny – but I do sort enjoy writing papers.  Hmmm.  "Enjoy" might be too strong of a word – let’s say that I appreciate the paper writing process.  The standard cycle is:
a) idea for paper
b) excitement about paper
c) stare at blinking cursor for 3 days
d) realize paper is going to take more work than you thought
e) write first two paragraphs — this takes a day
f) write rest of 30-page manuscript in about 4 days
g) edit with co-authors for — oh, about 3 weeks, until you now HATE the paper and want it AWAY!!  AWAY I SAY!!
h) submit to journal*.  Journal sends out for peer-review
i) wait 3-8 weeks
j) get reviews back, spend first 24 hours cursing the MORONS that reviewed your perfect paper and are too stupid to see it (degree of moron-ity depends on whether turnaround time for review was closer to 3 or 8 weeks)
k) wait 24 hours, maybe have a scotch
l) realize the morons maybe have a couple of valid points — sheesh
m) take a day to a week to re-write based on no-longer-morons' comments
n) resubmit to journal
o) wait 3-8 weeks for paper to be officially accepted
p) get galley proofs — THE BEST DAY EVER — drop everything and proofread them immediately, make small changes, complain to colleagues about the editors’ choice to re-format Table 2… Hello! I made it look that way for a reason!
q) send galleys back in
r) wait 3-8 weeks
s) paper gets published in the journal and you're all like, "Oh that?  Old news…."
* The choice of what journal to submit to is its own endeavor.  Scientific journals are like restaurants – they go from top-tier to rags – and scientists know the world-class ones from the bottom feeders.  And so there’s always the “how good is this?” discussion.  And you always want to find the very best journal that will publish your paper.  Shoot too high though, and you might get the incredibly deflating “thanks, but no thanks” from the editor… and that can spoil anyone’s holidays.

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21 thoughts on “The Paper Chase

  1. Love it. =) Also, I'm still very interested to know which of the main science publications (not counting those super fancypants specific journals we've discussed) are the "world class" and which are the "rags." My job has made me entirely too interested in this sort of thing….Regardless of where it falls, I still enjoy New Scientist… :O And Science always has the neatest covers; a recent favorite, for obvious reasons:

  2. Steve, how much of a nerd am I that I've finally given over to the fact that I can't WAIT to have to write regular papers in order to maintain a job? Of course, mine will be all about paintings and history if current plans go off, but STILL. (And I'm still resisting the idea of a doctorate.)
    My favorite part of college was writing papers. My favorite part of life is writing, even the "dry" academic historical stuff. Even the 25 page papers on female pirates for which practically no actual research exists. Stupid Tudor history class.
    Anyway… I ramble. Great post, it made me laugh. :)

  3. Perfectly explained – I picture a lot of head banging on desk while all this is going on. While Science is considered world class I wonder if they realize how many times I and other students have skipped over articles because they make it impossible to log into their database.

  4. Wow… you make it sounds SO easy! My papers usually take a lot long to hammer out, but that is because I really love doing the experiments, hate writing about it (I already know the answer, why can't I just give talks all over the world instead?). Anyhoo… where are you submitting to next? Science or Nature?

  5. I had a feeling you might like that… :) — oh, the whole what's good and what's a rag has whole fields devoted to it. If I had to choose a Big Three (at least in the biology-oriented world) — it would be Science, Nature, and Cell. There's a whole subset of the industry that devotes their time to comparing journals' impact factors.

  6. I've wondered why in this day and age that some publishers are still resisting a more open-access strategy. I've noticed the quality of papers in the PLoS journals has really gotten better.

  7. as far as i've been able to tell, most people's doctoral dissertations in history fields ends up being their first book. and then they have to write another book every year or two if they EVER want to get tenure somewhere. and tenure is so hard to come by. and i don't want to teach.
    bah, i'll probably end up with one, especially if i get to work on some painting that i fall in love with. lord knows i'd like to be a career student. i just don't really want to teach.

  8. wow – that was actually pretty fascinating. I wondered how that process worked. Mainly because they made reference to "getting published" on the scifi show that Jim and I like (Stargate: Atlantis – yes, we're geeks) and I was thinking about it just the other day. As always, your blog is informative yet entertaining!

  9. My I suggest that step J should have a split in it:" j' – Discover that the journal has changed editors and focus in the time between your paper being sent out for peer review and the receipt of the reviews"?This happened to me on a short, simple paper that should have been a cinch to publish (nothing controversial, just an easier way of demonstrating plate tectonics, sent to a journal with a pedagogical focus); the new editor decided that they would focus on "real research" (i.e., be more like Geophysics) instead of "that soft stuff" (her words, referring to pedagogy). John

  10. John — I think I've been lucky in this regard — never having had that happen in mid-review. I've had papers triaged for what seemed (to me at least) to be political reasons, but I guess that happens. On the flip side (but just as screwy) I saw a piece today on a math journal where the editor-in-chief had used it as his own personal dumping ground — publishing >500 papers in the last several years.

  11. On the flip side (but just as screwy) I saw a piece today on a math journal where the editor-in-chief had used it as his own personal dumping ground — publishing >500 papers in the last several years. 500! For a math guy, he can't do averages very well… If I saw a CV with 500 papers in under two years, he'd never make into the tenure committee (instant blackball).John

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