How do your prioritize your manuscript writing efforts?

April 16, 2013

One duffymeg at Dynamic Ecology blog has written a post in which it is wondered:

How do you decide which manuscripts to work on first? Has that changed over time? How much data do you have sitting around waiting to be published? Do you think that amount is likely to decrease at any point? How big a problem do you think the file drawer effect is?

This was set within the background of having conducted too many studies and not finding enough time to write them all up. I certainly concur that by the time one has been rolling as a laboratory for many years, the unpublished data does have a tendency to stack up, despite our best intentions. This is not ideal but it is reality. I get it. My prior comments about not letting data go unpublished was addressing that situation where someone (usually a trainee) wanted to write up and submit the work but someone else (usually the PI) was blocking it.

To the extent that I can analyze my de facto priority, I guess the first priority is my interest of the moment. If I have a few thoughts or new references to integrate with a project that is in my head…sure I might open up the file and work on it for a few hours. (Sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised to find a manuscript is a lot closer to submitting than I had remembered.) This is far from ideal and can hardly be described as a priority. It is my reality though. And I cling to it because dangit…shouldn’t this be the primary motivation?

Second, I prioritize things by the grant cycle. This is a constant. If there is a chance of submitting a manuscript now, and it will have some influence on the grant game, this is a motivator for me. It may be because I am trying to get it accepted before the next grant deadline. Maybe before the 30 day lead time before grant review when updating news of an accepted manuscript is permitted. Perhaps because I am anticipating the Progress Report section for a competing continuation. Perhaps I just need to lay down published evidence that we can do Technique Y.

Third, I prioritize the trainees. For various reasons I take a firm interest in making sure that trainees in the laboratory get on publications as an author. Middle author is fine but I want to chart a clear course to the minimum of this. The next step is prioritizing first author papers…this is most important for the postdocs, of course, and not strictly necessary for the rotation students. It’s a continuum. In times past I may have had more affection for the notion of trainees coming in and working on their “own project” from more or less scratch until they got to the point of a substantial first-author effort. That’s fine and all but I’ve come to the conclusion I need to do better than this. Luckily, this dovetails with the point raised by duffymeg, i.e., that we tend to have data stacking up that we haven’t written up yet. If I have something like this, I’ll encourage trainees to pick it up and massage it into a paper.

Finally, I will cop to being motivated by short term rewards. The closer a manuscript gets to the submittable stage, the more I am engaged. As I’ve mentioned before, this tendency is a potential explanation for a particular trainee complaint. A comment from Arne illustrates the point.

on one side I more and more hear fellow Postdocs complaining of having difficulties writing papers (and tellingly the number of writing skill courses etc offered to Postdocs is steadily increasing at any University I look at) and on the other hand, I hear PIs complaining about the slowliness or incapabability of their students or Postdocs in writing papers. But then, often PIs don’t let their students and Postdocs write papers because they think they should be in the lab making data (data that might not get published as your post and the comments show) and because they are so slow in writing.

It drives me mad when trainees are supposed to be working on a manuscript and nothing occurs for weeks and weeks. Sure, I do this too. (And perhaps my trainees are bitching about how I’m never furthering manuscripts I said I’d take a look at.) But from my perspective grad students and postdocs are on a much shorter time clock and they are the ones who most need to move their CV along. Each manuscript (especially first author) should loom large for them. So yes, perceptions of lack of progress on writing (whether due to incompetence*, laziness or whatever) are a complaint of PIs. And as I’ve said before it interacts with his or her motivation to work on your draft. I don’t mind if it looks like a lot of work needs to be done but I HATE it when nothing seems to change following our interactions and my editorial advice. I expect the trainees to progress in their writing. I expect them to learn both from my advice and from the evidence of their own experiences with peer review. I expect the manuscript to gradually edge towards greater completion.

One of the insights that I gained from my own first few papers is that I was really hesitant to give the lab head anything short of what I considered to be a very complete manuscript. I did so and I think it went over well on that front. But it definitely slowed my process down. Now that I have no concerns about my ability to string together a coherent manuscript in the end, I am a firm advocate of throwing half-baked Introduction and Discussion sections around in the group. I beg my trainees to do this and to work incrementally forward from notes, drafts, half-baked sentences and paragraphs. I have only limited success getting them to do it, I suspect because of the same problem that I had. I didn’t want to look stupid and this kept me from bouncing drafts off my PI as a trainee.

Now that I think the goal is just to get the damn data in press, I am less concerned about the blah-de-blah in the Intro and Discussion sections.

But as I often remind myself, when it is their first few papers, the trainees want their words in press. The way they wrote them.

*this stuff is not Shakespeare, I reject this out of hand

9 Responses to “How do your prioritize your manuscript writing efforts?”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I am a firm advocate of throwing half-baked Introduction and Discussion sections around in the group. I beg my trainees to do this and to work incrementally forward from notes, drafts, half-baked sentences and paragraphs.

    I hate this fucken shitte. I want to see complete sets of figures from my trainees that we can discuss and decide together whether they are sufficient and what order they should be in, and then go off and don’t come back without a complete manuscript. This means proper title page, affiliations, formatting, references, everything.


  2. GMP Says:

    I can’t believe I agree with CPP, but I do. I want the student to put his/her best effort forward with each draft, I do not want to forever correct sloppy grammar, disjointed sentences, and reference formatting. They need to draft and edit to the best of their ability before sending to me, then incorporate edits and rewrite and return promptly. If the paper is not improving significantly between drafts, then they lose the writing privilege and I take over and rewrite as I see fit; the worse shape the manuscript is in when this happens, the longer it takes me to get to it and finish it. I hate lazy, sloppy drafts.


  3. The Other Dave Says:

    I am with CPP on this one. Turds re-stirred are always still shit.

    I don’t even understand this whole post, or the original quandary from DE.

    How the hell do you have stuff sitting around publishable but unpublished? You have either met the goals of the project/experiment, in which case you write it and submit it pronto, or you haven’t. One or the other. Proper science is not half-assed. What we’re really talking about here is: “Which half of the half-assed science do you decide to show to the world first, and why?”

    I think the disconnect between grad students wanting to write and PIs who sit on it is because the stuff is half-assed not done but the grad student doesn’t realize that. The PI doesn’t want to soil his reputation by submitting crap, of course. So the PI will sit on it until it’s done, whether by the grad student or someone else. Grad students hate this, because they feel like they are losing control of ‘their’ project. But what they need to do is just get the thing done. Projects are no one’s property. They are just jobs that need getting done.


  4. AFP Says:

    The issue isn’t necessarily sloppy writing or inattention to formatting detail, but the fact that some errors in logic or the flow of the writing are simply invisible to a trainee due to lack of experience. And those types of flaws can be addressed even when the text is still “half-baked”.


  5. Geologist Says:

    I want my advisees papers well-written before I see them – or at least until they’ve hit a block and need my help. If they send me crap then I’m likely going to fix it which means more work for me (especially if this is repeated for 2nd, 3rd, 4th drafts!!) and I DO NOT want them getting lazy and sending me half-baked crap which then means that I end up doing the work for them. So, shockingly I agree with CPP.

    However, I realize that many of my lesser-experienced advisees need more help and often need help with outlines or organization of their thoughts before they can actually produce that more-or-less complete product. So I do try to help them set up organization structure so they are not wasting time writing up crap that goes off in a wrong direction.

    In regards to The Other Dave – it is pretty easy to fall behind on manuscripts, especially if you are able to gather data that wasn’t funded. These types of papers are difficult to finish because they get completed here and there when time or bits of cash trickle in that don’t have clear rules on how it can be spent. Other things take priority … and these projects suffer for it. Despite my best attempts, I have some exciting research that just cannot get finished because my current funded projects MUST take priority and there just isn’t enough time in the day to do it all.

    I also have projects where I am the lead author and my coauthors want me to publish but the data is weak/poor/miserable and I will not publish crap just for the sake of adding another paper to my resume, whereas they don’t care about quality (in my case these are foreigners who are rewarded for number of publications but not necessarily quality or don’t care much about reputation). In these cases, the work either doesn’t get published or it is delayed substantially until the quality can be improved.

    As far as choosing which papers to work on first, I put topics to the top of the list if they are more exciting or more likely to stir more interest by others. I also put my student’s projects at the top since they need these finished to get a job and move forward in their careers. So often I end up putting them in front of papers where I am the first author, which slows me down, but in the long run I think being unselfish is the right way to live.


  6. The Other Dave Says:

    @Geologist: I think you and I are totally in agreement. You just said it much better.


  7. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Why are you fuckewaddes so “shocked” you agree with me? What you should be asking yourselves is in what regard you have lost the fucken plot on occasions when you *don’t* agree with me.


  8. The Other Dave Says:

    Learn to read, CPP. No one here actually said they were “shocked” at all. And only one person even suggested mild surprise.

    In fact, I personally agree with you a lot, and have always liked your role as DM’s rude ventriloquist dummy. You amuse me. You are a funny little clown. Ha ha. See? I laugh at your antics.

    The only thing I am “shocked” about is your pathetic need for affirmation.


  9. Joe Says:

    I’m with DM. Give me your draft that still needs some help in the Intro and only has half of the paragraphs in the discussion. The figures have to be close to done, and there needs to be a description of them in the Results. I can work with that, fill in some holes, and save days worth of time that the trainee would have spent polishing something that was nowhere near the polishing stage.


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