(Business) Papers

I often talk about “business papers”, which is a reference to the following exchange from the Big Lebowski:

Younger Cop: And was there anything of value in the car?
The Dude: Oh, uh, yeah, uh… a tape deck, some Creedence tapes, and there was a, uh… uh, my briefcase.
Younger Cop: [expectant pause] In the briefcase?
The Dude: Uh, uh, papers, um, just papers, uh, you know, uh, my papers, business papers.
Younger Cop: And what do you do, sir?
The Dude: I’m unemployed.

While the image of a researcher does not typically involve briefcases full of business papers, a scientist’s business is actually largely about papers. Our business papers are peer reviewed research articles. Papers are the primary means through which a scientist’s work and their impact on the field is assessed. While there have been many changes in the nature of publishing in recent years (e.g., digital publishing, open access), it is highly likely that peer reviewed articles, in some format or another, are going to remain the gold standard in evaluating research and researchers.


Introduction to Publishing

It often comes as a surprise to aspiring young scientists that intelligence and hard work are not sufficient for success in research. Research requires additional skills to those that led to success in other academic settings. Publishing your research involves a lot of writing and editing, usually done in collaboration with other people. It is very important for trainees to develop scientific communication and writing skills. Opinions vary on whether formal training can help people develop writing skills. In my opinion, in order to learn how to write academic articles, you should read a lot of academic articles. In addition, you should get involved in scientific writing as much as possible, as soon as possible. (See also, Writing).

Who becomes an author on a paper? And how do you order multiple authors? There is no easy, foolproof answer… Different disciplines, journals and even countries can have different criteria for who is an author on a paper and what responsibilities come along with it. In many cases projects change, people leave or graduate, the planned experiments don’t work out but something different comes up… Authorship, like research is always an ongoing, evolving process, so it is very important to talk about it with your PI as you go along.

Generally, the first author position is the most important and prestigious, and signifies the person who has contributed the most to the study. In the biomedical sciences (and some social sciences) the last author position is also prestigious and signifies the person whose lab in which the research was conducted and is sometimes called the “senior author” position. I included some useful links below that discuss criteria for authorship and their ordering but it is important to talk to the PI of the lab you’re working in (See also, Lab Policies, Research Integrity and Ethics).

Academic writing has its own styles and conventions that may be new to you. The first few papers you write, you will probably work very closely with your advisor. It can be difficult to receive feedback on a draft, only to see your advisor made comments or changes on almost every sentence! This does not mean you didn’t do a good job. Do not take this personally. Research articles are different from the kind of writing you may be used to (e.g., from courses, schoolwork, even thesis chapters). It is not extraordinary for a paper to go through several revisions before it is ready to be submitted for peer review. Remember, your advisor has been writing articles in this field for years. Try to view the feedback you receive on your drafts as learning opportunities. (Of course, this does not mean you cannot disagree with your co-authors).

At the same time, you can try and improve a paper endlessly. At some point, you must stop and send it out for peer review. Don’t worry, you will have a chance to improve it further; the reviewers will almost certainly ask for revisions. Your advisor and co-authors should help you find the balance between perfectionism and getting things done.

When you write a paper, it is reviewed by your peers, who are other researchers in the field. The peer review process can often involve (multiple rounds of) significant revisions or rejection. It can be difficult to stay positive and motivated. The best way of dealing with rejection is to revise the paper based on the reviewer comments as quickly as possible and submit somewhere else. Again, try not to take it personally, even if the reviews are harshly worded. Don’t forget that even the very best scientists get rejections, and often…

While it is unhealthy and possibly detrimental to the quality of your work to be intensely focused on the publishing game, it is important to be aware that this will be the main criteria that will be used to evaluate your career as a scientist. There are of course other factors, but peer reviewed articles are always important, and in most cases correlated with the other important things (e.g., your reputation in the field). Even if your goal is not to become an academic scientist, a good publication record can help. In fact, it will make a huge difference if you want to be competitive for teaching and industry positions, which comes as a surprise to many a new PhD. So regardless of your eventual career goals, if you are a student or working in research, publishing is relevant to you.

Publishing is not just a numbers game, the quality of the publications are very important. Generally, more papers is better, but with two caveats: People will notice CVs full of least publishable units (LPUs) so you do want to publish some significant work, even if it means these papers will take a long time. You want your CV to have a balance of quality and quantity. Again, there is no simple formula for how many papers you should publish and in which journals, as it’s very discipline specific (although see some of the links below). Your CV, like a portfolio, develops over time. Second, if you have lots of papers on which you are an author, but none on which you are first author, this will not look very good. Focus your energy on getting out your primary work. Co-authored papers on your CV are great, as long as you have first-author papers also.

The publication process is often very competitive, at times frustrating, sometimes unfair, and almost always takes longer than you initially planned. A key aspect of success in research is thus resilience. A project is not done until it’s published. The finish line is not when you complete the experiments, nor when you run all the analyses, not even when you write the results up. You should celebrate these important milestones, but you are not done until you receive that e-mail telling you your paper is accepted.

See also: Lab PoliciesResearch Integrity and Ethics, Public Engagement and Media, Writing.

ISI Knowledge
Web of Science
Google Scholar
Science Gateway
Impact Factors of Journals
Journals by Impact Factor
H index
Biological Sciences Journal Abbreviations
APA Style
APA Style Essentials

How to Determine Authorship (from Science)
International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ Guidelines
Authorship in Biomedical Research
Kosslyn Lab Authorship Plan
Thesis Chapters vs. Papers
Advice on Writing Papers
How to Write a Paper (Goldreich)
Timely Feedback from Collaborators
Mean Reviews
Rose-Colored Review Glasses
On Resubmision
The Title
What Makes a Co-Author
Choosing a Journal (FSP)
Choosing a Journal 2 (FSP)
Choosing a Journal 3 (FSP)
Choosing a Journal (DrugMonkey)
Everybody Knows
Don’t Need Glamour Magz?
No Way Am I Doing That Experiment
Peer Review: Friends and Enemies
On the Least Publishable Unit (LPU)