Many papers, or just one?
July 15, 2009 6:36 PM   Subscribe

[Academic Filter] Should I work on one research paper at once, or several?

I really enjoy the researching / paper writing process.

If I work on many papers at once, I find that I have many papers that are about 80% complete. But if I focus on just one, I get bored, I miss out on co-authorships and feel like I'm missing opportunities.

What methods work for you?
posted by Sutekh to Education (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When I was at Uni I preferred to work on one at a time since it allowed me to focus all my energies into one document, to fine tune it and make it the best it could be. After Uni, I found my creative writing worked better if I had several documents to work on to ensure I didn't get bored.

I think if a co-authorship comes along, and it's worth being a co-author, go for it! But otherwise just focus on one thing at a time.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:50 PM on July 15, 2009

Which field are you in, do you have to do benchwork to generate data for the paper, and how closely related are the various papers?

Also, what is the bottleneck keeping 80% done papers from being submitted papers; waiting on co-authors, waiting on supervisor review and approval, or waiting on data to be generated.

Also, are you undergrad, graduate student, post-doc, or principle investigator?
posted by porpoise at 7:00 PM on July 15, 2009

If you're going to be successful in academics, you work on multiple papers at the "same time". What "same time" means varies depending on personal temperament and academic rank. If you're a graduate student, it might mean working for a (long) while on one paper, then working on another while your adviser reviews the work you've done on the first. If you're a professor, you are/may be overseeing postdocs and graduate students of your own, which means you have to oversee several different projects, each of which might demand your attention on a daily basis.

As a postdoc, I fall somewhere in between. I have several projects that I'm responsible for, but on any one day I tend to focus on just one of those and try to get it to a point where I either know what needs to be done the next day, or I send it along to my boss so I can work on another project. The amount you work on a paper should be weighted by how significant you feel it is - rush to get out a paper that has a chance of getting in Science, ease up on the ones that are only going into conference proceedings.

Basically, if you find you have a bunch of "almost there" papers languishing on your hard drive, at some point you have to commit to one of them and make sure all the scut work of checking references and tweaking figures is done. Then you move on to the next.
posted by logicpunk at 7:04 PM on July 15, 2009

I think it's more of a preference than an absolute good/bad. I like to have 2-3 writing projects going at once, especially if I have collaborations where sometimes I'm waiting on the other person. While the feeling that multitasking is efficient is an illusion, the energy you get from it is not, and you can use it to your advantage. When you say...

If I work on many papers at once, I find that I have many papers that are about 80% complete.

Do you mean that you find you don't ever finish the projects or just that you feel like you're getting a lot accomplished? Clearly there is an optimal number for each person. You need to work on enough to feel energized, but not so many that you don't finish them.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:06 PM on July 15, 2009

Personally, I find staggering my papers works well. When I'm editing/finalizing one, I'm beginning research on the next. Sometimes I will also have a collaboration in the mix. In that case, I stop work on the other papers as soon as something I need to do for the group comes in so I don't hold anyone else up.
posted by dayintoday at 7:19 PM on July 15, 2009

I too am an academic with a history of semi finishing articles, the fact is that I find the finding stuff out amd putting together new stuff to be the exciting stuff, the fannying about and making it all coherent, then doing the refs, etc, not so much. Sadly, the fact is that if you don't get a handsome list of publications at some point no one will be willing to support you to do any of the bits, interesting or dull.

It's also worth remembering the native American aphorism (or at least Civ4 says that's where is comes from) "The Man who chases two rabbits catches neither", you need to be catching rabbits, so as others say, finish what you're doing unless the opportunity costs of not starting another are too large, this should really only be for co-authorships or (maybe) where there are hard deadlines for submission.
posted by biffa at 1:59 AM on July 16, 2009

I tend to work on as many as I need to work on given the circumstances. If I have two weeks to finish three papers, I'm working on all three for those two weeks. In some cases, I'll go through them one at a time. But, if I get bored or stuck on one, I'll do some stuff for another. Like logicpunk suggested, the context is going to vary throughout a career and flexibility is a must.
posted by ndicecco at 6:40 AM on July 16, 2009

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