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Publish or Perish – But When is the Right Time?

3rd September 2015
By Peter J Stogios

Peter J Stogios works at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Biochemist.

Anyone who works in academic science knows the foremost importance of publications. They are the be-all and end-all of academia. Publications are your “currency” and ticket to career advancement.

It goes without saying that academic scientists should publish as often as possible in journals of the highest profile possible. “Publish or perish” as they say. However, have you ever considered the timing of publishing? Have you given any thought to when you should publish your work? When is there “enough” data to publish a paper? Should you publish all the data you have?

These aren’t trivial questions; you can’t just answer those questions by saying publish any time you can with any data you have. Sometimes you shouldn’t publish any time, and sometimes you should hold some data back. The timing of publishing in science is important and should be considered.

Timing is Important

To me the main consideration to choosing a right time to publish is to avoid getting scooped by a competing lab. Getting scooped in science happens to the best of us, but one way to reduce the chances of this is to publish as soon as you have enough data to put together a good story. The keys to this are realizing that you don’t have to answer all the research questions in your field, and realizing when you have just enough data to get published. Following this advice, you can publish sooner, the data is out there for the benefit of advancing the research topic, you receive recognition for your work, and decrease your chances of getting scooped. Better to get a paper in a “lesser” journal than no paper at all!

It is also important to look ahead for upcoming events in your career where publications are key. These could include scholarship/fellowship applications, grant deadlines and hiring periods in your department for students, postdocs or technicians. Identify these events many months in advance and plan ahead.

Also, I’ve found that spreading your publications over calendar years can help prove you produce regular research results and have a regular publication record. If it is late in a calendar year and you already have a paper in that year, consider waiting until the new year so you will have at least one paper per year. If you don’t have a paper in the calendar year yet, be sure to submit one in September at the latest. This is because you may not get the paper accepted in your the first journal you apply to, and it will take time to accept, do revisions, and get out in press in your subsequent tries. This process can take at least two months.

It would be nice to publish an article in those two…

Timing and Avoiding Presenting “Too Much” Data in a Paper

I’ve read many papers, posters or talks where it was clear that the authors crammed their work with every last bit of data as they had, because they worked longer than they needed to or they didn’t plan accordingly for timing or frequency of publications. Having too much, or unnecessary data can affect the focus, clarity, brevity and impact of the work. When designing your manuscript, identify the main thrust or main point of the paper, identify what data is necessary to make that point, and include that data and only that data. Fight the urge to throw in extra data because you worked longer than you needed to; the paper can be stronger without extra data.

In academic research science, if you are productive, you may have a steady flow of research data. It is natural to have ideas to continue to work, to perform just one more experiment, so you can answer another research question or your future paper will be able to be published in a little higher profile journal. Progress in science never stops marching.

Therefore, it becomes difficult to come to a decision that you have enough data to publish. Make sure to regularly remind yourself of your original research questions, regularly take stock of all the data you have, and regularly make a decision of whether you have enough data to put together a “nice story” that is publishable. Remember, less is often more, as you may be able to make a stronger case for answering a simpler research question, instead of answering all research questions in your field in one monster paper, all to justify that you didn’t time the publication appropriately.

Always Have Data in Your Back Pocket

Another advantage to not publishing all of your data in the same paper is that you can get a head start on a second, related or follow-up publication to the first. Consider that you could use a portion of your data to answer a specific and concise research question in one paper, and other data to answer another specific and concise research question.

Lab Philosophy

As the march of research is unending, you will be faced with decisions regarding whether or not you have enough data to fit a specific journal, or perhaps the idea of trying a different, complementary experiment that may produce results appropriate to publish in another, or higher profile journal. This is a risk-vs-reward trade-off: do you stop performing experiments and publish what you have in a journal matched to the type of results you currently have, or do you keep working with the hope of obtaining more data that could open the possibility for publishing in a higher profile journal?

These decisions will always be in front of you. I have worked in labs where the philosophy is “we publish only in high impact factor journals”, but the publications are few and far between. Conversely, I have worked in labs where the focus is on publishing concise, short and specific papers, on a regular and often basis. Both strategies can be successful. The key is realizing what works for you, what kind of lab you are working in and what your career goals are. Do you need two papers to graduate? Do you want one Science paper in your postdoc? Take these factors into account when deciding when you should publish.

Closing Thoughts

We can all agree that publishing is a fun and exciting time within our research careers. The culmination of hard work in a finished product is very rewarding. In this blog I hope I was able to illustrate that along with the scientific content of the paper, the timing of the publication is important. We all wish to have so much data that we can choose when to publish, but even if you do not, you can optimize the impact of your papers by identifying the opportune time to get your work out there.

This post can also be found here on Peter’s personal blog. 

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