When will that paper be ready?

No matter how experienced you are as a writer, how many papers you have written, you’ll likely never fully overcome this obstacle: Writing papers takes time. A lot of it. To get a paper submission-ready always takes longer than one would want, and it frequently takes longer than even the worst-case scenario prior projection. As writers, we need to understand what causes these delays, so that we can mitigate them (where possible) and also to simply be prepared for what lies ahead. Here I present three observations I’ve made over the years that explain why most papers take so long until they’re finally completed.

1. Every senior co-author extends the writing process by at least a month, and often by much more

There are multiple factors at work that cause this delay. First, you need to have a decent draft before you can even show it to your senior co-authors, as they will probably not want to fix typos or logical flow, correct grammar, look at shoddy figures, etc. Preparing this draft takes time. Then, once you finally send them the paper draft, they’re too busy to even look at it. Then, when they’ve finally read it, they question some of your most basic assumptions, ask for additional analyses, or argue the story is wrong. Either way, they send you back to the drawing board. And then the cycle repeats, potentially for each senior author on the paper.

Maybe the best strategy here is to limit the number of senior co-authors on your paper [1]. The second-best strategy, and the one you’ll have to pursue in many cases, is to simply accept that each additional co-author needs extra time and to plan accordingly.

2. Everything always takes at least 3 times longer than expected

If you think something can be done in a week it will probably take a month, and if you think it can be done in a month it will probably take three. I have supervised a fair number of students and postdocs, sat on numerous PhD committees, and worked with many colleagues on a wide range on different projects, and I can’t think of many cases where things were completed in the projected time frame. Research is difficult, and there are always unexpected issues that crop up. Things break, the data look different than expected and require a change in approach, you get the flu, something else comes up that needs to get done immediately, etc.

Note that I’m a bit more optimistic here than Hofstadter’s law is, but I’ve definitely seen things take way longer than originally expected, even when the original time estimate seemed already overly generous.

There’s one critical issue here, though, that you need to keep in mind: Don’t let this observation make you complacent and think “whatever, it’s going to take longer anyways, so I can take it easy.” If you plan to get something done in one week, it will likely take three, but if you accept three weeks from the outset it will likely take six. So plan to get things done quickly and at the same time accept that there will be delays, possibly major ones.

3. The real work starts once you have a first draft

Students often think that their main work goal is the first complete draft. Once that goal is achieved, they assume, their work is basically done. In reality, the exact opposite is the case. Only once a first complete draft exists does the real work start. The first draft almost always reveals flaws in the work. Maybe there’s a gap in the logic. Or once everything is written up and put into figures and tables, the results look weak. Or your co-authors finally get to see how everything fits together and don’t like it (see Observation #1). Or maybe different parts of the work were done inconsistently. (I see this often in simulation studies, where the code evolves as the work progresses. These kinds of studies almost always require a complete re-run of everything, from start to finish, once the paper is basically done.)

To give just one anecdote, I once wrote a paper with two co-authors, A and B. Me and A had done most of the writing and fleshing out the details of the paper, while B had provided the initial idea and general conceptual thought. We were all copied on all emails regarding this manuscript, and we went through at least 20 different drafts. At a point when I thought we finally had a draft ready for submission, author B suddenly said that he read the entire paper carefully the previous day and thought there was a major hole in our argument. Author A and I disagreed, but author B insisted and we spent another month fixing this perceived hole.

In my experience, it frequently takes 3-6 months from first complete draft to submission, and I have seen longer delays as well. For this reason, I advocate writing things up as early as possible. The first draft is not the goal, it’s just the beginning!

Notes

[1]The fastest I’ve ever gone from initial idea to paper submission was two weeks. That was a single-author paper.