The Paper-Writing Process

What is the best way to write a research paper? More precisely, how to communicate the research you do or have done in written form? Obviously there will never be a conclusive answer. Styles differ dramatically depending upon the person. And different approaches can be successful. Nevertheless, there are certainly a few different natural alternatives, all with their own traps and pitfalls. Here I shall try to just give a snapshot of various approaches in the hope that it helps others to reflect upon the practical process of paper preparation.

The main decision one has to make is regarding timing. When do I even have to start trying to write results up? Personally, I believe there are two philosophies:

a) Write-once-finished (let’s call it “wronfi”): The paper is started once the research is finished, i.e., you deem the result you have obtained to be useful and relevant enough for a paper. Then you collect everything you need such as notes, data, simulations, etc and try to compile it into a coherent manuscript.

b) Write-as-you-go (let’s call it: “wraygo”): Every part or result is written up as it is discovered. This may sound like a mad idea. Just immediately trying to pin down everything in a paper format once it is discovered.

In fact, I believe that wronfi and wraygo both have merit, both are called for at times. In principle one may always tweak an experiment or a mathematical generality for an arbitrary period of time. There is always something to improve. Hence, following the wronfi philosophy completely, one never even starts to write a research paper. Writing up any little intermediate result daily is also dangerous. It is possible to get lost in little details. Switching between writing and doing an experiment or calculation can be time-consuming as one has to switch gears almost hourly. Therefore, following the wraygo approach blindly is not going to lead to acceptable results.

Personally, I believe that one should find out, which mix of the two approaches suits your personal style and working hours best. This process should not be taken too lightly. Doing it well usually means increased productivity and this implies additional available hours each day, probably the most valuable resource a scientist can have. But this raises the question: how to actually find out the balance between wronfi and wraygo in your daily scientific ‘diet’? In fact, it essentially does work like trying to lose weight to a certain degree. One can try different strategies and methods but how your body responds is actually quite difficult to determine a-priori. You may be more productive for a while writing things immediately but then struggle to find your focus. This is the well-known jo-jo effect, initially you lose weight just to gain it back again after a few weeks or months.

One trick that worked reasonably well for me is to try to check out those diets, which work out over longer periods of time. For example, when I do have an idea that I would like to write down – e.g. like this blog – then I don’t really feel like waiting. It somehow dilutes my thought process. Unfortunately, this wraygo-type approach has the drawback that I need a suitable computing environment to type everything, otherwise one has to type up hand-written notes, convert things between different formats, or – even worse – keep different versions on different computers (laptop, home, work, etc). However, there is a practical solution by just using a folder in a cloud storage data service. In this folder you can save all your scientific wraygo projects and always be able to add or modify them at minimal opportunity cost. For actual mathematical theorem-proving and doing simulations, I prefer a fixed environment in my office with a computing setup and a corner for doing all the pen-and-paper calculations. This naturally adds a wronfi element to my work. Although this is just one possible ‘diet’, I believe that using a certain scheme that works towards your strengths and tendencies can drastically improve productivity. Of course, there are many other scientists, who have thought about this process. For example, I remember that Terence Tao wrote once on his excellent blog, that he likes to ‘batch-job’ low-brain administrative tasks in one period so he has other periods free for demanding calculations and writing papers. I found that suggestion logical and tried it. Somehow it did not work out directly for me. Initially I had no clue why. The main point was that I had put the administrative batch-job parts on an empty afternoon, did them all in a row, it was horribly boring and I was unmotivated afterwards. The solution was to put them onto a day, where there are already a lot of meetings, i.e., schedule them into the gaps of the day. This has worked out a lot better for me. Maybe for someone else it would work better to schedule them for an evening session, or directly before breakfast. The motivating point I am trying to make is that you should go and try to find out for yourself, it really pays off. Once the correct wronfi-wraygo balance has been determined, I would almost guarantee anyone to be more productive and happy in the paper-writing process.

The Commercial Cost of Knowledge

The title of today’s blog is a modification of a quite famous title of a website/blog (“The Cost of Knowledge”) started by Professor Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) in 2012. I would encourage the reader to read the relevant main statement here and the blog before proceeding with this blog. However, a large part of the audience of this blog is probably familiar with the problem of journal pricing anyway.

Simply put: many journals are far too expensive. Publishers have drastically increased profit margins (we are talking actual PROFIT here!) over many years. The problem is known in the academic community, and certainly to librarians at universities, as many years of blogging and discussion show. Just a standard internet search yields opinion pieces with creative titles and content, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. Presumably, there are hundreds of other interesting pieces to be read (please feel free to post links to those in the comments).

So what’s new here? The main new ingredient I am going to try to suggest here are a few, potentially quite novel, alternative solutions. Let’s briefly recap the main issues. Referees and editors work for free for most journals, articles are essentially delivered ‘camera-ready’ and correctly formatted, the logistic and computational infrastructure to run a journal have become substantially cheaper, yet prices of many journals are high and publisher profits are surging. Seems counter-intuitive, if you are new to the topic, doesn’t it? Some suggest that switching the publication model, say to an open-access format, is going to cure the problem. Quite frankly, I don’t agree with this view. If a journal is run by a commercial publisher, the primary commercial goal is profit. Therefore, open-access journals can just become another way to squeeze money out of universities, i.e., out of the taxpayer. Some say, that open-access costs will just be the actual publication cost… but then the commercial publisher may just claim that the cost is higher than the true cost. Nothing can really be done against this tactic. Once a journal has gained a serious international reputation as a high-quality publication forum, it may take decades, if not more, for the academic community to abandon it. In this time, it is easy for the publisher to make money. Some publishers, let’s call one ‘Reivesle’ for concreteness, have spotted this. Suppose a commercial journal has a high reputation, then Reivesle just buys it, then increases the price. Reivesle reaps the rewards of many years of hard scientists’ work in running and promoting the journal. Even if Reivesle has to drop the journal eventually, no problem, just buy the next one.

So what are the possible solutions? One solution is already in place: Let professional non-profit academic societies run a whole range of journals. At least, this way, there is better direct control regarding the way journals are run, priced and developed. The disadvantage of this system is that it may not guarantee sufficient diversity. What if certain influential society members and long-term editors gain too much influence on the journal content and the selection of the editorial board? Since there are just a few professional societies (maybe only one) in many research areas, just opening another journal would be quite difficult.

Therefore, we need to develop a way to achieve a non-commercial diversification of journal portfolios. This requires to identify key institutions, which may be able to efficiently run journals. One possibility is already in place and consists of university presses (but even these often act like commercial publishers by now). One option that is seemingly available and not utilized to the fullest are the libraries themselves. Electronic publishing means that we are moving towards a world where actually less ‘book-keeping’ in libraries is needed. However, we do have a very high-level education system for librarians in place in many countries. It seems plausible that librarians could act as journal publishers. The money to employ them could simply come from cancelling many commercial journals. At least, in this way, the control over journals is within a university. Since the university landscape is extremely diverse, it seems highly unlikely that even leading educational centers can gain a suitable monopoly position in the market.

The third option that I believe could be considered are government organizations that could set up publishing houses: in fact, this is not as absurd as it may sound. What is the point of using taxpayers money to give it to scientists, then they give it to libraries, the library pays the journal publishers, and the publishers end up with the pure profit? The only danger with relying on professional societies, university publishers and libraries and government organizations would be that the last two options are government run and political decisions might not always be the best ones for fundamental long-term research.

Hence, as a fourth pillar, one might think about setting up non-profit NGOs that run journals. These NGOs should be allowed to use their journals to raise money for a clearly identifiable good cause. For example, there are many causes, one could agree upon using such a profit for: helping people in regions affected by natural disasters, providing clean drinking water and hospitals, improving educational opportunities for children in the developing world, fighting global deadly diseases, and so on.

These four pillars of journal publishing would then have a healthy competition with each other. The money for publication costs would then be distributed quite nicely to the scientific advance (‘professional societies’), to universities (‘libraries’), to the reduction of administrative tax overhead (‘governments’) and to general good causes (‘NGOs’). Obviously, even in this system abuse is possible. The main argument for it would be that there quite easy legal ways to prevent exploitation of the system. Currently this is impossible as commercial publishers are covered by law in most countries, i.e., they can just make an extremely large profit out of free labor without any legal consequences (of course, from the viewpoint of the CEO of a publication house, actually making this available profit does make sense!).

Furthermore, if a new non-commercial system does turn out not to work optimally, one certainly can give commercial publishers an opportunity to enrich the four pillar system sketched above. As long as the four main pillars do not sell their journals to commercial publishers, I would expect that prices simply cannot sky-rocket but remain at more moderate levels.