A mid-timer's thoughts on publishing academic papers

At the time of writing (Jan 2021) I've published around 65 academic papers and been “in this business” for about 15 years. I actually got my first paper acceptance exactly 15 years ago in Jan 2006 during my masters-degree year (I was in a five-year bachelors+masters program). That's why I consider myself a “mid-timer” ... not a newcomer by any means but not an old-timer either. And as a mid-timer, I feel I have a valuable perspective about publishing academic papers that may be helpful for newcomers. In contrast, highly-accomplished old-timers often have too much experience and got into the field too long ago to be able to relate well to newcomers.

I want to share what I would've wanted to know when I was a new student struggling to get my first few papers published.

This article will take on a ruthlessly practical tone ... it's just about what it takes to get papers published. I won't be addressing the substantive content of research itself (since that varies so much by field) or the mechanics of writing papers (since that also varies by field). OK here we go!

1. An academic paper is a conversation with the past in your field

OK this is the most important point, so I'll get right down to it. In order to get papers published, you must first know what an academic paper really is. This sounds so obvious, but I didn't know for many years since nobody ever taught me! Here's my most succinct definition that applies across many fields:

An academic paper is a conversation with the past in your field.

Let's break that down:

  • it's a conversation – your paper is talking to people ...
  • with the past – who have done similar work in the past ...
  • in your field – ... in your precise academic field. Nobody else matters!

In terms of nuts-and-bolts, this means that a good academic paper must:

  1. open by speaking directly to people in your field in a way they care about (starting a conversation)
  2. cite and discuss relevant prior academic papers in the field (with the past)
  3. then show how your work makes progress in your field beyond the starting point of those papers you cited

All of the paper-writing advice in the world is useless if your paper can't accomplish what I just described. (Here's an amazing talk about why all writing advice is useless if you can't give your target audience what they value.)

OK if you're in a STEM field, you're probably rolling your eyes at me right now. But, but, but we're not in the humanities. We run lab experiments! We do empirical studies! We perform data analyses! We write software code! We build complex physical systems! We make freakin' robots! That's our research, not these so-called “conversations with the past.“

This attitude is a surefire way to not get your papers published. Why?

Because if you write up something like “hey we built this thing” or “hey we ran this experiment and here are our results,” that's not an academic paper ... that's a lab report. The way you turn scientific research into an academic paper is to use it to start a conversation with the past in your field. Your paper isn't really about describing your novel piece of software or lab experiment or pathfinding algorithm for your robot ... it should use those technical innovations to show how you've moved your field forward in a way that your colleagues actually care about.

To repeat, an academic paper is not a lab report, it's not a technical blog post, not a popular science article, not a newspaper piece, not an explainer for novices, not a how-to guide to your software, and not a riveting tell-all about the behind-the-scenes of your research process ... it's a very specific kind of written artifact that is meant to hold a conversation with the past in your field.1

2. It takes years to calibrate yourself to the norms of your field ...

OK so how do you start such a conversation? You first need to understand the norms of how people in your field converse.

The best way to learn these norms is by reading the best-regarded recent papers in your field from the past five years or so. Pay careful attention to how people write, what words they use, how they present their own work, and in what ways they address prior work (i.e., how they hold conversations with the past). Norms can change quickly, so papers older than five years aren't that helpful for calibrating.2

Here is an example of me describing some of the norms I've adopted in my own papers: Walkthroughs of my HCI research papers. The details may differ in your field, but this general exercise of studying how papers in your field are written is very worthwhile to do early-on in your career.

Now the bad news here is that it takes many years to calibrate yourself to these norms. But ...

3. ... but you can shortcut this process by leaning on your advisor

It's hard for you to quickly learn the norms of how academic papers in your field are written, but the way to shortcut this process is to have your advisor write more of your papers at first, especially the Introduction and Related Work sections. Those are the critical parts that connect your technical work to the rest of your field.

Don't be ashamed if you don't seem to be writing significant parts of your papers at first. To be blunt, the more of a paper your advisor writes, the higher chance it has of getting published. So if your advisor is willing to help you with paper-writing, then go for it! By observing how your advisor writes, you'll slowly learn the norms of your field from how they frame arguments, handle critiques, and adapt based on reviewer feedback. And eventually you'll be able to do it yourself as well.

4. Generic writing advice is not too helpful

I've found generic writing advice not to be very helpful for getting your academic papers published. That's because the most important thing is connecting to your target audience in your field, not any particular stylistic tricks.

If you watch only one talk about academic writing, watch this one (play at 1.25x speed). Then find the best-written recent papers in your field and study them inside-out. I liked this quote from this article about academic writing:

The first advice you need to give to an academic writer is not to read a book on stylish writing but rather to read how people in their field are writing. Because those are their potential readers. And in their writing, we see what they are expecting. So anything written in the manner they expect will make reading easier for them. Because there is no academic writing as such, there is only writing within disciplines and communities. And barging into a community and trying to change what it’s doing without invitation is not stylish, it is rude.

5. There is NO perfect time to write, and it never gets easier

This is the only cliche writing advice I'll give, but what everyone says is 100% true: There is NO perfect time to write. You can't sit there waiting for inspiration to strike. Because it will never come. And you will find all manner of creative ways to procrastinate from writing. I've been there. We've all been there.

So the only thing you can do is to sit down in front of the computer and write. That's it! Do it regularly, do it often, and do it consistently. There's no magic to it. I've been in this business for over 15 years, and it has never gotten any easier. Even after 15 years, writing academic papers is still the hardest and most painful thing that I do in my job.3

But I know that if I'm not actually typing out real words that go into my paper draft, I'm not making true progress. Thinking about writing, planning out what to write, brainstorming ideas, holding meetings with collaborators, etc. ... that's all fun and games, but it's not going to get your paper finished.

GO FOR VOLUME OF WORDS first and foremost. Papers are surprisingly long and dense in terms of sheer number of words that need to be written. Just getting enough words out on the page is challenging enough, so don't worry about quality when you write. If a given section needs to be around, say, 3 pages of content, then just do whatever you can to get to 3 full pages. Even if it's 3 pages of junk, get to 3 pages! If you're too concerned with how 'good' your writing is at first, you will likely fail because you'll never write enough of the paper to even make a submission.

So stop making excuses and start writing.4

6. Keep re-writing the introduction until you find the soul of your paper

The introduction is by far the most important section of your paper. If you're happy with the first version of your intro, then you've given up too early and your standards aren't high enough. Show your intro drafts to relevant people, get feedback, and keep iterating on it. Try out alternative pitches, see how they fare, then keep re-writing and refining it all the way up until the submission deadline.

You need to keep re-writing until you find the soul of your paper. What the?!? Here's one of my favorite quotes about paper-writing, from a long-time academic journal editor:

Most papers simply lacked a soul – a compelling and well-articulated reason to exist. The world [...] faces an extraordinary number of problems, challenges, dilemmas, and even mysteries. Yet most papers failed to make a good case for why they were necessary. Many analyses were not well motivated or informed by existing theory, evidence, or debates. Many authors took for granted that readers would see the importance of their chosen topic, and failed to connect their work to related issues, ideas, or discussions. Over and over again, I kept asking myself (and reviewers also often asked): So what?

I won't stop refining an introduction section until I feel like I've found the soul of my paper ... and this usually happens right before the submission deadline since I'm fully 'in the zone' and immersed in the paper's details by then! If you haven't found the soul of your paper yet, it's downright rude to submit it ... please don't waste reviewers' time with yet another soulless paper. We've all read and rejected so many.

P.S. If you're wondering why so many papers lack a soul, the quote continues ...

I gradually came to understand that (1) many authors just hadn't yet fully thought through the “so what?” questions and (2) many authors were submitting papers long before they had fully worked through crucial issues related to research design, quality of evidence, and coherence of argument. They didn't do a great job of motivating their questions because they weren't yet fully sure how their work fit in the larger scheme of things. They hadn't thought through the “so what?” of their findings because they hadn't had time to fully make sense of them. They made assumptions or mistakes in their research design and analyses – just like everyone does in the early iterations of a project and paper – but they submitted their papers anyway.

7. Your title, metadata, and abstract are vital for getting your papers to the right reviewers

To maximize the chances of getting your paper published, you need to first get your submission into the hands of the right reviewers. The “right” reviewers are those who are best-positioned to appreciate, evaluate, and (yes!) critique your work.5 Think of this as SEO for academic papers.

The first way to do academic SEO is to be very careful about crafting the title of your paper to target a particular set of reviewers. I spend a lot of time iterating on my paper titles. That's because when people sign up to review papers, they often select based on the titles they see. So if you have a compelling yet honest title (no misleading clickbait!), that will hopefully get your paper into the right hands and start readers off with a positive impression.

Next, you should fill out the metadata on your paper submissions to maximize the chances of it getting routed to the right reviewers. This may include what subcommittee of a journal/conference you choose to submit to, which topic area checkboxes you select, and what keywords you choose for your submission. Conferences and journals get bazillions of submissions, so it's in your best interest to help the editors route yours to the most appropriate reviewers.

Finally, your abstract should be very clear about what type of paper you're writing and signal what kind of reviewers would be best suited to evaluate it.

Your advisor knows how to do this much better than you do, so sit down with them when you're submitting papers to do this together. Have them explain to you their rationale for how they optimize their paper titles, metadata, and abstracts.

8. Quantity leads to quality

I hate the false dichotomy between quantity and quality.

If you look at people who produce the highest-quality work in your field, chances are that they've also produced a massive quantity of work. Most of their catalogue is OK, but a small fraction is outstanding. And that's the work they're best known for.

Yes, some rare unicorns will produce one piece of groundbreaking work and then disappear for years. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

In general, people who consistently produce more output will likely also have higher-quality outputs. This means:

  • Coming up with more ideas, writing them down, showing them to others, prototyping them, and reflecting on them will lead you to better ideas.
  • Writing more will turn you into a better writer. It sounds silly, but if you're writing more words per day on a consistent basis than your peers, then I guarantee you'll become a better writer than them. The best writers consistently put out over a thousand words per day. Seriously, just write more!
  • Submitting more papers (within reason!) will lead to higher-quality research since you'll become more of an expert in your field by completing and shipping actual projects, even if not everything is a breakthrough. Real researchers ship!

I'm not saying you should submit every half-baked idea that has near-zero chance of getting published; that's both silly and inconsiderate of reviewers' time. But assuming you're consistently putting out solid work, the more you submit, the better of a researcher you will become. Not all of your papers will be hits, but some will ...

9. Paper acceptances and awards are pretty random ...

... which brings me to my next point. Even after over 15 years in the business, I still can't predict whether a given paper submission will be accepted, rejected, win an award, go on to become highly-cited, or just plain ignored. Seriously, I still can't tell.

Nowadays I never submit papers unless I think there's a solid chance of acceptance, since I don't want to waste reviewers' time. But despite my best efforts, I still get blindsided whenever I see unexpected negative reviews. And I'm always left in disbelief when my papers that I thought were shoo-ins end up getting rejected.

I've also had papers come into program committee meetings with positive scores but then someone on the committee (who wasn't even one of the original reviewers) shoots it down and rejects it with an additional ad-hoc review comment. If that person had been taking a bathroom break when my paper was being discussed, then maybe it would've gotten in. Luck was just not on my side that day.

I also can't predict when my papers will win awards. This has happened to me three times so far: a submission gets outright rejected with scathing reviews, then I do minor surface edits (without adding any new research results!) and resubmit to another venue, where it gets accepted and then wins a Best Paper Award.

In the end, which papers get accepted (and win awards) is pretty random since reviewers are humans after all, each with their own tastes, biases, and moods. Peer review isn't a perfect system by any means, but it's the best we've got for now. So you'll have to live with the randomness. But just know that even your senior colleagues like myself have to cope with this imperfect process. The only way forward is onward ... keep working, keep writing, and keep submitting.6

10. ... but not completely random, so don't just blame bad luck.

Despite what I just said, paper acceptances aren't totally random; there are clearly some papers that stand a better chance than others. For instance (I'm making up some numbers) a strong submission may have a 50% chance of acceptance, whereas a weak one may have only a 10% chance. My point before is that even the strongest submissions don't have a 100% chance; there's always some randomness. But all else being equal, stronger submissions stand a better chance. So don't just blame luck; also think hard about ways to improve your work!

More generally, as a newcomer you have a very incomplete picture of your academic field, so everything will seem more random to you than it actually is. Things in academia are random, but not that random. So it's dangerous to throw your hands up and blame bad luck for everything, since that's an external locus of control.

Instead, adopt an internal locus of control and find actionable things you can do to improve your odds of future success. For instance, here are some steps you can take whenever you get a paper rejection:

  • Have a candid talk with your advisor to get their honest thoughts about how to improve your work for the next submission attempt.
  • Show that you've taken reviewer comments in good faith when doing your revisions, even if you don't agree with everything they wrote (most relevant for journals where you'll get the same reviewers again).
  • Add more follow-up experiments, data analyses, software components, or other relevant parts to “bulk up” your paper, even if it risks diluting its original focus. Papers that look like they have more work behind them stand a better chance of acceptance (as long as you show how that work is novel and substantive).
  • Resubmit to a equally-prestigious venue in a slightly different field by trying a different introduction pitch geared toward that audience (i.e., pivot).
  • Resubmit to a lower-tier (but still respectable) venue in your own field.

OK that's all I got for now. Cya!

Footnotes

1 This is why even the best-written papers can be hard for non-specialists to understand, since they're not meant for people outside the field. That's like if you're not a programmer and criticize someone's computer source code because it's too hard to understand; it's not meant for you to read!

2 Professors often recommend decades-old “classic” papers for students to study. While their contents may be legit, they are useless for helping students learn how to write modern-day papers since they were written in a completely different style back when the norms of the field were totally different.

3 Writing grants is harder, but I do that less frequently than writing papers, so I don't remember the pain as vividly.

4 It's even hard to write supposely “fun” stuff like this very article. I have to force myself to sit down and make consistent progress to get it done, and I'm doing this for fun too! Writing is never easy.

5 A classic amateur mistake is to want to avoid getting reviewers who are directly in your field because you're afraid they will be the harshest critics. You shouldn't fear this since if your paper does a good job of engaging in a conversation with the past in your field (i.e., addressing those people respectfully!) then you can turn them into your strongest supporters. After all, they want to see their intellectual lineage carry on through the papers of newcomers like yourself and thus expand the influence of their field. In contrast, if you get your submission into the hands of reviewers who don't know your field well, then they have little incentive to publish it because it won't do anything for their own intellectual lineage.

6 This point bears repeating: I'm not saying to submit a bunch of low-quality crap just to flood the system. Keep your standards high, but just don't give up too early.


Created: 2021-01-17
Last modified: 2021-01-23