From the Archives: Abandoned Manuscripts

Originally appeared here.

A few weeks ago, a colleague’s postdoc sent out a draft of a paper for comments. I looked at the paper and thought, “Wait, haven’t we published everything we had on this topic years ago?” To put things in context, I had an undergrad honors student working on the theory part of this project. Since the last publication, the undergrad had graduated, attended graduate school elsewhere, and is about to defend his PhD. So yes, it’s been a while.

Honestly, I almost completely forgot about this project; I certainly don’t recall any of the details. I would first have to go reread what we’d published before I can intelligently comment on this new draft.

Which really brings me to the topic of today’s post: When are you really done with a project? And how do you decide if an abandoned manuscript deserves resuscitation or if it’s best left to die?

I know people who more-or-less work on the same problem, or within the same narrow field, their entire careers. This approach doesn’t generally bode well for funding prospects in many fields in the US, but I admit that some who’ve pursued this strategy have been funded and productive on account of being the highest authority in the niche.

Most people do switch topics, or, more precisely, they slowly drift away from an old focus and toward a new one. As they do so, they might maintain some activity in the original area. I personally like to make more of a clean break after I’ve said what I had to say. At any point in time, I run several fairly disparate research thrusts; each will be active for maybe 2-3 grant cycles, which is usually enough for some nice results and papers and about as long as my interest can hold before I itch to do something else, after which I move on while downsizing and often completely shutting down the work on the old thrust. This does result in always feeling like an outsider in a new field — scary, but also invigorating.

I focus on getting papers out as fast as possible and don’t really have a history of sitting on manuscripts for no reason. However, I admit I currently have two papers that are semi-abandoned.

One I simply can’t bring myself to submit, because my gut tells me there is something wrong with it and I don’t want us to look foolish. The paper disputes the work of another group, which is led by an excellent scientist. Our argument is that the other group missed something fairly basic, and I honestly can’t believe that they did; instead, I fear it’s us who might be in the wrong and that the issue is far more subtle than it seems at first (my former student insists that it is that simple), but I just haven’t been able to devote to this problem the time and attention it deserves in order to convince myself one way or another.

The other paper that I have on the back burner was going to come out of a former student’s Master’s degree work; the student was supported during the study by their employer, a national lab. (The student was completely disinterested in getting a paper out of the work and only wanted a degree; I  generally expect one paper at the level of a Master’s, but it’s not a formal degree requirement.) This paper would be a very small contribution, but would have a head and tail and a clear pitch, and I think it might review well in a suitable minor publication venue. The question is whether writing up this little nugget and the hassle of getting the approval to submit from the national lab are worth my time, when the contribution is incremental and well below the standard of novelty I like to set for my group.

Other than these two, everything else I have in the pipeline is quite fresh.

The colleague whose postdoc sent me that manuscript is not a procrastinator; he’s usually good about submitting papers, but does seem to have a number that are five-to-ten-years old yet haven’t seen the light of day. I was really surprised that we had anything left unpublished on that particular topic, and it’s interesting that this work is being resurrected right now.

Dear readers, do you have any unpublished manuscripts that have been in purgatory for far too long? If yes, why do you think they never got their chance at submission? How long has it been since the first draft? Do you think they will ever be submitted? When do you think a manuscript is officially past its expiration date (assuming no one’s scooped you)?

6 comments

  1. For me, either the manuscript is flawed in some way (sometimes easy to fix) or the writing is bad and requires a lot of editing, i.e., rewrite after the student has graduated. Other stuff comes in the pipeline and these manuscripts get pushed aside, back into the file cabinet. Unless the research is on technology or design standards, there’s no expiration date in my opinion.

  2. I tend to work pretty hard with students to get manuscripts written and reasonable to submit before they graduate…my track record of publishing manuscripts after a student has left is pretty weak, but I’m good at getting them to publish while still in the program. My field doesn’t move nearly as fast as yours though, so something that was interesting five years ago is probably still interesting (‘fresh’) today. Also, there’s a constant influx of new data (we’re an empirical lab). It seems to happen pretty often that I end up going back and finding some new question/angle on a topic that I thought I wasn’t working on any more, and I don’t tend to think of my group as specializing on a subtopic (but then, who does? I’m imagining the person who describes their own research as super specialized and boring!).

  3. I have one paper in bioRxiv that will never be published—reviews of it when we first submitted it pointed out some work we had missed from the 1960s that basically was very close to what we had done.

    I have one proof from my PhD thesis (1983) that has never been published outside the thesis, though I’ve always thought it was a pretty NP-completeness proof. I’ve been thinking of putting it on my blog, now that I’m retired.

  4. Even abandoned projects can turn into new ideas a few years down the pike. See: current grant proposal.

  5. There was one result from my graduate work that I was excited about, but seemed to point out that either there was a simple typo or something subtly inconsistent with a known result. I spent a long time trying to find out if there was a minor error in the original paper, but couldn’t see it. Eventually (seven years post-graduation, as an early faculty!) my grad advisor said, “Eh, maybe let’s just put out a short paper mentioning this problem.” Of course, once I started to pick up the problem again, that turned into a 10 page paper! It was worth writing, but I don’t regret letting that one sit for a while.

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