A few recent things have gotten me thinking about how I (and others) prioritize working on manuscripts. First and foremost, I have a new baby who is not yet in daycare. My husband and I trade off watching him, and I need to be really efficient and make sure that I work smart during the chunks of time that I get to work. (By the way, one thing I’ve discovered is that I should schedule Skype meetings for times when I am watching the baby, as it’s relatively easy to keep him happy by bouncing on a yoga ball while Skyping. Yoga balls and Skype are apparently important components of work-life balance for me.) In short, prioritizing tasks on my to do list is even more important right now than it normally is. Second, there has been renewed chatter on twitter related to whether some data are not worth publishing because they are not of sufficient interest (which, for some people, apparently is if they can’t aim for Nature, Science, or PNAS). DrugMonkey has been heavily involved in these discussions, and wrote this blog post in response to one of those discussions. His first point is “never let data go unpublished for lack of impact.” That seems reasonable. But it made me wonder how much I and others let data go unpublished for lack of time. And, if that is happening, is it a sign that I (or we) should change how we approach things?
To explain a bit more: every PI that I know – and many postdocs and grad students – has generated more data than they have been able to publish. This means that decisions are being made about which projects to write up and which ones not to. As a grad student and postdoc, when deciding which things to write up first, I generally focused on the studies that I thought were the most interesting. I certainly thought it was important to have publications in top journals (and by “top” I mean journals such as Ecology, AmNat, and Evolution), and so whether a manuscript had a shot at one of those journals did influence my thinking on where to place it on my priority list. At the same time, if I manuscript didn’t have a shot at a top journal, I still hoped to get it published at some point (possibly by collecting additional data, or by aiming for a lower impact journal). I just didn’t prioritize it as highly.
Now, as a faculty member, my lab generates even more data, and I have even more responsibilities (especially teaching and service). How do I prioritize manuscripts now? At this point, it is based on who is the lead author. If it is a grad student or a postdoc, that manuscript moves to the top of the priority list. (This recent post by BabyAttachMode suggests not all PIs prioritize this way.) Within that group of high priority manuscripts, it’s more or less first come, first served. In the past year or so, working on those manuscripts has basically taken up all of the time I have available for working on manuscripts. The unintended side effect of this is that manuscripts that do not include students or postdocs as coauthors are currently languishing near the bottom of my manuscript to do list, and it makes me wonder if/when I will get back to them. In this case, results are going unpublished due to lack of time. I really wish this wasn’t the case, but I’m not sure of what to do about it.
This means that some of the data we’ve collected – some of the things we now know based on work done in my lab – are not available generally, which is wasteful. Is this inevitable? Does it mean that everyone who currently has a file drawer of data (or, more likely, folders on their computer containing unpublished data) should take some sort of hiatus from doing science until they’ve cleared the backlog? I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but I don’t know what the right answer is.
So, readers, my questions for you: How do you decide which manuscripts to work on first? Has that changed over time? How much data do you have sitting around waiting to be published? Do you think that amount is likely to decrease at any point? How big a problem do you think the file drawer effect is?