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How to convince your PI to publish


samman1994
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Hello everyone,

So I've come across a problem that I don't quite know how to handle. 

Backstory:

I joined a lab 3 years ago, within 2 years I finished the project I was assigned (I had one small part of a much bigger project), then decided to expand into the bigger project. All in all, I have largely finished the "bigger project" within the year, and have actually combined data from all the "smaller projects" and even written a potential conclusion about them (basically, I wrote a paper about the project already). 

Current Situation:

Most people in our department are aware of this, since I have done mini collaborations throughout the 3 years with other faculty members (very small stuff, not enough to actually put their name on the paper). And they have all uniformly told me I should attempt to convince my PI to publish a paper. Considering how much work I have put in on this project, I would definitely be first author, and if I do say so myself, I think the paper will actually be a very significant paper. 

Dilemma:

I have discussed this with my other lab members as well who are involved on the project, and they all agree it's time to publish. The problem is, my PI is very stringent on the quality of papers she will publish. She will not publish unless the paper is top notch and fully complete. There are of course some tiny details missing within our project, but again, definitely enough data to publish a considerably good paper. Bigger problem is, project has run out of money, so we can't even run the other experiments or obtain more data and fill in those tiny details. I have attempted to bring up the idea of publishing before, and all i have gotten back is "Yeah, that would be a good idea", but she's never actually gotten behind it. Furthermore, she actually has very little information about the progress of the project as of the past 2 years. I update her frequently on its progress, but in regards to priority, she has dropped my project and focused on something else (so she constantly forgets what we've discovered). It seems she has lost interest in our project for quite some time now, and now that its funding is done and I'm leaving (I was really the only person aside from one other lab member working on it), I'm worried this project will die with me, with no publication. She is the PI of course, and she has every right to decide whether or not she wants to publish her data or not, but again, I think we have enough data to publish, and well it'd be great for my name if we did. All that being said, I don't want to come across as pushy, again it is her decision. I have never had a sit down discussion with her regarding this, just stating it on the side every once in a while like "Yeah the data from these experiments are really cool, it'd definitely be a good paper to publish" to again her response usually be something along the lines of "Yeah that sounds like a good idea". 

I don't really know how to go about this. Again everyone tells me to convince my PI, but how would go about even doing that? I've already suggested we should publish before, and her response has been positive, but nothing has been done about it. Again I suspect this is because 1) Her interest in the project as a whole has basically died or 2) The project isn't 100% completed, and she won't publish a paper until we have answered every possible question (which we can't cause no funding). I don't want to come across as demanding, or selfish (i.e. publish this paper so I look good!), but it is something I put considerable effort into, that I really wouldn't want to go to waste. Any advice would be appreciated!

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I think you answered the question in your post. You said that you haven't really had a sit-down discussion with your PI (i.e. a serious discussion beyond saying it's a "good idea"). You need to do this. I think the fact that you are leaving soon is a good "excuse" or "reason" to have this discussion. Could you schedule a meeting with your PI in whatever your usual meeting-scheduling method (email or whatever) and say that you would like to have a serious discussion with her about the future of this project given that you will be leaving soon (how soon is this again?). You can mention that you are excited by the results and that you would like to see what your PI thinks about your work's potential as a publication.

One thing to note. In your post here, you say that you "don't want to come across as pushy" and that you think, "she has every right to decide whether or not she wants to publish her data". However, despite saying these words, the tone of the rest of your post reads, to me, very much that you have already decided that this should be a published paper and that it sounds like you feel you need to fight your PI for this publication. If this is subconscious and not intentional, I would caution you to try to come at this from a more objective point of view and not present this tone in your discussion. If this is actually intentional, then I would advise you to reconsider your position and perhaps wait until you are actually ready to accept whatever decisions your PI provides before you enter the discussion.

I think it's good that you've reached out to others and got their opinion on the quality of your work. But ultimately, since their names are not on the paper, they are not accountable for it, so as you know, it is up to the PI to determine whether or not they feel this work should be published. Personally, I am against the idea that only ground breaking ideas should be published and the mindset in academia that only work publishable in the most prestigious journals are worth publishing. However, I don't think students (undergrad or graduate) are really in a good position to argue otherwise if the PI disagrees. It's their data and their decision and I think they have the right to choose against publishing perfectly good work. I think you have more to lose (in a LOR, in a relationship) from fighting this than to maybe get a paper (realistically, if you try to fight it, you'll probably not get a paper nor maintain a good relationship).

One thing you could do to show that you are serious about this is to write up a draft outline of the paper. What this means might vary from field to field. In my field, this draft outline would involve a literature review for the intro to show how your work fits in with your field. It would include notes in all of the sections showing which sections you will have and what you will be saying in each section (i.e. perhaps a sentence or two for every paragraph). It would have draft figures/plots/tables that you will include. You said you already have all the analysis complete, so you could just copy and paste in your figures (don't have to be publication quality, just working quality is okay). For Figures that you don't have made fully yet, in my field, people often include a sketch showing the axes plotted and the general relationship. In your draft outline, you'll also be sure to clearly show what experiment(s) and which data set(s) you are including. You would have looked up similar studies and show your results compared to their results.

You say that you have basically wrote a paper about the project already, but since that's a vague term, I spelled it out here to ensure we're talking about the same thing. To me, doing the experiment and analysis is only the first of many steps towards actually completing a paper. The next big step is to be able to communicate the results and show how it fits into the literature, which requires just as much time and effort as doing the lab/experimental work in the first place. When I wrote my first paper, I grossly underestimated how long the process would take and I also thought that finishing the analysis meant I was done. It was another year before we even sent the first draft to coauthors. 

So, depending on what you have already done and how you feel about this upcoming discussion, you might want to have the draft outline above ready to go for the discussion with your PI. Or, you might choose to keep the discussion only about the viability of your project turning into a paper. In this case, if the PI is interested in moving forward then I would suggest that in this meeting, you and your PI set some goals/deadlines for you to finish, one of which could be a draft outline. You should also have a timeline on your work expectations in order to finish the paper. I don't know when you are leaving the lab, so you'll have to be realistic about what can actually be completed in time and how much time you will actually have to devote to working on this paper after you have left. 

Finally, you would know your field better than me, but I wouldn't count on this being a first author paper until you hear it from the PI. One option you might want to consider is to have someone else take over writing up the paper and dropping down to second author if you don't think you'll be able to work on this project very much after you left. For a couple of my undergrad projects, doing this was absolutely the right thing for me, since those papers would have either gone nowhere or be severely delayed. First author papers as an undergrad is great but it's not like you have to have them in order to be competitive. It's far better to have a co-authored paper out on your work than nothing at all, in my opinion.

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34 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

I think you answered the question in your post. You said that you haven't really had a sit-down discussion with your PI (i.e. a serious discussion beyond saying it's a "good idea"). You need to do this. I think the fact that you are leaving soon is a good "excuse" or "reason" to have this discussion. Could you schedule a meeting with your PI in whatever your usual meeting-scheduling method (email or whatever) and say that you would like to have a serious discussion with her about the future of this project given that you will be leaving soon (how soon is this again?). You can mention that you are excited by the results and that you would like to see what your PI thinks about your work's potential as a publication.

One thing to note. In your post here, you say that you "don't want to come across as pushy" and that you think, "she has every right to decide whether or not she wants to publish her data". However, despite saying these words, the tone of the rest of your post reads, to me, very much that you have already decided that this should be a published paper and that it sounds like you feel you need to fight your PI for this publication. If this is subconscious and not intentional, I would caution you to try to come at this from a more objective point of view and not present this tone in your discussion. If this is actually intentional, then I would advise you to reconsider your position and perhaps wait until you are actually ready to accept whatever decisions your PI provides before you enter the discussion.

I think it's good that you've reached out to others and got their opinion on the quality of your work. But ultimately, since their names are not on the paper, they are not accountable for it, so as you know, it is up to the PI to determine whether or not they feel this work should be published. Personally, I am against the idea that only ground breaking ideas should be published and the mindset in academia that only work publishable in the most prestigious journals are worth publishing. However, I don't think students (undergrad or graduate) are really in a good position to argue otherwise if the PI disagrees. It's their data and their decision and I think they have the right to choose against publishing perfectly good work. I think you have more to lose (in a LOR, in a relationship) from fighting this than to maybe get a paper (realistically, if you try to fight it, you'll probably not get a paper nor maintain a good relationship).

One thing you could do to show that you are serious about this is to write up a draft outline of the paper. What this means might vary from field to field. In my field, this draft outline would involve a literature review for the intro to show how your work fits in with your field. It would include notes in all of the sections showing which sections you will have and what you will be saying in each section (i.e. perhaps a sentence or two for every paragraph). It would have draft figures/plots/tables that you will include. You said you already have all the analysis complete, so you could just copy and paste in your figures (don't have to be publication quality, just working quality is okay). For Figures that you don't have made fully yet, in my field, people often include a sketch showing the axes plotted and the general relationship. In your draft outline, you'll also be sure to clearly show what experiment(s) and which data set(s) you are including. You would have looked up similar studies and show your results compared to their results.

You say that you have basically wrote a paper about the project already, but since that's a vague term, I spelled it out here to ensure we're talking about the same thing. To me, doing the experiment and analysis is only the first of many steps towards actually completing a paper. The next big step is to be able to communicate the results and show how it fits into the literature, which requires just as much time and effort as doing the lab/experimental work in the first place. When I wrote my first paper, I grossly underestimated how long the process would take and I also thought that finishing the analysis meant I was done. It was another year before we even sent the first draft to coauthors. 

So, depending on what you have already done and how you feel about this upcoming discussion, you might want to have the draft outline above ready to go for the discussion with your PI. Or, you might choose to keep the discussion only about the viability of your project turning into a paper. In this case, if the PI is interested in moving forward then I would suggest that in this meeting, you and your PI set some goals/deadlines for you to finish, one of which could be a draft outline. You should also have a timeline on your work expectations in order to finish the paper. I don't know when you are leaving the lab, so you'll have to be realistic about what can actually be completed in time and how much time you will actually have to devote to working on this paper after you have left. 

Finally, you would know your field better than me, but I wouldn't count on this being a first author paper until you hear it from the PI. One option you might want to consider is to have someone else take over writing up the paper and dropping down to second author if you don't think you'll be able to work on this project very much after you left. For a couple of my undergrad projects, doing this was absolutely the right thing for me, since those papers would have either gone nowhere or be severely delayed. First author papers as an undergrad is great but it's not like you have to have them in order to be competitive. It's far better to have a co-authored paper out on your work than nothing at all, in my opinion.

Thank you for your response! 

So I theoretically have already left. I am currently looking for a job and looking for PhD schools. I didn't want to focus on the lab anymore so I'm on "unofficial" leave. I told my PI that I would still come to the lab to do some computational work until I find a job, but didn't want to start anything big. So I have shown up throughout the summer here and there to clean up, tie up loose ends, etc. However, I have not done anything big (experimentally speaking), since June. I have the key, but I think both I and my PI see my appearance in the lab only an indication I haven't found a job yet and want something to do, not that I'm exactly a part of the lab. 

My stance on the whole situation is: I do think we have enough material to publish, but it is ultimately up to my PI. The reason I haven't set up a meeting and had a serious sit down discussion is because I didn't want to come across as pushy. I think she knows (or at least by now I hope she does), that I think we have enough material to publish, and I imagine it would be obvious that I would support a publication with my name on it (be it any author). I didn't want to sit down with her and tell her what to do, but rather just get the message across that I think we have enough data to publish a paper; moreso than that however, is something you also touched upon. I also want to get that idea over to her that it doesn't need to be the top notch best paper in existence to get published, that I think what we have is good enough. Again, I do not want to come across as telling her what to do or how to think (or at least, I don't want her to feel that way). This is again why I have avoided a sit down conversation. I've chosen instead, to try and say it conversationally, and hope she gets the message. 

I personally feel at the end of the day, she knows whats best. It is her money, her publication, her name, her research. Honestly, I had no intention of even really talking to her about the publication, it was the amount of people (and my lab members), that told me I should that got me started on trying to send that message across. Again, I feel like my PI really doesn't have any interest or desire in this project anymore, and now that its funding has died out, I feel as if in her mind, the project has died. Since she doesn't care that much, and the paper won't fit her standards (which I think may be unfair for the situation), I'm afraid she may not publish the data, and it'll basically die. However, this is my effort and my time that I put in, and I don't want to see it go to waste, so I feel like I should fight for it. Also, in regards to 1st author or not, I did the data analysis for almost all the data that will go on the paper, and ran over 75% of the experiments that would go on it (so I do feel at least in regards to the work done, I would be 1st). For my undergrad, I had to write a small research paper discussing what I had done during the time in the research lab. I instead chose to basically write a paper on the entire project as a whole (again since I did most of the data analysis, I felt it was fair to throw that under my name as well, and my PI didn't object). I mean, I could be wrong with all of this, and maybe she does plan to publish it, it's just not anything she has demonstrated to me, or told me about. 

Anyways, I definitely feel like this is something that I want to fight for, but I don't exactly know the proper way of fighting for it. On one hand, you are correct, it is up to her and I have no right telling her what to do and how to do it. I look at it more, she gave me the privilege to work in her lab, and she owes me nothing for it (i.e. a publication). On the other hand, I also feel like it would be wrong for me to sit back and let the research and everything I've done the past couple of years basically die. Again, I have brought this up to her before, just never as a sit down conversation. I'm afraid if it comes down to that, at best she'll just say "yeah that sounds like a good idea" again, and at worst she'll get annoyed and pissed. Again, this is why I didn't know how to go about handling this situation. Everyone keeps telling me, "you should definitely try and convince her to publish, you've done a lot of good work", but none of them really say how. Anyways, I apologize if I sound a bit repetitive throughout this entire post. I just really want to show where I stand very clearly, and what I desire to achieve from this. Also I think it's important to note, if she does decide to publish, at this point in time, I would not be able to get involved that much in the writing  (i.e. if she wants me to write some of it, or edit it, or analyze some data over again, etc.). 

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Oh okay, thanks for clarifying. I think you might be prematurely gearing up for a "fight" to use your words since until you have an actual serious discussion with your PI about this paper, you don't know if you need to "convince" her to proceed with publication or not. 

1 hour ago, samman1994 said:

This is again why I have avoided a sit down conversation. I've chosen instead, to try and say it conversationally, and hope she gets the message. 

Don't do this! This is how misunderstandings and miscommunications happen and this disconnect between advisor and student ends up being the majority of problems I've seen in student-advisor relationships. If you are really serious about your desire to publish, you need to have an actual conversation/discussion about the next steps, like I outlined in the last post. You can't just hope the other person "gets the hint". Remember that your PI is in charge of a ton of other things (see also note below). It's your responsibility to take the initiative and start a discussion on a paper if that is what you want to do with your work.

In addition, it's common, at least in my experience, to have light discussions where you say something like "Oh let's write this up". This usually means intent to write it up but the lack of a definite timeline or plans means that both parties are not yet ready to get serious on finishing this paper. 

1 hour ago, samman1994 said:

Also I think it's important to note, if she does decide to publish, at this point in time, I would not be able to get involved that much in the writing  (i.e. if she wants me to write some of it, or edit it, or analyze some data over again, etc.). 

Again, this could depend on field, but in my field, since you are taking a backseat now and no longer taking charge of the project, I would not expect you to be first author if you do not continue to lead this project. Writing a paper for publication is not simply summarizing and communicating the results of your lab work, it's also critically evaluating your work, bringing up new ideas and all of the other analysis I mentioned in the above post. So, if you step out of the project now, I am not sure you can expect to maintain first authorship. But maybe this is different in your field. 

1 hour ago, samman1994 said:

So I theoretically have already left. I am currently looking for a job and looking for PhD schools. I didn't want to focus on the lab anymore so I'm on "unofficial" leave. I told my PI that I would still come to the lab to do some computational work until I find a job, but didn't want to start anything big. So I have shown up throughout the summer here and there to clean up, tie up loose ends, etc. However, I have not done anything big (experimentally speaking), since June. I have the key, but I think both I and my PI see my appearance in the lab only an indication I haven't found a job yet and want something to do, not that I'm exactly a part of the lab. 

This also plays a role. Remember that your PI is a busy person with responsibilities to other people too. Most undergrad and graduate students are not yet experts in writing scientific publication and are still learning and developing more experience. So, the PI has to invest a bunch of time and effort to supervise/mentor a student-led paper. It is possible that your PI will decide to not spend time working with you on the paper since you are no longer part of the lab since she needs to focus on time on her current students and other projects instead. So, even if it's good science and good results, there may be other projects that need her time more. 

---

Overall, it sounds like you still aren't 100% sure you want to pursue a publication but you are leaning this way after discussion with your colleagues. You should first decide firmly with yourself whether or not you want to pursue a publication. Then, you should decide how much more time you want to put into writing up the paper. Be realistic as you are also looking for other jobs and when you get one, that will take up a ton of your time. Only after you've decided that you want to put in the effort to do the paper and how much time you are able to spare, then you should seek a serious conversation about the paper with your PI. 

When you come into this discussion, I would encourage you again to put aside any assumption on authorship and/or how much work is left to do. Instead of phrasing it as "when can I publish this paper?", I think it would be more fruitful to come into the discussion with the topic, "Where do we (you and the PI) want this project to go?". You should express your opinion that the result is noteworthy (best if you can demonstrate this in an academic way) and that you would benefit from taking this project to publication and you are therefore motivated to work on it further. Let your PI know how much time you plan on / are able to devote to this work. Then, hopefully your PI will have a discussion with you on what they think needs to be done to finish the paper. If the workload seems like something you can manage, then figure out a work schedule with your PI with some milestones/deadlines to aim for. Be realistic. If you haven't written a paper for publication before, it's okay to say what you don't know and seek your PI's advice on these timelines. You should also ask about authorship at this point, i.e. the ordering and who else might be on this paper besides you and your PI?

If, on the other hand, the workload to finish the paper is too high, then you would have to have discussions on whether the project would move on without you. Maybe there are other students who can take over. Again, discussing authorship is important. 

It might also turn out that the PI agrees with you that the results are good but doesn't have time to work on this paper at this time. And you may not have time either. It might be worthwhile discussing writing this up later on. Although it's generally true that the longer a project sits unwritten, the more likely it will just "die", there is benefits for both you and the PI to eventually write it up if nothing else more exciting comes up. Maybe the discussion will be to shelve it for a year and come back to it.

Finally, you've said things to the effect of not wanting your work to go to waste. Remember that outcomes of scientific work is not just papers. I think in some parts of academia, it can certainly feel that way, the whole "publish or perish" thing. But for one's own mental health, it's important to measure success as a result of skills learned, experience gained, knowledge earned etc. And more and more academics are pushing back against the "publish or perish" mentality. When you talk to your PI about this paper, if they decide to not pursue it further because it's not as exciting as other things they need to do, you shouldn't take it personally. I said before that it's a bad trend to only seek to publish the most exciting results, however, I also think time/effort is a finite resource, so people will have to prioritize. And don't forget that you should also apply the same calculus when deciding whether or not to pursue this paper. If you are starting a full time job soon, will you really want to spend tens of hours per week on this paper on top of your job? Don't forget to take time for yourself and to apply to grad schools etc. While it might be true that the other profs/students think this is material worth publishing, you also have to decide what is the best use of your time. Don't feel like you need to pursue this paper if there are other things you need / should be doing.

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Well just to clarify, the main thing I want to come across is, if she does decide to publish, it would be on her. As in, she would look at the data, the paper I've written, connect the dots, and publish it. There is not much data left to obtain (due to funding), so at most all she would do is assign a student to do all this for her. My only purpose would be to inform her 1) I think we have good enough data to publish and 2) the paper I wrote is already a good starting point, so there wouldn't be too much work left to put (although as you said yourself, it is still a large amount of effort and time). Really, I'd have no involvement in any of this. As I stated, as far as I am concerned, I have already left the lab. My only thing would be to come back and say, hey I think we have good enough data to publish. Not something we would do together, but something I would tell her to pursue herself (or assign another student too). I probably should have done this much eariler, but unfortunately I started talking to people as I was leaving, too little too late. Again, I still am in contact with her and the lab, so I feel like it isn't too late yet to have that discussion with her. 

What I'm thinking is, I do want to have sit down talk with her in general. She is involved with my job hunt and school searching, and now that I basically have my schools/professors that I'd go to down, and I think I'm close to securing a job, I want to meet up and just catch her up with everything before I permanently leave the lab. I think during that same talk, I'll just bring up what she thinks our chances are of publishing a paper on the project I worked on. Then tell her that I think we have enough data to do so, tell her specifically based off the paper I wrote, what could be published, and see what she says. I really don't want to bring up my authorship, I find it unnessicary. I feel like, she's seen my hard work and effort, and personally said the paper I wrote her is the best and most comprehensive/detailed she's ever received (and it was mostly my data in it), so I want to leave that judgement up to her. I trust that if she thinks I'm 2nd author, then I deserve and have put in the amount of effort for a 2nd author. 

So what do you think? A good plan?

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9 hours ago, samman1994 said:

So what do you think? A good plan?

No, I do not think this is a good plan. Sorry if that is harsh, but I think being honest is more helpful to you than sugar-coating it.

It sounds like you want the data published but you also don't want to do any work towards getting it published. Like I said above, it's 100% okay for you to not want to work on this project any more, since you likely have other things to worry about and as you said, you have already left the lab. But also, unless your field is very very different, I can't imagine anyone publishing as first author that has stopped where it sounds like you are stopping.

So, if you want to leave the project, then that's probably a good decision, but the plan you wrote here sounds like a bad idea. You shouldn't be telling your PI to write a paper for you based on a report you wrote. If you really want to stay off the project, then I think you should not directly pursue this paper with your PI any more and like you said, let them decide. They obviously know what you worked on and the results since they read your paper/report.

Having a sit-down talk with her to catch up and "debrief" is a great idea though, so you should certainly do that part of your plan. Just not the part where you basically ask her to write the paper for you. In this talk, you could ask her what the lab's plan for the project will be if you are curious. Since you are really washing your hands of this project and leaving it behind, be prepared to hear that your project will either just end, or maybe the analysis and work you did will end up being one section of a much bigger paper lead by someone else. In my field, when this happens, the student that did that analysis would be invited to be.a coauthor on that paper though, so that would be nice for you, but it might not happen for awhile.

 

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Ok I understand. Thank you for helping to clear this up. Again, I don't want to tell her to write it, just present the idea like nudge nudge I think it'd be cool to publish. But a better method might just be to ask her what's going to happen to the project, and where she thinks its going.  Anyways, thanks again! 

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