Turning Your Class Project Into a Published Academic Paper

Thu, 18 Feb 2016 08:09:39 -0500

Tags: academic, research


In recent years, teaching has been to me a great source of satisfaction. A common situation when teaching is for a student to want to turn a class project into a full-fledged research publication. I have decided to put my ideas on the topic in this blog posting for helping students in such situation. This is also relevant to me as this year marks the 20th anniversary of my first international publication, which started as a class project.

First and foremost, for the students reading this, congratulations on successfully completing an outstanding class project! Even if the path to publication is arduous and can be discouraging, the fact you are entertaining the idea of publishing your work to a larger audience is a success on itself. Now, there are as many reasons to publish as there are class projects. Some are better than others, let's look at them in turn.

Reasons to publish your class project as a research paper

Good reasons to publish:

  • You care about the long term question of a research field and you want to help humans to answer it.

    Tired of waiting for a jetpack? Maybe helping discover alternative energy sources will speed things up.

  • You believe your work will save others from doing it again when seeking answers you have already found (or even to repeat mistakes you made).

    If everybody has to invent calculus by themselves, we wouldn't have made it this long as a species.

Bad reasons to publish:

  • It will look good in your resume.

    So it is community service and that will clearly help people.

  • You want to become a scientist.

    Nothing wrong with wanting to become a scientist but this is a very poor reason to publish, compare "I want to make a lot of money" vs " I want to be really good at basketball".

If your interest in furthering your career is above your interest in a particular discipline, please refrain from publishing. There are plenty of ways you can further your career without muddling the already extensive body of published work. In a sense, if you successfully publish a manuscript with no real contribution, in the best case it will be ignored but in the worse case you will be taking away from other scientists to do their thing. You are performing a denial-of-service attack on the scientific community. If that worries you, good, that is a great attitude to shape your project into a meaningful research contribution.

Focus on the community

You are putting together a communication to a group of people. To make it meaningful, you will need to look into the way they communicate and the type of problems (and solutions) they care about. This bit is usually missing from a class project and will definitely take a significant amount of time on top of what you have already spent on your class project.

Finding the right community and the right venue is quite difficult. Google might help you but there is a wide variety of research communities that share the same interests (and keywords). Some are broader than others, some are "better" than others (for a many definitions of "quality", scientists love to focus on things such as "citation impact" or "acceptance rate", but if you are not a career researcher you might as well just look into what each of these communities are doing with an open mind, you might be surprised). Because finding the right community is hard, most people start in science with a mentor, which in your case the obvious choice is your class instructor.

Eight steps to get your class project published

We all love recipes, so here you have one:

  1. Recruit your instructor

    If you can get buy-in from your instructor as a coauthor, chances are there is no research contribution there. (Always publish with your instructor, nothing to lose, all to win.)

  2. Choose a venue

    That will dictate deadline, community and length.

  3. Heed the deadline

    Publication deadlines are much less flexible than university ones. Also, the time available might just plainly not be enough (compare to a school project where your instructor ought to balance complexity with respect to available time).

  4. Learn about the community and if possible follows the style of existing papers

    Your message is easier to digest if wrapper in familiar flavors.

    Say something they don't know (background research) but that they will care (tie-in to background research —if you find no tie-ins, it is the wrong community).

  5. The length speaks of effort and expected amount of work behind your contribution

    It is not the same to paint a small painting than a mural, right? 2-page contributions are not the same as 4 nor 8 or 30. Depending on the length is also the amount of work expected to see in the contribution.

    Filling up pages with unnecessary figures or filler text won't go unnoticed during review and should get you rejected.

  6. Prepare to do more work... much more work

    As you write, more questions will pop out which will require more research, more experiments, more grunt work.

  7. Focus on the contributions not on the details

    A common mistake for student projects turned into papers is to describe in excruciating details everything they have done, even if it is irrelevant to the topic.

    That makes sense in some academic environment where you get "credit for your work". In science (and in real life) you get credit for results, which in the case of your paper, they ought to be research contributions. Be succinct and focus on your message.

  8. Brace for impact

    Most likely than not, your paper will get rejected. After a suitable amount of time (at least a week), study the reviews and decide whether the issues raised are addressable. Reviewers are busy, unpaid volunteers. It could be upsetting if they missed some important points or misunderstood others. It is your job to make the manuscript as "reviewers proof" as possible. And luck plays a huge role.

    If your instructor is still on board you might a second chance submitting someplace else. A third chance is quite unlikely and you will have left university by then.

    Never submit a manuscript without the approval of all its coauthors. That is a gross ethical violation that can get you kicked off the university. If you want to keep trying and your instructor has lost interest in the manuscript, you can discuss with your instructor a different version to submit by yourself. Taking their name out without removing their contributions is not only unethical but also a violation of copyright law.

When you finally succeed publishing, there will be crickets: in this time of faster-than-life social feedback, do not expect any immediate response. If you are publishing in a conference, a few dozen people might attend your talk and you might get a handful of questions, some relevant, many irrelevant and if your are truly lucky a thought-provoking one, that will inspire you for later. It can take years for your work to be noticed and start informing the work of other colleagues. But if you keep contributing, in some moment you will meet a new colleague at a conference and somebody will introduce you "Have you met ... ?" and they will say "Not in person, but I have read their papers." and you will know your work is meaningful.


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