Slaying Zombie Papers

Zombie medical lab assistant
Melbourne Zombie Shuffle by Fernando de Sousa on Flickr

We all have them. Somewhere in a desk drawer or a forgotten folder lies the zombie paper, waiting. For a year or more, they have lain dormant. They took your brains and now they are asking for more.

How does this tale of the zombie paper end?

Will you victoriously dispatch it to a grateful editor?

Will you release it (and you) from its misery by scrapping the whole idea?

Or will you leave it to lie dormant, ignoring its groans every time you clean your desk?

I may have over-dramatised (just a bit) but perhaps not as much as you think. Recently, I returned to a paper I had first started drafting nearly two years ago. I began writing it in that strange space between the acceptance of my thesis and my actual graduation. Given that it is a paper on a key finding from my thesis, most of the ideas in it trace back nearly three years. That’s a lot of time from start to finish.

Zombie papers might be the remnants of nearly-forgotten research ideas or the seed of a brilliant contribution. They seemed like a great idea at the time, but other things distracted you. Why do such papers exist? In a world filled with efficiency measures and impact factors, surely there is every reason for researchers to turn ideas into submissions into papers as efficiently as possible.

While there is every reason to speed things up, there are a multitude of factors that slow things down.

At a university, teaching, supervision, marking and a myriad of other duties can push research publications into a summer holiday pastime. If the time for writing is quarantined to one part of the year, it makes sense that some papers will be prioritised and others, for whatever reason, will be relegated to a desk drawer.

For those of us who have the strange title of “independent researcher”, work commitments, varying interest levels and the lack of an immediate incentive can similarly put good research on the back-burner. In either case, the papers that are produced this way will likely be the simplest to produce or those are aimed at high-flying journals.

The problem, I have found, is not so much that half-thought paper ideas find their way into a forgotten drawer, but that papers that we know will be good and are close to being finished can also end up there. Going by remarks from my thesis examiners, I know that the paper I have been trying to finish for a couple of years has real potential. But the move from 80,000 word thesis to 8,000 word paper has proven to be more complex than I could have imagined. It has been much easier to produce some simpler papers than to finalise a draft of that one that actually matters.

Yet, allowing a paper to go zombie can cause real problems.

Aside from the feeling of dissatisfaction, knowing that there is something still hanging around your to-do list, zombie papers can seriously delay other work. There are some findings and ideas that need to be published before others can be viable. Worse still, while your zombie is groaning at you from your “To Finish” folder, other people are doing related work that might scoop yours or make it irrelevant.

So, how do we slay these zombie papers?

Honestly, I am not sure that there are any hard and fast rules.

  • Setting artificial deadlines, while praised by many, doesn’t seem to work for me, especially when other work appears so quickly.
  • Chunking it down into smaller parts seems to help. However the danger is that I start reviewing what I have written to get me back in the flow… and end up just rewriting what is already there, rather than actually pushing the paper forwards.
  • Putting a draft onto ResearchGate or might get useful feedback… or some smart person might find more issues than you actually knew were there, setting you back another fortnight.

My two most recent zombie papers were slain by accountability. With one paper, when I was meeting with my co-author about other work, I kept promising to send a new version. In the end, I sent one, just to shut myself up.

The other was an overdue revise and resubmit. I gave the editor a date by which I would have the reviewer corrections back. Sure, it meant a few nervous afternoons in my national library and a bit of swotting up on a few new sources but having that actual deadline pressure definitely helped to clear the cobwebs.

For me, the important lesson was not to learn how to slay them, but to learn how to spot that they are going zombie in the first place. Then I can keep putting in small, regular amounts of work to keep them alive. It might be adding a couple of paragraphs to a book I am writing, or reading some recent literature for a paper. It doesn’t really matter. As long as I keep those papers alive and moving forward, however slowly, they won’t end up in that dreaded desk drawer. They won’t die and turn into zombies.

What about you?  Do you have any zombie papers or projects? Will you slay them, or just ignore their groans?

jonathan downie - 200pxDr Jonathan Downie is a practising conference interpreter with a PhD in stakeholder expectations of interpreters from Heriot-Watt University (2016).

His first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, was published by Routledge in 2016. He is also a columnist on research issues for two industry magazines and a regular speaker on the academic and translation & interpreting conference circuits

He tweets at @jonathanddownie(personal/ academic) and @integlangsbiz (interpreting/ business). His ORCID is 0000-0003-0766-4056

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