Clear Water SC Blog

"Writing a paper" is like assembling IKEA furniture

Under the microscope: academia
Do you need to “write a paper”, i.e. an empirical research paper, for publication?
Does this phrase accurately describe what you need to do? Or does it feel more complicated than that? (And is someone telling you to “write a paper” as if it should be easy? And quick?)

Assembling a manuscript to publish research has many essential components. Yes, you’re telling a story… with your data – analyzed and summarized in graphs, tables, schemes, etc, and connecting it to the past, present, and future of your field. You’re not just telling a story anywhere to anyone in any way you choose (like I can here) – you’re submitting it to a journal whose editors and panel of worldwide named and unnamed referees will vet not only your research and arguments as to why it’s important, meaningful, and done correctly, but also whether it’s right for their audience, the readers they want their journal to attract.

So when you “write a paper”, you are doing a LOT more than writing – you are thinking about multiple interconnected components at the same time. At the very least, they include:
  • Choosing which journal to submit it to
  • Presenting the context for the study – specifically what problem is solved, why it’s important, and why hasn’t it been solved yet
  • Presenting the strategy and the rationale behind it
  • Presenting the data and their meaning
  • Connecting the results with the context – how does this study address the problem and what’s new or better about it

Why is this like building Ikea furniture?

When you open a new box of an Ikea desk with drawers, what do you see?
A whole bunch of parts? Several pages of wordless instructions? A hole in your living space for it to fill?

Now think about the manuscript you are trying to assemble. Any thoughts?

How are you going to start turning this box of parts into a purposeful fixture in your home? Take a few things out and start putting together what you see immediately?

Probably not. You’ll probably want to make some space. Lay out all the parts. Take inventory. Find the tools you need.

You’ll see a lot of pieces with a clear purpose. You’ll see some without a clear purpose yet. You probably won’t build it from bottom to top, left to right.

This desk probably has a frame. Build that first. Then install the parts supported by the frame, like the shelves and the drawers. You won’t want to install the drawers until the frame is ready, but it is best that you assemble each drawer individually and completely – panels, screws, dowel rods, and all – before installing them into the frame.

In other words, you’ll give different segments of your furniture dedicated attention at different times. It won’t be in a linear order, but you’ll have to complete some parts before it is possible to bring them together as a whole. Once you do try to bring them together as a whole, you might still need to adjust some components – tighten some screws, add some glue, hammer something more tightly – so that the stationary parts stand steady on the floor they’re on, or so that the moving parts glide smoothly, or so that the whole thing looks like it belongs in the space it will live in.

The purpose and form of the pieces are interdependent on each other and the space they’ll live in, each one having a role shaped by its purpose in the whole.

Any parallels to manuscript building? (Or is this heresy?)

Does the story you write depend on what the data say? Does the way you present the data depend on which journal you’d like to publish in? Does the journal you choose depend on their priorities and whether they’d appreciate the strategy in your study? Does the significance of your results depend on the status of the field according to the literature?

Of course, manuscript building is unlike building Ikea furniture in many ways. It is a lot more creative – because it is research. By definition, research is at the edge of the known and unknown. It is more creative and more difficult.

You may know you’re trying building a desk, but you may not know in advance that if it will turn out to be the Lagkapten (also called “Alex”), Fredde, Micke, or better than Ikea. You may find out along the way that the computer you monitor you will set on it is a bit taller than expected, that it’s going to live in a space slightly to narrow for you to open the drawer all the way, or that your live-in partner has an aversion to the red color of this piece of furniture. (If this happens, y’all need to talk sooner, at least before committing to raising furniture together.)

You will edit, a LOT, and more drastically than possible with a typical Ikea furniture kit.

So, getting a manuscript ready to publish is a LOT bigger than “writing a paper”. It helps to layout a framework and vision that includes the process of building many parts that will function together as a whole – parts that include design, research, contemplation, analysis, interpretation, and/or decision.

It’s not easy, as an individual or as a team. If it feels hard, you’re not alone.
Need help building a manuscript?

Clear Water Science Consulting can help. We facilitate manuscript assembly, drawing from 15 years of experience publishing academic research. We coach individuals and teams through the process, providing consulting and editing along the way, and empower them with tools and frameworks that make future projects easier.