How I published 50 papers in six years, and seven things I learned along the way


On the 13th of December 2019, my colleagues and I had a paper published online in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, about a really interesting case where a frog we thought was one species turned out to be two occurring in sympatry, but without having diverged in sympatry (read the paper here). This paper, led by Safidy Rasolonjatovo, a PhD student from the University of Antananarivo (co-supervised by my own PhD advisor, Professor Miguel Vences), resulted from our fieldwork together in Montagne d’Ambre, northern Madagascar, in 2017–2018—you can read about that trip here, here, here, and here.

For me, this marks the 50th peer-reviewed paper I have published since the start of 2014. I thought it might be interesting, and perhaps even useful, to write a little about what I have learned from this publishing marathon.

How‽

The first question I get asked when people hear that I have published so much so quickly is invariably How‽

Well, before I say anything else, I want to acknowledge that most of my papers are taxonomic in nature (i.e. they describe new species). Taxonomic publications are a bit different from many other disciplines of biological science:

  • Taxonomic papers are often rather formulaic (e.g. sometimes methods are copied nearly verbatim from one paper to another because they do not need to vary, and it is often best if they do not). This means that, once one has the formula down, one can adapt it to most any taxon.
  • There is a lot of undescribed life sitting in museums. The bottleneck in this science is not in the discovery part of the pipeline, but in the description part. That means that there are papers waiting to be written sitting on the shelves of your local natural history museum, if you have the expertise to contextualise and understand them. No waiting around for tedious experiments to run, only to fail completely after eight months.
  • Taxonomic journals tend to have awful impact factors. For example, Zootaxa, which publishes the vast majority of animal species descriptions, has an IF of 0.934. If you want to hit a high impact factor in taxonomy, you’d better be an archaeologist or palaeontologist.

The first of these two points means that taxonomists can tend have higher rates of publication than many other disciplines, but the last point means that their papers also have disproportionately low impact factors. If we were to be adding impact factors, this could work out in taxonomist’s favour, but only (1) if people cared about cumulative impact factor and not maximum impact factor (which they don’t), and (2) at extremes of the scale—one paper in Nature, with its current IF of 43, would be the equivalent of 36 papers in IF 1.2 journals.

Not all taxonomists are publishing >10 papers per year. How can one manage that? Three key elements made it possible for me: the right time, the right place, and the right colleagues.

This paper by Vieites et al., published in PNAS in 2009, has been the primer of a revolutionary update in the rate of description of Malagasy amphibians. A similar paper on reptiles was published in 2012 by Nagy et al.

(1) Time-wise, everything is primed and perfect: we have DNA barcodes from almost all of Madagascar’s already named species, plus hundreds of undescribed species, and we have been able to conduct fieldwork moderately frequently, yielding still more new species every year. Micro-CT and DNA sequence data acquisition has recently become affordable even for underfunded labs (for the most part).

(2) I came to Munich for graduate school, and had an office at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München from one month after starting my Master’s. This museum has one of the largest collections of reptiles and amphibians from Madagascar outside of the country (perhaps exceeded only by the MNHN in Paris), and the broadest array of type specimens of species from the island.

(3) The constellation of Madagascar herpetology experts in the world is currently at a peak. My graduate research was supervised by Professor Miguel Vences and Dr Frank Glaw, the two world experts on the herpetofauna of Madagascar, but I also worked closely with Dr Andolalao Rakotoarison, Dr Fanomezana Ratsoavina, Dr Angelica Crottini, Dr Carl Hutter, Dr Jörn Köhler, and Dr David Prötzel (and several other colleagues)—all of us specialists, dedicated to these animals. Before I joined the group, the rate of publication was already extremely high. I got to profit from that.

And lastly, I think one of the main things that made this possible is having the combined privileges of being a native English speaker and a fast typist, and the mixed blessing of being a workaholic.

7 things I learned

1. Collaboration is key

I learned extremely quickly that almost every paper is a collaborative work. The nature of that collaboration can vary; some are highly collaborative with numerous authors contributing nearly the same amount to the paper; others are collaborations among a large number of authors, but only a few of those authors have really contributed to the paper. Finding the right amount and style of collaboration depends on the author and the subject.

My goal in collaboration on projects that were not my own was to be as little burden and as much use as possible. A surprising amount of burden on papers comes from author bottlenecks, when one key contribution is missing before the paper can move forward. These are inevitable, but they don’t have to be your fault, and I have always tried my best to give a rapid turn-around on anything that needed my attention.

2. Be honest with yourself and your co-authors about your time

Sometimes you will receive requests for contributions on timelines that are simply impossible. Sometimes you want to start a project of your own but do not have time for it in your already super busy schedule. Sometimes you also want to somehow maintain your blog/website and twitter and podcast and private life on the side (see point 7 below).

I have found that a lot of this can be circumvented if I am honest with myself and with others about my time constraints. If I receive a manuscript to collaborate on, I try to give an honest and frank estimate of how likely it is that I will get to it in the allotted time—doing this promptly can allow other co-authors to get to it while I free up my schedule. I periodically review my ongoing projects and put ones that are stalled into a dedicated folder, to return to when time allows.

The frankness in particular I think is worth emphasising. I always appreciate it when I ask a coauthor for something that they turn around and say in no uncertain terms that it is impossible in the time frame I have given them. I try to emulate that myself; not being rude, but simply being totally clear. That’s a pretty fine line, but I think learning the distinction can be a really important tool in collaborations.

3. Learn from your mistakes

My first paper was pretty vague and contained several terminological mistakes (misnamed bones, for example), not to mention its less than appealing figures. For me, it was an exciting step in my academic career as a specialist on the herpetofauna of Madagascar, and the new species I described, Rhombophryne vaventy, will always be special to me as my first new species. When I look back at this paper, it may start with a tinge of regret about these errors, but that is soon followed by defiance: I was young, completely new to this, and I did the best I could at the time. Everyone starts somewhere, and you should be sympathetic when looking back on your own early attempts.

4. Practice

As I got more practice from publishing more and more papers, the quality of my writing and figures improved. In 2017, I finally published a little monograph on these diamond frogs, and went back to use my own early mistakes concerning osteological interpretation of micro-CT scans to make a cautionary tale on the interpretation of these data. Also, because these papers were generally closely related to one another, I got faster at writing (and editing when coauthoring) the papers, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of papers I published per year.

Scientific writing is like any other skill; your first attempts will not be perfect, but the more you practice, the better you will get. Publishing short notes, getting peer review experience, and reading a lot will all contribute to improvement in your scientific writing.

The difference between my osteological figures in 2014 and 2017.

5. Time management is key

A lot of people talk about ‘juggling’ different projects. I think cooking on a stove a more apt metaphor, with every project a dish in a pot on your stove of productivity. You can cook one dish on high heat using all your burners, but you won’t have time to make a side dish. Or, you can cook lots of small dishes on low heat, and each of them will be finished faster than a large pot could.

This metaphor can go on ad nauseam, but the point is, your time is limited. You have to sleep, eat, and be merry at some point. My strategies for dealing with having 20 projects on the go at any one time are:

  1. keep multiple to-do lists semi-updated, each with projects and tasks listed according to a priority scheme (1 is highest, 5 is lowest, D is depending on someone else before progress can be made—this reminds me to remind someone if I don’t hear from them for a long time).
  2. have a reasonably well organised folder structure of ‘Active Manuscripts’, ‘Stalled Manuscripts’ and ‘Completed Manuscripts’.
  3. have an excel sheet tracking the current status of all submitted manuscripts, including their date and journal of submission, deadlines, editorial decisions, etc. (and to have a physical sheet with the same purpose but more vague hung on the wall of my office)—I use a system similar to that of Kevin R. Burgio (@KRBurgio), but I only track submitted manuscripts because I have too many in preparation at any one time to keep the presubmission stuff organised.

I also find an important strategy for keeping so much on the go at the same time is to use my own distractible nature to switch between tasks regularly. This helps me avoid getting stuck on something that has hit a wall. I often decide the prioritisation and timing of these things on a whim; I am terrible at keeping a strict time plan in my calendar, although I will go to those lengths when I really am close to deadlines and things are dire.

I’d also recommend reading this article by Professor Erin Marie Furtak on organising your writing pipeline.

6. Perfectionism has a time and a place

Being a perfectionist in academia is tough. Things move fast, but perfectionism is necessarily slow and measured, and as I’ve already said, your time is limited. Not everything you publish is going to be 100% perfect. This point is most important when your manuscript is accepted and you have received the page proofs: major errors that affect meaning are worth correcting (also, I would argue that typos are important errors that must be corrected), but clunky sentence construction or superfluous words that don’t hinder comprehension are not. In this respect, English is a very forgiving language, and even poorly constructed sentences can be parsed with comparative ease. This is particularly important because (1) unnecessary changes waste your time and that of the typesetters, and, more importantly, (2) every change made at the proof stage can result in new errors being introduced (we have had several instances where changes were implemented completely incorrectly, resulting in the need for three or more rounds of proofs).

I try to set some kind of prioritisation (point 5) by which to allot my energy, so that I don’t spend hours perfecting something that doesn’t matter, but I am still reminded on occasion by colleagues that certain things I work hard to perfect are not worth it. If I feel like I have that time free and it is important to me, I don’t mind investing in perfectionism, but that requires a good overview of your priorities and current and immediate future workload.

7. Know your limits and take time for yourself

The word ‘burnout’ is on many lips nowadays, and rightfully so; the demands of academia, especially on PhD students and particularly in countries where those PhD students are not paid a living wage or have to balance their studies with teaching, are immense. Academia is very much a publish or perish world, but if you are not careful it can also become publish and perish. I myself went through something of a burnout in the wake of having submitted my PhD thesis, and it took me a good three months to get out of the funk and be semi-productive again.

For me, and I think for a lot of academics who are in it because they love their subject, this has been a real challenge. Left to my own devices, I can spend days on end working from 10h until 01–02h in the morning, taking only short breaks. From experience, however, I learned that this is not sustainable or healthy. I think it has been important to learn these limits (and be able to push them when needed, like in the final push of my PhD work, or on intense paper writing workshops that my colleagues and I sometimes have), but it has also been vital to find a way to balance work and the rest of my life.

The phrase ‘choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is only half of the truth. The second half of the truth is ‘if your work becomes your life, you may forget to live’.

So I think this is an important point to balance those above. You can work to maximise your efficiency, and to keep a dozen things on the go at once, and to get better at writing, and to be more communicative, and whatnot. But you also need to take time for yourself and your life, because your brain needs it.

For me, that life has been developing a wonderful relationship, keeping a variety of animals and plants, following several TV shows, listening to two dozen podcasts religiously, starting my own podcast, and learning to dance Lindy Hop (and thus finally doing some vague kind of exercise for the first time since high school). All these things help to alleviate the monotony and keep my head level and fresh.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I could not have been nearly as productive without this balance of life and academia. It is not always easy to find, and it may look different for you than it does for me, but I think this is critical if you want to not only be productive but also stay healthy while doing it.

Summarising

I write a lot, but I would not have been able to publish so much over the last six years were it not for my phenomenally efficient, highly collaborative colleagues. The field of taxonomy is unusually suited to productivity of this kind, but it is not always possible, often because the resources are simply not yet available. You should be careful when comparing publications and publication rate between subfields and fields of science; just because a taxonomist can do it, does not mean a behavioural ecologist could—or should!

I hope that the lessons I have learned about time management, communication, collaboration, kindness, and the value of practice can also help you to motivate and focus your writing.

What are your tricks for being productive and strategies for managing multiple ongoing projects? Let me know in the comments below!

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