How I manage my Papers in Progress

Eva Lantsoght
4 Sep ’14

At the beginning of your research career, you might be making a big deal out of working on a research paper (and that's normal and alright, it's a skill that you are acquiring and it will take some practice before you have the writing in your fingers). Once you gain more experience, and once you move onto the next stages of career, you might be transitioning into a next stage of writing, the stage of Having Many Papers Going On At Once.

Having many papers going on at once can be messy. You'll need to find a way to keep track of the deadlines, see if you need to go and bug the editor to get your reviews back if after many months they still don't give a sign of life, and keep track of the replies of your coauthors. Or you might have pasted a figure into your paper, and then afterwards when you need to upload a high-quality version of it, forget where on Earth you have left that drawing.

In this post, I'll be discussing the different aspects of managing papers that are in progress. There's some planning involved, some regular document tracking, and some list-making. The system that I'm using is integrated with my time management system, and might not be completely suitable for you. More than anything, this post is meant to give you some ideas, rather than to present a water-tight system that you should copy. Now, with that warning as a side, let me present you the system I'm currently using:

1. Planning your papers

I use a Google Document in which I keep an overview of the papers in progress and the papers I have in mind to write. I use a spreadsheet in Google Docs for this, which is a rather low-tech approach for planning, but let me explain why I prefer Google Docs for this purpose:


  • Shareable: This Google Doc is shared with the people who are most often my co-authors. I don't need to send an updated file whenever I make a change - they can simply see the latest version whenever they want to check our progress. And on the rare occasion when I do need a print or time-snapshot of this table, I can easily print the table (as a PDF or physical print), and use it for something like my annual evaluation.
  • Accessible: Whenever I have an idea of a paper I should write, or if I'm traveling and I forgot how far along I am with a given paper, I can simply access this document in the cloud, and check the table. This feature is especially helpful since I'm working at institutions that are divided over 2 continents.
  • Overview of dates and people: My Google Docs table is very simple, and consists of the following columns: "Paper", which has an abbreviated name for the paper, typically related to the journal I'm aiming at, "Topic", which -well- contains the topic of the paper, "Journal/Venue" contains the journal or conference in which I'm planning to publish this work, "First Draft" has the goal-deadline for my first draft, "Revisions" has my goal-deadline for getting the revisions from my co-authors, "Co-author X/Y/Z" has an x if said co-author already sent me his comments, "submitting" has my goal-deadline for first submission. Then, for the second round of reviews, I use the following columns next to the previously discussed ones: "Draft Review", "Revision", "Co-author X/Y/Z" and "Resubmit". Finally, I have a column that I use for notes-to-myself.
  • Comments: Using a simple spreadsheet-based document allows me to write some comments in a separate column. What goes in there? For example, if a paper is rejected, I make a comment of where else I could publish it and when I can think of reworking it. Or, I write in there that I need to ask other people if they want to be co-author for the paper.
  • Color-coding: I'm using a simple color-coding in the sheet (by filling the background of the cells in the first column): light blue for papers that are completely done, green for papers that are on hold or in review, orange for papers in progress, and red for papers I haven't started yet.

2. Reminders and future plans

Besides the Google Document with the planning table, I also put self-imposed and hard deadlines in my to-do list app. I use Todoist, and I have a separate project titled "Writing papers". In there, I have not only the deadlines (which show up as reminders on the Todoist website, the app on my phone and tablet and whatnot), but I also have reminders for starting dates (when I plan to start working on a paper), and vague ideas for papers that have no deadline but that I review from time to time - although at the moment I'm still completely swamped with finishing up the papers that result from my dissertation. Once a "start-writing" reminder shows up in my Todoist (or better: in the 7 days ahead view that I always use), I will add it to my weekly planning in Google Calendar. I'm using a weekly template to make sure I find the time to teach, prepare class, read papers, write papers and do researchOh, and -to my distress- read and reply email. The weekly template is generic, but on a weekly and monthly basis, I fill out which paper precisely I'll be working on during my writing time, and which piece of research precisely I'll be working on during my research hours. On a daily basis then, I write down my 3 most important tasks in my paper-based planner, because I tend to get distracted when I need to keep checking my schedule on Google Calendar online.

3. Organizing documents

Another related element here is keeping track of all mails from the editors related to a given paper, and the figures - to avoid not finding the high-resolution version of a given figure once you need to upload them for submission. I create a folder per paper (all together organized in a document with my written stuff). Within this folder I save the paper and its different versions (I use "Paper Title YYYYMMDD.doc" as a name for the documents). In a subfolder "figs", I save the figures - lately I've been just using fig 1.eps, fig 2.eps etc for naming the figures. I also keep a subfolder "review process" for replies to reviewers and any email related to the review process. Another folder, "calcs" typically contains the calculations backing up the data in the paper for easy reference. Since I have an Inbox Zero, I also save all emails regarding the paper in the main folder of the paper, such as the email giving me the name of the submission, and the confirmation of the submission.

This method, in a nutshell, helps me to keep an overview of the papers that I have in process. It's easy, in the cloud, and suits the purpose. In my opinion, complex time management system with a lot of zinging and dinging features are not what we need - instead, a simple system that just contains the basic information is sufficient.

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