lifecourse of a paper

Working on a paper and proposal that both involved life-course explanations of social phenomena, I realized that my papers have a life-course of their own. I thought I would share:

  • Birth. This is the first glimmer of a new idea. Unfortunately, nature is cruel and mortality at this stage is very high. Some ideas are truly great, but are lost by the time I leave the department/committee/research meeting in which I had their first glimmer. Others were really stillborn: good in principle, impractical in reality. Others needed to be culled for the good of my brood of other, unfinished papers

  • Childhood.These papers survived the trauma of birth. The potential and hope is inspiring and awesome. The thought of what the paper can become overwhelms me with a sense of both pride and sheer terror: at this point all I can do is turn this perfect idea into total mess. But if I leave it alone and just let it be, it will never grow or realize its full potential. When I talk about these child papers, other people tell me how great they are, but all I can think about are the nights that they have kept me up.
  • Adolescence. The paper grows in fits and starts. Parts of it are overdeveloped, others woefully inadequate. It reminds me daily how much it hates me and on many occasions, the feeling is mutual. But I still love it. I remember the difficulty of birth and the pride I felt in its childhood. I know it has potential, even if there are days in which the paper seems to feel it has little. We fight, we argue, we make up. Even on its worst days, I am impressed by how far it has developed and sit in amazement at what it has become.
  • Transition to adulthood. I send it off to the world. I beam with pride and, a little guiltily, delight. It has come so far and grown so much. But with it away, I have a chance to really focus on something else for a while. I don’t have to worry about the constant fighting and bickering. I have raised it and helped it grow into a proper paper that I am proud to share with the world.
  • Young adulthood. I send it off into the world so that they can flourish, but it seems find its way back to me. The harsh realities of the real world of reviewers and editors buffet it. It loses its confidence, and comes home shattered. I don’t have anywhere to put it — I mean I assumed that I had cared for and nurtured them for so long that it was ready for the world. I somehow find room for it, but it sulks because its younger sibling took its room and it’s seat at the kitchen table. It’s relegated to the basement and it thinks that I hate it and that all it does is disappoint me. And, while I am disappointed, I also think about how great it is, I remember our joyous memories. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that the good manuscript it was is somewhere deep down inside of it. I try to make time to show it how much I love it, despite my disappointment. When I talk to people about these papers, they wonder why I care so much and they keep me up at night, but all I can think about is about how great they could be.
  • Adulthood. The paper goes back into the world and makes it on its own. Maybe it was the love that I showed it when no one else would — reviewers, editors, colleagues — maybe it just stands on its own merits. But it stands proudly, in published form proud of what it accomplished. It might lead a relatively anonymous life, but it leads a life with which it can be proud. And I beam with excitement and enjoyment knowing how hard it worked to get to this point.
  • End-of-life-care. Maybe the digital archives survive, maybe they don’t. In all likelihood it will be among the masses of papers that no-one ever reads, even if it is memorialized for all posterity in an archive somewhere, left for sociologists to argue about the merits of keeping it around 50 years hence.

7 thoughts on “lifecourse of a paper”

  1. Nice idea. Does anyone have a sense what percent of papers that are submitted anywhere (“transition to adulthood”) end up published somewhere (“adulthood”)?

    It’s going to be much higher than the share of submissions that are accepted, even after adjusting for R&Rs, since a paper submitted several places before eventually getting accepted counts as fully making it by this metric .. but is it more like 20%? 40%? 60%+?

    Another way of getting at this: How many rejections does it usually take to get us to give up? Does this change over stages of our careers?


  2. Thanks for this, Mike.

    As the mother of a human adolescent, but also someone who is working on paper that really, really needs to transition into adulthood, the thing you left out there about parenting an adolescent is the almost constant vacillating between wanting your carefree child back and being more than ready to send your difficult teen off into the world to see how tough it is being an adult. Translating this into the realm of writing, it’s where one moment you want to delete entire chunks to try to go back to square one and do things differently this time and the next you consider just sending the thing off – pimples, nasty attitude, and all – to make it someone else’s problem.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You’ll have your chance. Unlike papers, children cannot be stuffed in drawers or lost in hard drives and ignored or forgotten. That’s good, though. They’re fun to have around, even as teenagers. Certainly more fun than almost-done manuscripts.

        Liked by 1 person

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