Saturday 9 February 2019

The Paper-in-a-Day Approach

Guest post by
Jennifer L. Tackett
Northwestern University; Personality Across Development Lab

The PiaD approach was borne of a desire to figure out a way, some way, any way, to tackle that ever-growing project list of studies-that-should-get-done-but-never-do. I’m guessing we all have these lists. These are the projects that come up when you’re sitting in a conference talk and lean over to your grad student and whisper (“You know, we actually have the data to test that thing they can’t test, we should do that!”), and your grad student sort of nods a little but also kind of looks like she wants to kill you. Or, you’re sitting in lab meeting talking about ideas, and suddenly shout, “Hey, we totally have data to test that! We should do that! Someone, add it to the list!” and people’s initial look of enthusiasm is quickly replaced by a somewhat sinister side-eye (or perhaps a look of desperation and panic; apparently it depends on who you ask). Essentially, anytime you come up with a project idea and think – Hey, that would be cool, we already have the data, and it wouldn’t be too onerous/lengthy, maybe someone wants to just write that up! – you may have a good PiaD paper.

In other words, the PiaD approach was apparently borne out of a desire to finally get these papers written without my grad students killing me. Seems as reasonable a motivation as any.

The initial idea was simple.

-       You have a project idea that is circumscribed and straightforward.

-       You have data to test the idea.

-       The analyses to do so are not overly complex or novel.

-       The project topic is in an area that everyone in the lab1 is at least somewhat (to very) familiar with.

What would happen if we all locked ourselves in the same room, with no other distractions, for a full day, and worked our tails off? Surely we could write this paper, right?

The answer was: somewhat, and at least sometimes, yes.
But even better were all the things we learned along the way.

We have been scheduling an annual PiaD since 2013. Our process has evolved a LOT along the way. Rather than giving a historical recounting, I thought I would summarize where we are at now – the current working process we have arrived at, and some of the unanticipated benefits and challenges that have come up for us over the years.

Our Current PiaD Approach

Front-End Work:
We write our PiaD papers in the late spring/early summer. Sometime in the fall, we decide as a group what the focus of the PiaD paper will be and who will be first author (see also: benefits and challenges). Then, in the months leading up to PiaD, the first author (and senior author, if not one-and-the-same), take care of some front-end tasks.2 Accomplishing the front-end tasks is essential for making sure we can all hit the ground running on the day of. So, here are the things we do in advance:

1.              Write the present study paragraph: what exactly do we want to do, and why/how? (Now, we write this as a pre/registration! But in the olden days, a thorough present study paragraph would do.)

2.              Run a first pass of the analyses (again, remember – data are already available and analyses are straightforward and familiar).

3.              Populate a literature review folder. We now use a shared reference manager library (Zotero) to facilitate this step and later populating references.

4.              Create a game plan – a list of the target outlet with journal submission guidelines, a list of all the tasks that must be accomplished on the actual DAY, a list of all the people on the team and preliminary assignments. The planning stage of PiaD is key – it can make or break the success of the approach. One aspect of this is being really thoughtful about task assignments. Someone used other data from that sample for a recent study? Put them on the Methods section. Someone used similar analyses in a recent project? Put them on re-running and checking analyses (first pass is always done by the first author in advance; another team member checks syntax and runs a fresh pass on the day. We also have multiple checks built in for examining final output). Someone has expertise in a related literature? Assign them appropriate sections of the Intro/Discussion. You get the idea. Leverage people’s strengths and expertise in the task assignments.

5.              Email a link to a Dropbox folder with all of the above, and attach 2-3 key references, to everyone on the team, a couple of weeks before the DAY. All team members are expected to read the key papers and familiarize themselves with the Dropbox folder ahead of time.

The DAY:
Because this process is pretty intense, and every paper is different, our PiaD DAYs always evolve a bit differently. Here are some key components for us:

1.     Start with coffee.

2.     Then start with the Game Plan. Make sure everyone understands the goal of the paper, the nature of the analyses, and their assigned tasks. Talk through the structure of the Introduction section at a broad level for feedback/discussion.


4.     Take a lunch break. Leave where you are. Turn your computers off. Eat some food. For the most part, we tend to talk about the paper. It’s nice for us to have this opportunity to process more openly mid-day, see where people are at, how the paper is shaping up, what else we should be thinking about, etc. The chance for free and open discussion is really important, after being in such a narrow task-focused state.


6.     Throughout the working chunks, we are constantly renegotiating the task list. Someone finishes their task more quickly, crosses it off the Game Plan (we use this as an active collaborative document to track our work in real time), and claims the next task they plan to move to.

7.     Although we have a “no distraction” work space3 for PiaD, we absolutely talk to one another throughout the day. This is one of the biggest benefits of PiaD – the ability to ask questions and get immediate answers, to have all the group minds tackling challenges as they arise. It’s a huge time efficiency to work in this way, and absolutely makes end decisions of much higher quality than the typical fragmented writing approach.

8.         Similarly, we have group check-ins about every 1-1.5 hours – where is everyone on their task? What will they move to work on next?

9.         Over the years, some PiaD members have found walks helpful, too. Feeling stuck? Peel someone off to go walk through your stuck-ness with you. Come back fresher and clearer.

10.       About an hour before end time, we take stock – how close are we to meeting our goals? How are things looking when we piece them all together? What tasks are we prioritizing in the final hour, and which will need to go unfinished and added to the back-end work for the first author? Some years, we are wrapping up the submission cover letter at this stage. Other years, we’re realizing we still have tasks to complete after PiaD. Just depends on the nature of the project.

11.       Celebrate. Ideally with some sort of shared beverage of choice. To each their own, but for us, this has often involved bubbles. And an early bedtime.

Jennifer celebrating with Kathleen, Cassie, Avanté, and bubbles

Back-End Work:

This will be different from year-to-year. Obviously, the goal with PiaD is to be done with the manuscript by the end of the day. EVEN WHEN THIS HAPPENS, we never, EVER do final-proofing the same day. We are just way too exhausted. So we usually give ourselves a couple of weeks to freshen up, then do our final proofing before submission. Other years, for a variety of reasons, various tasks remain. That’s just how it goes with manuscript writing. Even in this case, it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of the work gets done on the DAY. So either way, it’s still a really productive mechanism (for us).

Some Benefits and Challenges

There are many of both. But overall, we have found this to be a really great experience for many reasons beyond actually getting some of these papers out in the world (which we have! Which is so cool!). Some of these benefits for us are:

1.     Bonding as a team. It’s a really great way to strengthen your community, come together in an informal space on a hard but shared problem, and struggle through it together.

2.     A chance to see one another work. This can be incredibly powerful, for example, for junior scholars to observe scientific writing approaches “in the wild”. It never occurred to me before my grad students pointed this out at our first PiaD, but they rarely get to see faculty actually work in this way. And vice versa!

3.     Accuracy, clarity, and error reduction. So many of our smaller errors could likely be avoided if we’re able to ask our whole team of experts our questions WHILE WE’RE WRITING THE PAPER. Real-time answers, group answers, a chance for one group member to correct another, etc. Good stuff.

4.     Enhancing ethical and rigorous practices. The level of accountability when you are all working in the same space at the same time on the same files is probably as good as you can get. How many of our problematic practices might be extinguished if we were always working with others like this?

5.     One of the goals I had with PiaD was to have the first author status rotate across the team – i.e., grad students would “take turns” being first author. I still think this is a great idea, as it’s a great learning experience for advanced grad students to learn how to manage team papers in this way. But, of course, it’s also HARD. So, be more thoughtful about scope of the project depending on seniority of the first author, and anticipate more front- and back-end work, accordingly.

Bottom Line

PiaD has been a really cool mechanism for my lab to work with and learn from over the years. It has brought us many benefits as a team, far beyond increased productivity. But the way it works best for each team is likely different, and tweaking it over time is the way to make it work best for you. I would love to hear more from others who have been trying something similar in their groups, and also want to acknowledge the working team on the approach outlined here: Kat Herzhoff, Kathleen Reardon, Avanté Smack, Cassie Brandes, and Allison Shields.


1For PiaD purposes, I am defining the lab as PI + graduate students.

2Some critics like to counter, well then it’s not really Paper IN A DAY, now is it??? (Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!) Umm.. I guess not? Or maybe we can all remember that time demarcations are arbitrary and just chill out a bit? In all seriousness, if we all lived in the world where our data were perfectly cleaned and organized, all our literature folders were populated and labeled, etc. – maybe the tasks could all be accomplished in a single day. But unfortunately, my lab isn’t that perfect. YET. (Grad students sending me murderous side-eye over the internet.)

3The question of music or no-music is fraught conversational territory. You may need to set these parameters in advance to avoid PiaD turmoil and potential derailment. You may also need your team members to provide definition of current terminology in advance, in order to even have the conversation at all. Whatever you do, DON’T start having conversations about things like “What is Norm-core?” and everyone googling “norm-core”, and then trying to figure out if there is “norm-core music”, and what that might be. It’s a total PiaD break-down at that point.


1 comment:

  1. This is a great approach. Reminds me of book sprints. You can actually write a whole book this way over the course of a week - if you get a group of people who know the subject.