Publishing Crap vs. Flushing it and Moving On

“Crap” is not a technical term. Let’s say hypothetically that you have completed a sub-par paper, literature review or study. Given the fast OPTEMPO of academia, we don’t have time to spare on dead-end projects (especially with a new season of Top Chef starting). Often, we feel the push to get started on the next project right away. However, before you decide to flush your paper, consider a few options for publishing it anyway.

1) Verify that the work actually sucks. No offense, but we academic-types tend to be extremely critical of ourselves and our work. It’s possible that your paper isn’t quite as bad as you think it is. If you are absolutely unable to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, go to a trusted peer and ask him or her to tell you the truth.

2) Write a process paper. Let others learn from your experience. Do a quick lit review for “lessons learned,” and you’ll find many valuable articles. If your work can tell a story to help others and advance the literature, then it’s important enough to publish.

3) Reframe your work as a feasibility study or pilot. Clearly acknowledge the limitations, but emphasize the wins (however small they may be). Did you discover a good way to measure your outcome variable? Did you determine a better strategy for analysis? Write about those lessons and call out for someone to replicate bigger and better (and then do it yourself and cite your pilot in the lit review).

4) Use the work in a different context. Consider alternative audiences and media. Perhaps you could cut it down to a short piece for your trade publication. Your professional organization likely has several non-refereed publications with short turn-around time. Although not equivalent to peer-reviewed journals, they often have high readership (and you can still list them on your CV).

There are a couple conditions in which, yes, you should go ahead and shelve that pile of doo-doo.

1) Your work is misleading or wrong. Perhaps you had a dreaded Type I error . Maybe you discovered a mistake in the data (did you remember to reverse-code those negatively valenced items?).

2) Your work is outdated. Some disciplines are fast-moving, and you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the literature. If you tested the efficacy of a drug that is no longer used, your study is probably not going to be published.

There, there… don’t fret! Think of all the valuable lessons you’ve learned from this beautiful growing experience! Now get back out there and come up with another topic.