Deadlines and Academic Writing

There’s a love-hate relationship between deadlines and research. If open research is really open, then unrealistic deadlines only get in the way. Does it make sense to have a submission deadline if you haven’t figured out what problem to solve? I definitely don’t recommend pushing out an incomplete paper just to have your name on something. If that’s the case, then the deadline is being more of a stick than a carrot.

One of the nicest things about open research is the general freedom and flexibility. This means you can work on problems that are important to you. If you find something else that’s promising, then you can often change topics. Overall, you can have a lot of independence. But of course, there are limits. Practical constraints come in a number of ways, and one of them is time.

If you want to attend a certain conference or submit to a particular issue, then the submission deadline can be a helpful motivator. It’s easy to get distracted or lose focus when taking months (or years…) to work on a problem. Working with a deadline forces you to answer questions, such as:

  • What “story” will you tell?
  • What results are most important? What’s relevant to the story?
  • What can I expect to finish? What’s feasible?
  • How can I make the best use of my time?

These questions are always important. They’re also easy to avoid if you have no time constraints! Any paper should have a story to tell. If I’m working without a deadline, then I’m usually fully focused on the details and not on the eventual story. If I don’t know the story, then how will I know when it’s ready to share?

On the other hand, If you’re working towards a particular deadline, then the story becomes the top priority and the rest of the work follows. You focus on what you need in order to support the message. It’s OK if the final results don’t come out exactly as you expected; the story can evolve. Even if your work is “incomplete”, you can have meaningful preliminary results that are worth sharing (this is often sufficient for conference papers, which are usually shorter, anyway). The important thing is that a deadline demands that you to have a story.

Of course, submission deadlines are almost always delayed. Two weeks seems to be common. But you shouldn’t depend on a delay. Hopefully, a deadline extension will give you some extra time for polishing.



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