How to meet a paper deadline

Science is all about producing knowledge and insights and communicating both to other scientists (or industry). The main medium of communication are papers, talks, and increasingly social media (twitter, blogs, etc.). The most important and impactful are still scientific papers but they can often be strengthened by the other communication media.

In computer science (CS), serious publication venues are almost always conferences that happen at particular times each year. These come with submission deadlines set in order to allow enough time for a review cycle. Such deadlines are strict, meaning that you’re either in or out. I personally believe that deadlines are a great way to accelerate research because they create a specific goal to work towards, ,wrap up and document results. However, the binary nature of deadlines can lead to frustration and requires careful planning to meet them. I’ll now summarize seven rules and techniques I learned (partially the hard way) while hunting hundreds of deadlines as a student, group leader, and professor together with my students.

1) plan early: Have a complete plan ready months before, it will change, but you need a plan. Start with an outline and milestones. Ask questions: What are the key points, how do I explain or show them? What experiments do I need? How long will they take? How do I communicate the idea most efficiently (think about analogies and good examples)? Of course, you need the key idea set at the beginning. I suggest starting to plan 2-4 months before the real deadline.

2) start writing immediately: As early as possible (while doing the research), write down everything. A good researcher always documents his ideas, thoughts, and experiments; he’s always writing. Distill the key points into a working draft. This draft is not wasted, it can be used to extract a conference publication and it can be published as a technical report to provide more information. You should always document what you do.

3) test early: In CS, experiments most likely require some code. While developing this code, test it. Test it in the final configuration. Do not rely on “I think it’s good” until it’s too late. Ideally, develop small regression tests. Always validate simulations and emulations at the beginning. You’ll need this anyway and you don’t want to run everything twice.

4) set a hard deadline: This is the most important point. You need a HARD deadline sufficiently long before the real deadline. You need to be absolutely serious about meeting this deadline at any cost, work through weekends and nights etc.. I’d recommend one or two weeks before the real deadline. This provides buffer and will reduce stress. Ideally, you’ll do nothing (or not much) between this deadline and the real deadline. This gives you the opportunity to make the paper great. In the worst case, you find a major problem and need to work through until the real deadline. Yet, this is less stressful than realizing 24 hours before the deadline that there is a major issue. Remember: set it, be serious, and stick to it at any cost.

5) take it serious: Meet your own deadline. Seriously. There is always a next deadline and working on something else but this hard task is always more attractive. But deadlines are often only once a year, missing them can have a serious impact on your career.

6) prioritize and tradeoff: It’s never possible to do everything you think of to perfection. So decide what is most important and set deadlines for milestones and in the worst case meet them by simplifying the goal. Never never never tradeoff scientific integrity!!

7) manage your collaborators: Keep them involved make them see your progress. Make sure they always know how they can help. Pull rather than push, i.e., show that you’re working hard and hope that their honor will drive them. Avoid collaborations where this shows no effect. Do not wait, work and help, minimize dependencies. I have seen cyclic waiting before. Agree on milestones and deadlines (including the hard one) in advance.

8) focus when it gets tight: If it looks like you may not be able to meet your own deadline (which is of course well in advance of the actual deadline) then focus. Cut everything non-essential such as group meetings, talks, chats, excuse yourself from teleconferences etc. (your peers will understand). I strive for a two-week advance personal deadline and begin to cut heavily when it gets tight three weeks before the actual deadline.

Planning is key and the main tools are milestones and self-set deadlines (to be taken seriously). You know that you failed if you have to work very hard the week or day before the deadline (you should of course always work hard, but voluntarily :-) ).