Biology is so exciting! Answering a question leads to thousand more questions! There is no limit to how much one kind find out about a phenomena…

So I have always wondered how someone can decide that it is time to publish some fixed amount of research they have done. How do biologists decide when to publish a paper? How do biologists know that results are sufficient enough for a publication?

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    $\begingroup$ haha... when reviewer is satisfied :P $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 22 '14 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG And I believe there are money constraints too! $\endgroup$ – biogirl May 23 '14 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ not much.. just advertising constraints $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 23 '14 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG By money, I mean funding ... What exactly is advertising ? $\endgroup$ – biogirl May 23 '14 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ Reviewers/referees are indeed the gatekeepers and they hold the key and they can make it quite difficult to publish a good work! Money is most certainly a constraint for the scientists that have to pay for the paper especially to make it open-access although many funding bodies these days pay for the publication costs! The journals however take advantage and they charge astronomical amounts for advertising and only allow the highest bidder to advertise as they self impose a space limit, hence they become choosy over it, which becomes a constraint on their part. $\endgroup$ – Bez May 23 '14 at 15:31

I agree with all the responses so far; however I thought I should add that to publish a paper in a decent internationally peer-reviwed journal, more often than not, a paper has to tell a story, ideally a novel story and not just the same data that has been published before or at least address an old question in a new manner, that provides a fresh insight into the field or the question. A publication can't just be a bunch of random small and unrelated questions and experiments, at least not in any peer-reviewed journal. The key to a successful paper is that it should have ideally one message, which can be identified in the title, since believe it or not thats how most scientists vet whether a paper (abstract/summary) worth looking at or not. So as correctly mentioned, you identify a gap in the knowledge and attempt to address it having considered what is know about it so far, if any. Writing a paper follows a global formula, which has been elaborated in Chris response. Hence the key is that the paper has to tell ideally one story and the experiments used to address it has to make a logical progression to address the question. So you can't just jump from a small preliminary experiment which is questionable in its reliability into a large scale experiment. Some times you have to make the leap of "faith" in your experimentations and just do a certain experiment but the chances are your previous experiments have given you an indication as to whether its going to work or not. Be very mindful that most of the time the order in which you do your experiments is not the order in which you put them in the paper so what usually happens is that you have a central question, you do a bunch of experiments to address it and then you shuffle them around to tell the story in the most concise way and again the key word here is story.

Now not only a paper has to tell a concise story but it has to be of general interest to the scientific community, specially in high impact journals. You probably know a recent paper about STAP cell lines that got into Nature and attracted world-wide attention in which the authors described how exposing the cells to stimulus/stressors such as acid or pressure can turn it pluripotent, which the media linked to personalised treatments. Now I don't want to get into all the controversy that followed it but its just to make the point that a research like this is not only of interest to the scientific community but also the public hence it got published in a highly respectable journal. Now whether thats the right thing for scientists to do and send important research to the top journals, which is hard to access by many countries is a whole different argument but I hope you can begin to see publishing a paper in a journal is not only related to its scientific merits but also to what extent it is of interest to the general or scientific community and what story is it telling or implying (to put it a bit more crudely). Now not every paper makes it to Nature and most of the time publications are highly specialised work which not everyone on the planet might be interested in them but they still follow the points I talked about.

hope this helps!


When you do science you start with a question or a hypothesis. How is Gene A regulated? Or "does hormone B have an effect on the immune system". Or whatever.

Then you start by thinking how you can prove or disprove your question/hypothesis with experiments. You then do your experiments and see if they are enough to prove your question. It often happens that you have to do additional experiments to cover side-questions which appear during the work or to exclude some side-effects which may also be important. If you have done all this (with replicates) and looked from different angles on your problem, then you can start writing an article.

This includes some introduction from the literature and a classification of your results into the things already known. If you make strong claims, then you will need a lot of arguments (=results) to prove your point. It is quite hard to argue against "common knowledge".

The question of how much research is enough is quite philosophical, since you usually don't "finish" a topic. You look only at certain aspects from a certain angle. This can be quite different for other researchers.

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    $\begingroup$ "..since you usually don't "finish" a topic".. I just love this line ! $\endgroup$ – biogirl May 22 '14 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ It is really like this. Working on one question often throws up two or three new related questions. That's what makes science to exciting. Of course you need quite some tolerance to frustration, as not everything works as intended or as it should. $\endgroup$ – Chris May 22 '14 at 16:33

It's all about "Is this paper interesting enough to get published?" And people just get a feel for that when they are reading papers all the time, and submitting papers frequently. For instance, maybe publicizing a big cool dataset was useful enough a few years ago to be published as is, but now, you might need a good finding that you found from that dataset, and followed up on, before the paper will be considered by your journal of choice.

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    $\begingroup$ Thats right. Standards change and people get used to some findings if it is shown the 10th time. $\endgroup$ – Chris May 22 '14 at 16:42

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