We're a little crazy, about science!

The final days of the “last paper”

Well I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I have some big news! As promised in the last, last paper update, I wasn’t going to talk about it until we had submitted the paper for review. Well as of today, last paper is FINALLY in review! Now this could be months before we get it actually published and maybe even longer if there is several rounds to the edits, but this is a big step.

Last paper has been a headache from the start. This has been two years in the making, or maybe more, honestly I forget, but we’re finally making serious progress. Since this is (almost) the end of the story I thought we could recap the history of “last paper” and why it was even called last paper. I feel like I’ve shared this story about a dozen times, but it was so damned traumatic I want to keep telling it because I don’t want anyone else to feel like they are a failure if they have a similar story.

Last paper is called last paper because it was the final paper I had to submit, but if we go in chronological order, it was paper number two. The first was robot paper, which is currently under review after responding. Robot paper has been another sticking point in my career. We’ve (my former PI and I) submitted this paper about a dozen times (maybe not QUITE that many, but surprisingly close) and everyone wanted more. So I began to feel pretty down on myself because robot paper would’ve (and should’ve) been my first, first author paper.

Then came last paper, which was an experiment I wasn’t super excited to do anyway, but I had gotten funding from my lab and that funding was attached to this experiment, so it was mine to do. It was a disaster of serious proportions. The dataset was super hard to work with, I was asked to do certain things I had no idea how to do, and it was all around a giant pain. So for almost a full year after the data was collected I sat and worked, and failed. This cycle repeated once every three or so months when I had to give very formal updates on the project (like this one).

So now I had two papers that I needed to juggle and nothing was getting done, or at least no visible progress was being made and my mental health went downhill pretty fucking quick. Then I had a third paper thrust on me, I took it by choice so not quite as dramatic as I made it sound, but that was just one more paper on the pile of papers backing up. That third paper, which was actually my first published (here), took over a year to write and rewrite, but the peer-review process went quickly thankfully.

However, before that good news came I had the chance to take on a fourth paper. Because I have discovered (mostly from writing daily like this) I like making my life as hard as humanly possible, I said yes to taking on the project (here). And that was how I had not one, not two, not three, but four papers pile up on me all at once.

Robot paper has been years of work (literally I’m on my fourth year of my PhD, so almost five years), last paper has been over two. Thankfully the third and fourth papers went much smoother. Shortly after the third (seizure paper, which was previously linked) and fourth (spinal stimulation paper) papers were published almost back to back. My streak of papers piling up was broken and I have since felt slightly better about my situation.

Last paper was unique though because there has been a lot of back and forth between my co-authors about how the analysis was done, what may be wrong, what may be right, and I’m stuck in the middle watching my PI-parents fight over the correct way to do things. To be clear, I’m proud of the work I accomplished with the paper, I stand by the analysis, and we found a lot of interesting (and weird) things. Still, I hate this paper because it almost caused me to drop out and left me feeling suicidal and very much alone. I was juggling the work between two labs and had only myself as a common connection between the two so no one could help me.

I finished writing last paper back in August or so, but since then it’s been edited and re-edited over and over until today when all the authors were equally unhappy. I say unhappy because the senior authors had to come to some agreements about how to discuss the findings and what they could mean, but I think it ended as good as it could possibly have ended. As of today, we are finally in peer review and with a little luck, only minor changes will be requested. So while this isn’t the conclusion of last paper, it’s the final act in this story.

I don’t think I can adequately describe how worthless this paper made me feel. This would’ve been a challenging dataset for anyone and it was my dataset, someone who had no real experience working with this kind of data. It took me years to learn enough from both senior authors to make sense of the data and to analyze it properly. The code needed to process the data and pull out the things that were interesting was all custom written by me and I learned a lot along the way.

I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and quite frankly drowned for awhile. So this paper has a lot of trauma baggage behind it. I will be happy when it’s published and again, I stand by what we did, but I’ll never be proud of it. Mostly because it will be a constant reminder to me of the years of suffering I had to endure to get out from under it.

There will be two more posts on “last paper” the first will be the (hopefully quick) acceptance and the final will be the review of what we did and found (like seizure paper, spinal stimulation paper, and hopefully soon, robot paper). But right now I think it’s best for my mental health if I focus on the upcoming work with my dissertation.

Overall, I’m thankful to be closing the door on this chapter, and while not completely shut, it’s enough for me to breathe a sigh of relief.


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