The double flip-flop and other stratagems

Life beyond editorial deadlines

Bernard Thierry 1 March 2008

Piling up: the fine art of procrastination

Poseidon's avenging wrath against Ulysses was nothing compared with the deadly fury of an editor

As scientists, we pride ourselves on our rigour, and this applies to our deadlines as well. We have learned to send applications within the time allotted by funding agencies, and we are bound to deliver manuscripts to editors by agreed deadlines. In collective enterprises like multi-authored books, any significant delay in a single manuscript may harm the whole editorial process.

Honouring deadlines is a mark of self-respect. When learning that a colleague has sent a paper more than six months after a deadline, we find it unprofessional. As we get older, however, our time becomes more difficult to control. We accumulate duties. We cannot put off meetings, committees and seminars, no more than we may escape staff management and administrative tasks. We have to implement suitable strategies to cope with editorial deadlines.

Remember when you were first invited to contribute a review paper? You were flattered and pleased to find the right place to develop your latest arguments about a favoured topic. In the ensuing months you take notes with this task in mind. That is your best time – but you do not know it. Then, the editor sends you a kind e-mail reminding you that the deadline is approaching. Despite its predictability, this first warning surprises you. The editor could have politely waited until the deadline has passed. Does he lack confidence in your commitment? True, you have not even written the first word, but you feel that a few months will suffice to complete the paper. For the time being, however, you find yourself answering that you have already written half of it, and you promise that it will be completed quickly. At this stage, one can only hope you’ve been level-headed enough to say nothing about the actual delivery date.

Some months pass; you have started writing but you soon request some more patience from the editor. Avoid childish excuses like a broken arm or the corruption of you laptop; instead, use unavoidable tasks like applications and reviews. The editor will have similar problems and will be kind enough to accept your story, but at the expense of pushing back his own deadline. You have made good progresses in your work and are quite optimistic about the time needed to finish. While negotiating a new deadline, you sincerely believe that, this time, you will deliver on time.

Until now you’ve had it easy. Applying the usual routine was enough. Unfortunately a combination of traveling and immediate obligations prevents you from writing another word. The second deadline approaches. From that moment the game becomes tight. The editor may get unpleasant or, worse, he could send an ultimatum. This must be avoided at all cost. The best pretences are those inspired by students: lectures, exams, theses. Of course you will not fool the editor – he knows the game better than you – but you will buy yourself a few more months. At this stage, free style is allowed and even advisable provided you do not forget a few rules. Don't wait for the editor to send you anxious e-mails; instead, show your goodwill by taking the initiative in correspondences. Send updates about your progress whenever you feel that he is just about to send a query, and follow through with meticulous gradation of promises. The editor's frail hope about the reality of what you have actually written is dependent on gradation. Be aware that he heartily believes in what we might call anti-Zeno's paradox: "any decrease in the time span of the next deadline given to an author gets him closer to paper submission". Any regression in this process would suddenly turn the red lights on his board.

Can things possibly get worse? Yes, a common disaster can happen: the telescoping of deadlines. If you have promised another paper to a second editor, you are in danger even if you planned an appropriate interval between the two deliveries. The more successful you are in postponing the first deadline, the more probable it is that you will collide with the deadline of the next paper. To avoid telescoping, you may consider using the deadline flip-flop: finish the second paper first and leave the other pending. This way you may soon find yourself back with a single editor. I advise beginners against this exercise, however. The flip-flop is a master coup, and quite enjoyable, but you must be experienced and cool enough to appreciate whether circumstances allow for it. Any misjudgement will leave you with two uncompromising editors at the same time.

At this time you are at least one year beyond the initial deadline. You may be in so much despair that you are actually considering telling the editor that you give up. Resist the urge: you would bear the sin for years. Poseidon's avenging wrath against Ulysses was nothing compared with the deadly fury of an editor. He would not rest until he publicizes everywhere how traitorous you are. In your misfortune you might also believe that the editor is going to withdraw his paper proposal. In such case never forget that your lateness also gives you a position of strength. Finding a replacement for you would mean a further delay for the editor and no more guarantees than if he waited for your submission. He is therefore ready to make further concessions. You are condemned to keep on dancing together.

When you reach your third or fourth missed deadline, your word is no longer reliable. You have exhausted the last innocent query about paper format or number of illustrations. You still desperately need some more months. I advise you to make one last thrust. Send your current draft to the editor. After months of promises, the editor's greatest fear is to discover that you have not written one word. Receiving evidence about the existence of the manuscript is a great relief for him. This way you get a bit of play on the rope that has held you for so long.

At last you complete the manuscript. You send it. You finally regain your freedom and stop annoying your family and friends about an obsessive paper for which they see no necessity at all. The grateful editor will not inform you that, despite all your weaknesses, you are not the worst member of his pool of irresponsible authors. He still has to wait for the manuscripts of some of your peers who are more pathologically skilled than you in the delaying process. As a last recommendation, never reveal even under torture how outrageously long you have overstepped the theoretical deadline. Real time limits are secrets as jealously kept as prices in trading.

You are now a master of the editorial pas de deux. Congratulations! You have just become the sort of author you disliked. You may now consider applying for a position that is the envy of everyone: being an editor.