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Publishing a theoretical paper

  1. Dec 2, 2014 #1

    I've decided to try to write and publish a paper by the end of my undergraduate degree. I'm planning to get advice from professors at my institution at a later stage in the process - I'd like to approach them when I've narrowed my topic some more and made the focus clearer, and when I've finished a much more thorough review of the literature. I thought both in terms of being practical and in terms of my interests, writing a paper emphasizing theory would be best (I'm not in physics by the way - my degree is in psychology and neuroscience).

    I want to get started right away, but I need some basic advice first. Seeing as I don't want to approach my professors yet, I hoped you guys could help.

    What would be your definition of a theoretical paper? I've tried to find some examples in my field but getting a workable definition from people that have experience in this would be much better.

    What would the difference in scope be in a theoretical paper vs a review article?

    I'd also love any advice you have on writing or publishing a theoretical paper!

    Thanks in advance :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 2, 2014 #2


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    Is this an April Fool's joke? It is only December, not anywhere near April.

  4. Dec 2, 2014 #3
    Please don't mock me. I don't see how that's helpful.
    If you have actual criticisms, I'd like to hear them. That's part of what posting this thread is about.
    Also, I find it odd that with many similar threads on this forum that have been posted by laymen and crackpots, who haven't done even the preliminary steps of literature review (for example) and who nonetheless received constructive replies, you would be so discouraging to an undergraduate who has an interest in research.
  5. Dec 2, 2014 #4
    I think before you decide to publish a paper, it is important to do research first. You need to talk to professors at your school and ask around to find out who is accepting students.

    Otherwise, you need to find a professor who is willing to mentor your independent study.

    You have not at all indicated what your background is ( i.e what year you are, your course background, research experience etc.), so it is hard to give you any suggestions. Also, since this is a physics forum , I doubt someone can help you (that much) with a psychology paper.

    I don't know why you don't want to approach your professors, they can probably guide you the best...
  6. Dec 2, 2014 #5
    The original purpose of publishing a paper is not having a paper published to add to your CV/applications but sharing results of professional research that has been performed with the scientific community in case it is considered helpful to them. In reality, though, this purpose has been lost to a large degree in modern academia. So one way to interpret ZapperZ's reaction would be that your post could be considered as a cynical mockery of reality of university research (even though I doubt that was what he actually referred to, since many people in academia still hold the mere fact of publishing a paper in high regards despite this not being warranted in all cases).

    If you are interested in research: Do research. The best way to do so is approaching your professors (with the aim of doing interesting research, not with the aim of publishing a paper). In fact, university professors (or other university staff) are probably the best people in the world to approach with such an inquiry.
  7. Dec 2, 2014 #6
    Ok, I see. I don't care about the CV though - I really really want to do research. I've wanted to do that for years and since my first year at university I've been itching to do that. Problem is, psychology/neuroscience programs are insanely competitive where I live and it's been extremely difficult to get a professor to take notice. That also means that traditional forms of research are unavailable to me (at least, that's how it seems to me) - I don't have a neuroscience lab nor access to experimental subjects. That's why I thought doing a theoretical paper would be best - that's something I can do without a lab and it might get me some real research opportunities.

    @ bluechic92 : I'm a 3rd year psychology neuroscience dual major. I have several graduate courses under my belt as well in developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience and in theoretical and developmental psychodynamic theory.

    EDIT: Also, one of the reasons I'm not approaching professors yet is that I want to be absolutely sure I understand what I'm doing - so I'm asking for basic advice like the difference between a theoretical paper and review article here. Trust me, getting laughed at here is better than making a fool of myself in front of a professor who may then carry that first impression of me with him.
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2014
  8. Dec 2, 2014 #7


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    Then why not try to write a paper in your area of expertise, rather than thinking that you have enough of a knowledge to write a "theoretical physics" paper, which appears to be something you barely know anything about. THAT is what I had a hard time understanding and the reason for my cynical response.

    Secondly, it is often a BAD idea simply to write a paper just for the sake of writing a paper. Many of us who publish papers were because we did something and then discovered that the results were significant enough to warrant a publication. You are going about this the wrong way. You already made up your mind that you want to publish a paper (which, BTW, isn't a guarantee since publications are refereed), and then are now hunting for a topic. Publishing a paper should be a CONSEQUENCE of producing something worthwhile.

    So start doing research FIRST. Only after you think you have a significant-enough result that others think are important can you start thinking of publishing it, not before.

  9. Dec 2, 2014 #8
    Thanks for your reply ZapperZ. Just to clarify, the paper I was thinking of wouldn't have been a "theoretical physics" paper - I couldn't even give a good description of a quark, much less write a theoretical physics paper. I mean theoretical in scope - like, instead of presenting new research, taking existing research and reexamining it. I've seen several published psychology papers that do this over the course of my degree. Also, to take an example from biochemistry, when I learned about the function of leptin there was a fascinating paper that took existing research and reexamined it by hypothesizing leptin acted as an afferent signal in a negative-feedback loop controlling body fat levels. I'm just posting here because I saw a lot of great replies on this forum even to people in computer science, biology, etc. non physics fields, and I assume a lot of the process is similar enough for physicists to give replies on trying to publish (frankly, every psych forum I found is not worth posting in).

    And I do have a topic. The topic I'm exploring is whether schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder present similar enough neuropsychological deficits in recall and recognition memory of emotional events, and in forming internalized representations of emotional events to be usefully characterized as being at different developmental levels of the same basic memory capacity. I've found some support for this - enough to make me hopeful this could be a significant contribution! This is after working with schizophrenic and borderline children and adolescents, as well as going over a large amount of psychological literature. I still obviously need to refine the idea, as I said.

    I DON'T just want to publish for the sake of it. I want to research, work, research, work harder, and after doing that a few times maybe by the end of next year have something half-good.

    I think that starting to do the research first is a great idea. But I don't know how to do this. What's the worked required for a theoretical paper - reviewing the literature? something else? When do I know that the result is significant enough? How do I know how much I've progressed in my research when it's theoretical? What should the scope be like?
  10. Dec 2, 2014 #9


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    This is where you must have a talk with a professor or your academic advisor. They are there to also answer such a question. They also know the available resources and expertise at your institution that you may tap into. None of us here have that information.

  11. Dec 2, 2014 #10
    Ok, I understand. I guess I was hoping for some general advice, or that there was something else I could do to move this forward until that point, but if whatever steps I need to take depend on my institution and circumstances, I get that.
    A whole-hearted thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my question! I appreciate it.
  12. Dec 2, 2014 #11


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    For what it's worth...

    A review article is a paper that's written by several experts in the field (or at least people who have actively published in it) and more often than not they are invited by the journal. Its goal is to summarize the current state of a field or topic within a field. It will define some very specific questions and evaluate a specific set of work that has been done and show how recent findings should come together. It will also conclude with future directions, unanswered questions and likely next steps. As an undergraduate or even as a graduate student, it is a good exercise to attempt to write something that looks like one in order to gain a better understanding of your field. But it's not a good idea to try to publish it - simply because you're not in a position to gauge the background of most people reading the article.

    A theoretical paper is one that uses analytical or computational techniques to make a unique and scientifically important contribution to the field. It contains little or no new measured data.

    If you have an idea that you want to approach your professors with, it's best to tell them that you have an idea for a project that you would like to pursue and are interested in guideance or mentorship. Hopefully this will be met with interest and encouragement or at least with the professor directing you to someone who is in a position to offer that.
  13. Dec 2, 2014 #12
    First, I did not mean to sound like I was mocking you. Second, I agree with ZapperZ's latest post to you.

    To answer your question about the work required for a theoretical paper, here's what I did for theoretical physics.
    *My work has not been published, and it probably won't be, but it did turn into my thesis.

    1) My advisor suggested the topic, it was something he's been curious about
    2) I needed to develop a strong foundation to make progress so I read relevant texts and worked on textbook problems
    3) I started to come up with was to figure how to approach my research problem ( had some calculations and stuff)
    4) Read lots and lots of already published papers related to my topic
    5)discussed and conversed with my advisor

    Repeated 2-5 ( not always in above order) until we were satisfied. So technically, there's a lot more work to be done. It was good for a thesis, but not good enough for a publication. Why? Because, although I had new calculations and new "predictions" ( can't think of a better word), I did not have a good support for it. I couldn't fully explain the "why is it this result, what does it really mean? etc). I had holes in my background and there was a lot more work that needed to be done. Maybe someday, I'll come back to my thesis and dig deeper.

    I hope that sort of helps you figure out your research. I agree withe everyone else. You will get the best advice from professionals in your field!
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2014
  14. Dec 3, 2014 #13


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    (I added the boldface in the quote above.)

    "Academic culture" varies from one country to another. When someone here says "where I live" or "in my country", in my experience it usually means they're not in the US. Much of the advice given in this forum tends to be from people in the US, where undergraduate research experience has become very important during the past two decades, and most professors are at least aware of this, if not actively engaged in supervising undergraduates in research.

    I realize that there may be legitimate privacy or security reasons for hiding where you're from. On the other hand, there may be people here who are familiar or acquainted with the situation in your country or university. So you should at least consider giving us some idea of where you are.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2014
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