An unfinished manuscript is a scientific paper that you’ve started but, for various reasons, haven’t finished to a level where it can be published in an academic journal.
Unfinished scientific manuscripts usually represent months of hard work going to waste when you could be earning citations (if the manuscript was published). They can make you feel anxious and guilty, feeling you should finish the job.
They may be due to missing sections, uninterpreted data, extensive or unclear peer review, and/or many other factors.
Perhaps you have one or many unfinished manuscripts. We specialize in helping you get your manuscript finished and published. We’ve also found solutions you can attempt yourself or do with our expert-guided help.
Imagine finally completing it and adding it to your publication record. In most cases, it’s easier and faster than you might think.
What you’ll learn in this post
• Why unfinished works are not uncommon, and you’re not alone if you have one.
• Identifying the main reasons that research manuscripts remain unfinished and unpublished.
• Practical ways to get through these roadblocks and get published!
• Our experience-based, expert-led services that can get you and your manuscript across the finish line.
Unfinished manuscripts and other works: You and Isaac Newton
Unfinished manuscripts aren’t a new phenomenon. History is full of examples of unfinished creative or scientific works.
When Isaac Newton died in 1727, he left many unfinished scientific manuscripts. Newton was multitalented he left mathematical, natural, and philosophical writings. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, The Beatles, Leonardo DaVinci – all these artists left work unfinished. They got distracted, were never satisfied, or they passed away before they could finish.
That means that if you have an unfinished work, you’re in elite company. And finishing a STEM manuscript is probably easier than finishing the Mona Lisa (another unfinished work).
In modern science, an unfinished manuscript is an incomplete study. It cannot be formally published as a journal article, book chapter, or industry publication. Something kept it from being completed.
What are the reasons behind your Mona Lisa manuscript? When you know those, you can get through them.
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So then, why do manuscripts go unpublished?
There’s a handful of main reasons why scientific manuscripts go unpublished. Some relate to your study itself or to your writing. Others relate to other people or forces, such as colleagues, peer reviewers, and other researchers. These are the main ones and how to get through them and get published.
1. Your manuscript has sections missing
Manuscripts often remain unfinished because some parts are incomplete.
For example, you did the data analysis; but didn’t write up the Results or Discussion section. This often happens because data interpretation is time- and thought-intensive. Reconsider the order in which you write your paper.
Tip: Adding your missing sections the “write way”
There’s no official “right way” to prepare an academic manuscript, but at Edanz, we believe there is a “write way” – start with the Methods, then the Results, then the Discussion, then the Introduction, References, title, and finally, the abstract.
The Methods are usually easier, especially if English isn’t your first language, because they’re a list. There’s no interpretation in this part.
After that, write the Results. These are a little harder because you have to narrow down your focus. Many researchers overreach in this section.
The Results section should contain:
- Your primary data in text, tables, and figures
- Your analysis of this data, in sentences
- Any other corresponding data related to your research question
- Any secondary findings
- That’s all.
Then, move to the Discussion, which is also challenging because you have to analyze, not just list what happened.
If you struggle with the Results and Discussion section, you can:
- Start with a rough outline of the entire paper
- Then, go back and add more detail
- Review with your co-authors or advisers, and finish off these sections
Now you’ve got through the hard parts, you can breeze through the Introduction and remaining parts.
2. Your manuscript’s sections need fine-tuning
Your paper may be structurally complete. It’s been revised and reviewed by different people several times. And yet, something is not quite right.
For example, there might be a bug in your code set that is messing up your analysis. Or the Methods section need to flow more clearly. Please resist the urge to put it aside forever because it seems like too much trouble. You’re so close to finishing.
First of all, your paper may be good enough for a lower-impact-factor journal or may just need an edit or an expert review to get it to a publishable state. You might need to set it aside for a short while or get an outside opinion.
Giving up now is an admission of failure. That’s not good. Don’t give up. Instead, push through by fine-tuning your sections.
Tip: Fine-tuning your sections
Leave the paper for a while and revisit it after a few weeks with fresh eyes. But first, take notes on what issues need fixing. That way, when you sit down to work on it, you won’t start from square one. And while you’re away, don’t forget it entirely. Keep reading other studies and seeing how other successfully published studies handled the same problems.
If you have co-authors, they’re naturally there to help you. If you’re held up on data interpretation, task this to a co-author more skilled in that area or hire a statistician to help you run more tests.
If you’re struggling with writing scientific English, task that to a co-author who has strong English skills, or hire a scientific editor to assist (and be sure to give them attribution in the acknowledgments).
3. Your findings are out-of-date, not novel
When someone else publishes before you do, your findings immediately stop being new/novel. They become out-of-date. This seems like a big problem, and many researchers give up here. You have another unfinished manuscript. But it’s not over, you can still publish your work.
First, aim to analyze data and wrap up papers as soon as possible. This reduces the chances of someone publishing on the topic before you do. Work with speed and focus. Stick to a schedule as best you can.
Even if you work quickly and someone publishes before you, you can update your work or take a different angle.
Tip: Updating and repositioning your findings
If someone published something very similar to your work, you could:
- Look at the differences in your study and rewrite your paper to focus on those. And be sure to add the similar study as a reference.
- Try for a lower-impact journal if your findings are similar to those in another study, but they have a unique angle.
- If there are real differences (in the methods or data) between a published study and your study, you have more options.
- Consider your work incremental. Expand on the other study’s findings in some way. For example, use a larger sample/data set.
- Put a unique spin on how you analyze the data (using different methods).
4. Your findings are unimportant
Manuscripts also go unpublished because of insufficient data or uninteresting findings. The paper doesn’t answer the big “so what?” question. In other words, it’s not clear why you did the study.
You might have run your data analysis and realized you have very little that is worthy of reporting. Or a peer reviewer may have given you negative comments about the novelty or value of your findings. It can be tempting to say, “oh, forget it” and move on to something else. But you may also be close to having a publishable work.
To produce important findings of publication standards, you need to
- have formulated a clear, limited, and original research question
- have identified the gaps in scientific knowledge that your research will fill
- be able to explain what problem your study solves or how it furthers our knowledge
So, yes, often the “interesting” part of your work starts before you start gathering data. But you can also still find something of interest later on.
Tip: Finding the value in your findings
Indeed, some data may not be worth the energy and time needed to publish them. It’s also true that while some researchers go for breakthroughs, others publish smaller results.
As a Plan B, you can always publish minor findings as a preprint, a completed scientific work shared publicly on a free, open-access platform. The good thing about preprints is they can be cited, although they have not been peer-reviewed.
In most cases, however, you can spin your paper into something novel and. Ask yourself (and your peers) if you:
- Consider that a different method might yield better results (e.g., if a qualitative approach doesn’t work, try mixed methods)
- Reformulate your research question to ensure it:
- is informed by the literature and
- contributes to current debates in your field
- Narrow down the scope of your study (e.g., limit the geographical scope or population size)
As an example, this study from China explores the impact of food safety regulations on the prevention and control of COVID-19. The research question emerges from gaps in the literature. It’s significant because it can be used as a benchmark to improve food safety regulations during public health crises.
5. Your study is too ambitious
Some unfinished manuscripts are still in their first version. They’re a compilation of raw data that still need to be interpreted.
Maybe you collected too much data. This makes the data analysis, synthesis, and interpretation especially challenging. You don’t know where to start. We’ve got a solution for that, too.
Tip: Tempering your ambitions
Split your work into two (or more) shorter pieces. And this doesn’t mean salami slicing.
You might first plan to write a single manuscript on maternal bonding in early infancy as a predictor of children’s social competencies. This big undertaking might lead to an overly long and unfocused paper. It may cover too many populations (e.g., toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children).
A good way around this is to divide your data/findings into different age groups. For example, this German study explores only the impact of bonding on preschool-aged children’s social competencies. That’s focused. It creates a boundary for what the paper will cover. It’s also more useful for other scientists and lets you become more of an authority in a specific area.
Narrowing down the scope of your research is more likely to bring more publications and citations.
6. Your references need to be updated
When your unfinished manuscript is sitting on your hard drive, new studies might be published. Or maybe your references got “old” in the time you spent writing the paper and responding to peer review.
Researchers need to read, read, and then read some more to keep up to date on new publications in their fields. That’s because recent studies might have invalidated old work.
Tip: Updating your references
Reference management (e.g., EndNote, Zotero) software helps you safely store and easily update your references within the manuscript. This way, you won’t have to retype and renumber manually.
Mendeley offers a particularly handy function that suggests papers you haven’t read and might be of interest based on your library of saved references.
Google Scholar can also send you emails with links to recently published studies relating to the search terms you enter.
Similarly, use the features offered by research dissemination and networking platforms, like Academia.edu or ResearchGate. Follow scientists and/or topics of interest to stay up to date with the most recent publications in your field.
Read more on managing your references in this Learning Lab post.
7. You have no time to finish
As external pressures increase, you may not have enough time to write, revise, and submit your manuscript to a journal. And then go through peer review.
Researchers get tied up in tasks unrelated to science, like:
- Teaching or administrative duties
- Organizing conferences
- Putting together grant proposals
Other factors are personal issues, other papers you’re working on, and even a loss of interest in your topic. Of course, you’ll need to find some time to finish, but it doesn’t have to be a lot of time.
Tip: Using your time differently
If time really is the problem, then you can take parts of your unfinished paper and use them in your newer study.
For example, if you have an unfinished scientific manuscript about using machine learning to detect depression. But your interests changed a bit. Now you’re planning a study on the ability of artificial intelligence to detect schizophrenia.
You can use part of the Literature Review section of your unfinished study to inform the background of your new paper. This means that your time and effort are well-spent. And you’re free to work on a topic that truly interests you. Also, as mentioned above, you can finish off your other work and post it as a preprint. Then you can reference your preprint in your new study.
8. English language barriers
English is the native language of 7.3% of the global population. And while less than 20% can speak the language, almost 75% of all scholarly publications are in English.
Research shows that writing a manuscript in English is something many non-native English speakers fear. They may end up with even more unfinished manuscripts than native speakers because they
- Feel insecure about their English
- Don’t know the academic writing conventions in English
- Keep rewriting/editing the manuscript, fearing it will be rejected
All these factors delay the writing process—especially for the challenging Results and Discussion/Conclusions sections, as mentioned above.
Since 1995, Edanz has been working to get researchers like you successfully published. So we know quite a bit about this topic. We offer a wide range of services, though there are ways you can also help yourself.
Tip: Bring your scientific English to a native level
Aside from reading and writing scientific English, these are some steps you can take to put on a level playing field with native English speakers:
- Attend academic writing workshops/training. Many universities and research centers offer seminars providing researchers with the skills they need to write scientific manuscripts.
- Have a native English speaker proofread your paper. This can be an Edanz professional editor, or at least it could be a native (or highly fluent) speaker of English.
- Seek support from colleagues who are native or highly fluent English speakers. For example, if you co-author a paper with a native speaker, ask them to take the lead on drafting the manuscript.
9. Circumstances beyond your control
Sometimes, it’s not your fault that your manuscript is unfinished. Things outside of your control have happened. These include:
- Research participants (to be interviewed, examined etc.) becoming unavailable
- Collaborators not sending data/findings on time; or submitting poor work
- Supervisors not replying to you, or providing no guidance
- Co-authors making formatting/measurement (or other) errors that create additional work
- Colleagues not providing the specialist advice you need
- Peer reviewers who ask for major revisions or whose requests are unclear
Handling peer review might be the easiest of all of these to deal with. Please read our articles on
As for the other factors, it’s really case-by-case. Our overall advice is to seek ways around the problem. Don’t let one person or one external factor keep you from getting published. And when you need ideas about how to do this…
10. Ask us about our services for unfinished manuscripts
We found so many of our clients had manuscripts that could be published, but sadly, they weren’t published. They started but, for some reason, they never finished.
The nine reasons above are often why our client researchers have an unfinished scientific paper. Through consultation and a range of services, we can:
- refine your English
- analyze what you have and give suggestions
- work with you on manuscript reform
- help you update your references
…and help with any stage of the research process by pairing you with published experts and our relentlessly customer-focused support team.
See a full list of Edanz author support services here and contact us here with any questions.