I am a 4th year Ph.D. Student. After submitting my first paper 6 months ago, I have been continuing that research. I have a lot of new methods and results, and I am almost ready to start writing again.

How do I know if I should split my research into two papers or write a single comprehensive paper? If I choose to split, how do I decide where best to split the two papers?

Without going into too much detail, I have a method that explains the causes of a fairly well studied phenomenon. I can show that there are four distinct causes of this phenomenon and explain the relative importance of each cause in different situations. If I split my research into papers 1 and 2, the conclusions of paper 1 may seem vague and inconclusive. If I combine my research into a single paper, it may be quite long and rambling. I want to choose a path that minimizes both of these problems.

My mental model for the situation is a tipi. Some of the concepts in that I need to write about have to lean on one another for support, like the tent poles of a tipi. If there are not enough concepts (or tent poles) the rest of the concepts fall short of a real conclusion; The tipi will fall over the first time there is a strong wind. There are clusters of mutually supporting concepts that I can split off into separate papers, but I have a few unique ways to divide these concepts into clusters. I suspect that any of these individual clusters will be less stable and robust that all of the concepts built into a single paper, but maybe I am just being a paranoid perfectionist.

How can I frame my dilemma to help me make this decision? What question should I ask myself to find the right balance?

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    A general remark. A 4th year Ph.D. student should ask his/her advisor about things like this. Your advisor knows lots of details about it that we do not know. – GEdgar Jun 19 '18 at 0:34
  • Your reasoning is logical, so there may not be much more that we can add here. You've outlined the pros and cons of both options, the choice can only be made by someone who knows the details of the work. I second GEdgar in saying that your guide would be the best person to help here. – AppliedAcademic Jun 19 '18 at 4:14
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    Note that the problems you describe are a feature of how you write the paper(s), not of the work itself. – Jessica B Jul 19 '18 at 8:37

As @GEdgar said in comments, you should consult with your adviser. But in general, a paper should be about one thing. What you need to determine is whether that one thing is the method, whether it is the application of the method to a particular cause (then four related papers), or your other posited approach of two papers.

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  • This answer is not very helpful. I get to decide what "one thing" is, and I have a number of different ways to make that decision. – BobTheAverage Jun 20 '18 at 14:27

A key rule you should consider is that you should not 'salami slice' your research. Publishing multiple uninteresting papers is not (generally) considered as good as publishing one interesting one, particularly if doing so impacts the quality of the journal you submit to.

As well as asking your supervisor, you should look at other papers in your field, particularly in the journals you want to publish in. If your paper is a very different length from those papers, that will make it harder for you to get it published.

Another point to consider is how much repetition would occur in writing two papers. If you need a lot of background material that would appear in both papers, that is a point in favour of writing one. If a combined paper would consist of the first followed by the second, then perhaps the topics are different enough to make two papers.

A further question to ask yourself is why you decided the first paper was complete enough to submit to a journal. You haven't said if you've had a response yet. It is possible to change the results of a paper after submission (I did so once), but it is rarely a good idea.

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  • This answer is fairly helpful. It gives me a bit of a framework for thinking about the issues. – BobTheAverage Jul 19 '18 at 15:01

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