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I've been thinking about going through the process of writing and publishing a paper about the topic of a project I'm pursuing in my free time (purposefully keeping it vague because it's niche enough to doxx me).

The issue is, it's not at all related to my field of study, there is no way I'll be able to pursue this in the context of my current studies.

I casually inquired with some of my university friends and they said to contact a professor from a relevant field to mentor me and that the professor would probably be excited that someone would voluntarily be interested in such pursuits.

My questions are:

  1. Is this something that is allowed? I'm afraid that if I reach out to a professor, they'll just laugh at me.

  2. How much should you already have prepared before reaching out to a professor? I have a topic in mind and an idea for a methodology but I haven't actually put together anything yet specifically for this (though I do have a lot of raw data from research I've done for fun).

I know this is closely related to the idea of publishing as a non-academic. But in my head—with the caveat that I have no clue how this works—I would pursue this formally through my university as opposed to writing it up without any guidance and then trying to get it published. (I haven't found anything at my uni about how this would work but I first want to make sure that it's not a waste of time on account of it being a dumb idea).

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  • The two 'questions' posed are seemly disjointed to the title. Jun 24, 2023 at 20:46
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    Of course it is "allowed". Just don't claim (or hint) in the paper that your university has something to do with it. Use a non-academic email address as contact.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 25, 2023 at 17:56
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    Donald Knuth published The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures in *Mad Magazine" and no one batted an eyelid. Jun 26, 2023 at 7:58
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    LIfe suggestion: try to stop being afraid of people laughing at you for doing something that you really want to do and feel is worthwhile.
    – David
    Jun 27, 2023 at 5:56
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    @David. Better yet, learn to appreciate feedback, especially the negative. It's what ends up moving you forward. Jun 27, 2023 at 20:29

8 Answers 8

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Write up the paper. Find a relevant journal. Go to the journal website. Click Submission Guidelines or something like that.

Submit.

A professor might help you find a relevant journal. Or tell you if the work is worth publishing. Or help you match your prose to the journal style. But it's not crucial to have a professor behind you.

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    Just make sure in advance that you don't have the same name as a renowned expert in the field. Jun 25, 2023 at 7:04
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    OP should first check the submission guidelines before writing the paper! You probably meant "write a rough draft of your research findings" first.
    – einpoklum
    Jun 25, 2023 at 14:17
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    @MarkMorganLloyd: why? your name is your name - you do not cheat or anything by using it. If the journal does not publish the ORCID then it is their problem.
    – WoJ
    Jun 25, 2023 at 16:35
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    @WoJ I was thinking of an anecdote from years ago. Readers' Digest (or similar) received an essay from Larry Adler which, after copious desperately-needed editing, they published. Presently a follow-up arrived, where the author appended "I thought you might like to know a bit about me. I'm a 20-year-old college student...". Jun 25, 2023 at 18:15
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    @MarkMorganLloyd - If the journal doesn't use ORCID, you may as well take advantage of your name... That's on them Jun 26, 2023 at 16:44
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In general, all depends on how much time, resources, and data you are requesting from the professor. If you already have a solid idea and need a little bit of help, most professors will entertain a short meeting (just send an email to the professor). I would strongly recommend you that you conduct a thorough literature review (which you can do on your own) and highlight how your idea is different from anything that has been done in the relevant field. This would also let you know if you are on a wild goose chase or your idea holds any water. Just a word of caution, if you are not an expert in the field and haven’t done some homework professors would think it as just waste of their time.

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    A literature review is a very good idea regardless of anything else. A very closely related bit is that I can't count the number of times I've gotten something valuable out of putting together a question (or proposal) and trying to preempt all the "what about" and "did you try" responses I could see coming. In computer programming, that effect is often called en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging
    – BCS
    Jun 25, 2023 at 20:36
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No reason this wouldn't be allowed or even discouraged. I'm a public policy student. Most of my papers are decidedly NOT geared to public policy journals in any sense of the word. They're geared almost exclusively to econometrics and statistics publications, that many people in my department wouldn't try to or couldn't publish in.

But so what? Even if this was just my hobby, which it isn't, nobody can stop me or would want to stop me, because most of us are adults who can publish wherever we'd like to.

Anyways, I reached out to a friend about a paper we're currently working on. I'm not as good as he is, but I'm good enough to keep up with him (generally) both as a coder and as an econometrician. I like working with him because he's a serious worker and we work well together. I mention this, because so long as you can demonstrate to whoever you work with that you're a serious, knowledgeable worker, then most people will be more willing than you might expect to reach out to you! So, reach out if you want. You can develop new connections just like that.

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    Generally agree with this, although, to be fair, the boundary between public policy and economics is pretty porous. Lots of people I know in econ PhD programs get hired in public policy, and some in the opposite direction as well.
    – Dawn
    Jun 25, 2023 at 18:53
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I did my PhD in physics and published an article about evolutionary biology - just because I was interested in the topic and thought that the world was painfully missing my ideas in that area.

I sent the paper, got published, did some gna gna gna(*) in front of my wife who was a biologist and that's all.

I feel that way too many people assume that publishing requires some sanctification from a "Professor" or another deity. If your idea is sane and passes the reviewers then you are good to go!

a professor from a relevant field to mentor me

Mentoring is great but usually requires some motivation from the mentor. It really depends on what you want to be mentored about.

If this is "how to write a paper", well, it may be tough (except if they are to be a coauthor, maybe)

If this is to help you in their field then you may be more lucky.


(*) I told you in French

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Just one perspective I didn't see mentioned in the other answers is that while I don't know what field this research is in, in my field, reaching out to another professor and having them mentor you on this paper and ultimately included as an author on the paper (per whatever the authorship conventions may be in your field, of course) is a good way to build your network and form collaborations. A very good practice to get used to, and it's the kind of thing I wish I'd been in a better position to do when I was going through school.

However, there are of course many caveats. Getting another professor involved could be invaluable for their experience and insight on the study topic. Having that experience is really valuable for understanding cultural expectations in the field and avoiding you getting labeled as an outsider (usually not explicitly, of course). Or, the professor's involvement could result in a large change of focus that distracts or detracts from your desired vision. I would be reluctant to put my name on a paper whose ideas I didn't materially contribute to, meaning they should want to put in significant input. You might not know how much of a barrier this will be until you try.

Agreed with the other answers that you should do a thorough lit review and make sure you know your stuff. If you don't, reviewers will let you know for sure.

Also journals commonly charge publication fees. If you're on your own, I assume you would be responsible for the cost. I have no idea how that would work.

But good luck! This is an ambitious task and you'll learn a lot either way.

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One key question to me is whether to include your institute or not.

Pro: The affiliation would help people to judge your level of professionalism and what is your usual field of research.

Con: It might be not allowed by your institute or people giving you grant money might raise an eye brown.

  • Before adding your affiliation, talk to your advisor and/or institute head.
  • In any case, inform them that you are publishing a paper, they should not learn this from some external person but from you directly.
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This will depend, in part, on the nature of the data you've collected. If this data was collected from people or animals and the proper ethical procedures weren't followed (including oversight by an IRB), it may be entirely impossible for someone to join this project or for a venue to publish any results. This is true even if the experiment is obviously harmless and ethical. Approval has to be received before data collection.

Even if you've been performing experiments on a computer or measuring trees outside, the professor you contact may still want to rerun data collection using their own ideas about best practices.

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Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR, published his hobby paper on cosmology in Nature journal during his training years.

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  • Fair enough the questioner ask can and how. So, the answerer should perhaps add the how part. #QuestionTitle Jun 28, 2023 at 4:48

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