A kanban approach to writing and publishing academic research papers

Kanban is a system used in logistics to control the flow of project components from one type of level of engagement to another. It’s used widely in systems like lean manufacturing, as it’s implemented in Toyota and other firms.

Imagine if an academic followed kanban for writing academic projects. Take an individual paper as a “component”. Now consider four levels of engagement: Backlog, In Progress, Built, and Validated.

Most academics have many papers, ideas, concepts, snippets, or other components in the Backlog stage. It’s the idea you come up with while exercising, or the thing you talked about with a colleague at lunch; it’s the opportunity that presented itself at that last conference.

In Progress is when you’re actually working on that paper/idea/concept/snippet/grant. Built is when it’s done – perhaps circulating as a working paper on SSRN, the arXiv, or some other server; perhaps you’re presenting it at the next Academy of Management Meeting (but must submit it as a completely written paper months in advance); perhaps it’s actually under review.

Validated could mean many things but it should mean “in print” or “accepted”. In the long run, it means “widely cited”, but I’ll put that to the side for present purposes.

Kanban means that you have buckets for each stage or level of engagement. Imagine you have only four slots per stage (though Validated might have more than four). That would mean you can only have four under review at any time until one gets accepted. Or only four in Backlog – even though you’d love to have five there, but you can’t because the “In Progress” stage is full and you can’t move one of your Backlog projects up. It would mean that your “In Progress” stage gets full at some point if you aren’t able to convert papers at the Built (“under review”) stage.

Clearly there are opportunities for revision here. Perhaps Built is elastic because there is an infinite number of journals that might accept your paper (well, maybe not, but there are a lot of journals). Certainly we should have an elastic Validated stage.

But the principal is clear: attention is a scarce resource, and the kanban system emphasizes moving projects from Backlog to Validated by enforcing an attention budget constraint at each level. Honestly, if there a lot of papers stuck at the Built stage, it’s probably a better choice to limit new paper development and improve some of them so that they pass through to Validated. Or if they can’t be validated, to reject them.

[Apologies to Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup.]

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