researcher thinking about paper topic

#103: How to find a paper topic

Is writing a journal paper high up on your agenda? Then one of the first questions to clarify is what you’re going to write about. What is the topic of your paper? We know identifying a topic can sometimes be a painful process. Therefore, we’ve provided 10 ideas for how you can find the topic for your next journal paper.    

Why can’t you just sit down and write about what comes to mind? Isn’t writing a creative process? You’re a lucky writer if you can both be in the mood for writing at all, and actually have the time to do it. Choosing a topic isn’t all that difficult, right? 

Well, yes, but you’ll soon realise that writing a paper is more than just sitting down and typing something on your laptop. You need to know what you want to say, what knowledge you want to report, and what discussion you want to stimulate. And you need to know whether what you want to write about has a chance of getting published or whether it’s suitable for journal publication. Journals don’t accept just any topic. 

We think it’s worth spending a bit of time choosing a good topic for your next paper. Here, we suggest 10 ideas on how to identify a topic and provide a free worksheet “Identify your paper topic” to help you further. 

1. Get inspired by other papers

If you want to write a journal paper, why not first look into the journals in your field and read some of the published papers? Find out how they’re written, what and how much they cover, how they’re structured, and consider if you could do something similar. Reading other papers can provide great inspiration for what you could writel. 

2. Browse for open questions

Are there any open questions in your field that you could address in a paper? You have probably worked on one such question, and could provide some valuable input in a paper. Think about questions that are burning in your field but still remain open, and what you could contribute to advance the field. 

3. Review your research notes

Make a quick overview of the research you have done so far. Which questions have you been working on and what have you found? Look through your lab book, the draft results, or the data you’ve collected—is there anything that could be turned into a paper? Do you have any unpublished findings or materials that you never published although they would be suitable for a paper?

4. Go for something that interests you

You’ll have the greatest motivation to write a paper if it’s about a topic that really interests you. So find out what the cool questions are you’re working on and which ones you’re burning to answer most. Start working on such a topic. When you’re motivated and interested, you’re willing to invest a bit more time into this paper, you’ll write a better paper, and finish it earlier. 

5. Browse for review paper topics

If you’re in the early stages of a research project, or if you gained a good overview of a specific research question or field through an extensive literature study, consider writing a review paper. You can systematically summarise your knowledge in this field and make it available to peers. 

6. Look for novel aspects in your research

Focus on the aspects of your research that are new. What have you done that other studies have not done yet? It doesn’t have to be something groundbreaking, but if there’s a novel element in your research, use it as a starting point for a paper. This novel aspect is an important advantage of your research compared to others.  

7. Connect to existing research

Your research is most likely embedded in a wider field, and you’re not the only one working in it. This can be an advantage as well. Think about how your research is linked to other studies. You can probably connect with previously published work and further develop their thoughts, or provide additional confirming results or even new findings—each case would be a good basis for your paper. 

8. Focus on what you can deliver

Sometimes you have too many ideas about papers that you want to write, but some of these papers would require additional research, or at least substantial literature search and study. A more pragmatic approach is to focus on what you’ve got on your plate already. It might not be related to the coolest and hottest questions in your fieldt, but it’s something that you can write about because you’ve already got it. You only need to utilize it! 

9. Look for a call for papers and special issues 

Sometimes, journals initiate a call for papers on a specific subject, or they plan a complete special issue of their journal. These are attractive offers for you as an author. If you have been working on a topic related to such a call, you would not only have an incentive to write a paper now, but also have an indication of which journal you could submit to. As they are calling for papers on a specific topic, they have a particular interest in papers in that specific field. 

10. Talk to a colleague or supervisor

When brainstorming possible ideas for a paper topic, it can be helpful to discuss these ideas with a fellow colleague or a supervisor. By explaining ideas to them, you will learn how plausible and convincing some of the ideas are, and which ideas ultimately aren’t as suitable for your next paper as you originally thought. Having these collegial sparring partners is valuable—you will for sure get helpful feedback from them to fine-tune one of your paper ideas. 

Conclusion

In an ideal world, the topic for your next paper would originate organically from the research that you just completed. You did this project and therefore, you’re going to write a paper about it. If it works out like this for you, great, do it! But sometimes, everyday life as a researcher is far from ideal. Projects don’t always progress as you want, they’re delayed or scrapped completely, but you nonetheless want to produce a research output: a journal paper. 

And when you’re at the beginning of your career as a researcher, you probably don’t have so many alternative projects to fall back on to identify a topic for your next paper. But this doesn’t mean you cannot publish. The 10 suggestions described above will help you to come up with topics for your next paper, even if everyday research is not progressing as you had planned. You can still write a paper. Consider the 10 suggestions carefully, and you’ll see there is for sure an option for you to get your next paper started. To help you further, we’ve created a free worksheet with questions you can ask yourself to identify a possible topic for the paper. 

P.S. What often helps us to find a topic for a publication is to go for a walk outside and brainstorm possible topics. It’s sometimes easier to leave the office and do the thought exercise outside. Or you can go to a cafe or a bar and think about it there. For example, deciding on the topic of this blog post (as well as the entire writing of it) happened on a business trip in the bar of a hotel in Berlin. Sometimes it just helps to go somewhere else to come up with a good idea and make it a reality. 

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