How Not To Be Those Scientists Who Left an Unfortunate Note-To-Self In Their Published Paper


My Facebook has blown up this week with science friends linking to a really unfortunate incident where a group of authors had an offhand note-to-self about someone else's paper accidentally made public in a published journal article. [I'm scratching out the names here because I bet everyone involved is having a pretty terrible week already, and I think most of us know that this could have easily happened to us].

There's an old but simple journalist's/copyeditor's trick that you can use to avoid these kinds of slip-ups: insert the letters TK as a marker wherever you need make certain you'll go back to a part of the text before your paper is published. Since the combination of letters TK appears so incredibly rarely in natural English, when you're done with the paper you only need to do a quick "Find All" on your document to make sure every note you left yourself has been properly dealt with. A note-to-self like...

(REMEMBER TO FIX THIS BEFORE PUBLISHING!!!!!)

...can instead be written as...

(TK Fix before publishing)

...and despite the lack of capitals and exclamation marks you will actually be sure to find this note before you publish.

[EDIT: of course, if the word processing tool you're using has a comment feature then that might well be more convenient, and TK might not be necessary. I think we often end up needing inline comments of some sort when collaborating with others in some way that makes "external" comments impossible.]

It's obviously possible to use any other uncommon combination of letters instead of TK, but TK has the advantage of a little bit of history so when you're explaining it to collaborators it's not coming out of nowhere.

A little personal twist I sometimes use is to add extra variants to denote different reasons I need to come back to things: maybe TKX means "need to add citation here", while TKP means "this phrasing is clunky – improve if you can". This makes it a little easier for me to leave quick notes to myself while writing (e.g. I can just type (TKP) in the middle of a paragraph and be confident I'll understand what needed fixing when I come back to it later), and also makes it easier to batch types of editing tasks together efficiently (e.g. I can do "Find All: TKX" and spend a single block of time dealing only with citations).

At the very end, of course, you need to do the general "Find All: TK" again and make sure you haven't left in any notes-to-self whatsoever. The crucial thing here is to make sure your Find All function recognises TKX when you search for TK (it normally will, but worth checking), and not to just start inventing other uncommon letter-combination markers like "GX means citation needed, ZP means clunky phrasing" – because then you're liable to forget about some of your combos, and nobody wants to accidentally publish a paper which still says:

(GX absolutely make sure this is fixed before publishing)

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