For the majority of doctors, getting published in an academic journal is considered to be career gold. It provides an ideal opportunity to establish expert status in your field, share your breakthroughs with your peers, acquire new skills and boost your professional profile. But securing publication in a peer-reviewed journal can be a confusing and overwhelming process. And with journals – particularly the most sought-after publications – receiving higher-than-ever submission numbers on a daily basis, standards are exceptionally high. This means that even the most interesting and novel pieces of research are now at real risk of rejection unless authors take care to develop manuscripts that address everything a journal editor has on his or her make or break list. With that in mind, here are six tips for publication success.
While a robust study with flawless methodology, logical arguments and highly conclusive findings may appear like a ‘sure thing’ for publication, this is not always the case. Journal editors want something more; and that something is building on what is already known about the topic. If a paper simply echoes the findings of dozens of already published papers, a journal editor has little reason to add yet another one to the pile. In fact, the need for proposed manuscripts to move the story forward has become such a crucial point that journals, such as the Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, have adjusted their manuscript layout instructions and now ask all authors to specifically state the gap in knowledge addressed by their paper.
But having something new to add to the debate does not mean that your research methodology can be less than thorough. On the contrary, all conclusions drawn from a piece of research, and hence the research itself, can only be taken as valid if supported by solid methodology. For example, most editors favour prospective over retrospective studies because as forward-looking projects, prospective studies tend to have fewer sources of potential bias and/or confounding.
Other methodology-related pitfalls to avoid include small study groups, lack of control subjects, unexplained loss of patients to follow-up, short follow-up periods that provide insufficient time for assessment of real-life outcomes, and failure to eliminate or account for confounding variables.
They say first impressions are everything, and in the case of a scientific paper, that first impression is created by the abstract. Writing about the peer review process in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, Michael L Voight, lead reviewer for the American Journal of Sports Medicine, advises that an abstract must focus on the salient points of a study only. But while abstracts should be to the point, avoid the temptation to focus so much on brevity that some key observations are omitted in totality. Always lead with your best material.
This piece of advice may seem obvious, but as a Respiratory Care Journal paper titled The Top 10 Reasons Why Manuscripts Are Not Accepted for Publication highlights, it is one that is overlooked by many authors. All journals provide clear instructions on the exact format all papers should take, and this includes details on word limits, font size, headings and accompanying documents. Take the time to read this before submitting or resubmitting a paper to a journal.
Do not fall into the trap of assuming that all journals have the same formatting rules and submission guidelines. They don’t. And avoid the temptation of treating word limits as arbitrary guidelines. They aren’t. As David Pierson notes in the aforementioned paper: ‘A submission with everything in order from the beginning definitely puts the author on the good side of the editorial office.’ And this can only help to improve your chances of publication.
Many authors focus on the words written in their introduction and discussion sections to make the case for the relevance of their study. However, the references you use to make those points can say more than you realise. Focus on using landmark papers – the papers that really set the bar for this topic. And also track down the most recent publications on your research subject. Remember that the point of your paper is to move the discussion in your subject area forward and you can’t do that unless you relate your findings to the most up to date literature in your field.
It is easier said than done but perhaps the most important aspect of navigating the publication process is developing a proverbial thick skin. While we have outlined some tactics that will improve your chances of publication success, bear in mind that editors are individuals and their expectations can vary wildly. Behind almost every published paper is a story that involves multiple rejections, resubmissions and rounds of revisions. Take all rejections and feedback from reviewers as an opportunity to improve your paper, regroup and try again. When your paper is finally published, it will be all the better for having undergone such rigorous assessment. Good luck!
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