epidemiologista

Trying to make sense of nonsense

How to publish a paper: a student’s perspective (part 1)

With only 3 papers with my name on it, I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to getting papers published. However, those 3 papers (and one that’s waiting in some reviewers’ inboxes right now) have been rejected a total number of 12 times, giving me at least some experience in preparing and submitting them. Maybe that’s why I got invited to give a talk on publishing papers at the student skills workshop at the ICPE – the International Conference on Pharmacoepidemiology and Risk Management. Or it might have been that when a publisher dropped out last minute, and the organisers (one of whom I happen to share a supervisor with) really needed someone who had already booked their tickets to Barcelona.

Either way, I’ve got a presentation to prepare for, and in doing so, I’ve found that actually I have developed a bit of a five-step system when it comes to preparing papers. Even more so: when talking with other students and staff around my department, I’ve found some interesting tips and thoughts on how to get published. I felt it might be worth it to actually write all of this up in a blog (and get some last minute considerations to add to my talk?), as a reference to build on, so here we go:

Step 1: Selecting a journal

Nature vs. Science - Comic by PhD Comics

I’ll start at the point where you’ve done all your analyses and have pretty good idea what you want your paper to be about. Maybe you’re working on that first draft, or you’re already on version 17.3, but at some point you’ll have to start considering what journal to submit to. As my first supervisor told me when my very first paper was rejected by JAMA: “If the first journal you submit your paper to accepts it, you didn’t aim high enough”.

And there you immediately have your first problem: what constitutes aiming high? Impact factors are one determinant of ‘high’, though we all know now that using those in any decision making will only prove you are statistically illiterate. Rather, you could aim at submitting to one of the general medicine journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Lancet or BMJ. All of those boast large regular reader counts and even larger rejection rates.

The scopes of these journals are wide, but they will only consider the studies that will keep their impact factors up, so it might be good to consider some more specialist journals as well. You might not reach as many researchers, but you are more likely to reach the right ones. To find out which are best for your research, go over the papers your citing: there are bound to be some relevant journals there. Or ask an expert; you’re collaborators (if you have any) will probably be able to make some suggestions.

These can ideas can then form a list of potential journals to submit to. Being rejected becomes a lot less painful if you’ve your plan B at the ready. Final considerations will depend on your funder (should the journal be open access?) and funding (yes, it costs money to be published).

Step 2: Formatting and editing

However much I’d like it, there is no getting out of formatting or weeding through formatting guidelines (at least not until you’re senior enough to have someone do it for you), but there are some little things that can make it easier. One of these is Wordle, which creates a ‘word cloud’ highlighting the words you’ve used most often. The first time I copied a paper of mine in there (luckily just before I meant to send it to my supervisors), one word stood out like a sore thumb: However. Without really noticing it, I had started using the word in every other sentence in the discussion. Apart from highlighting unnecessary repetitions, it’s also a very nice tool for identifying key words in your paper: if the right ones don’t come up, you’re probably using to many different terms to describe one phenomenon.

Also important: use a reference manager (I like Zotero – it’s free and integrates with Firefox/Chrome, so you can you use it on any computer without needing to bring the most recent database file with you). Different programs will have different (dis)advantages, so shop around a bit before you decide upon one, there are a lot of options out there.

Draft approved - comic by PhD Comics

Another tip is to read your paper aloud. After taking six years of Latin, I’ve really come to love subordinate clauses and the dactylic hexameter. Unfortunately, they don’t work so well for academic writing, and reading sections aloud really helps in locating the overly complicated sentences I can come up when left to myself for too long (enter joke about ablative absolutes). It works even better when you leave your paper for a few days or even weeks, and then come back to it. Instead of reading what you think is there, you’ll suddenly be able to see what it is actually there.

When you finally come round to sending it to your co-authors make sure you give them enough time. Or even better: decide on a revision plan. How many times will each co-author see the paper, and in which order will you send it round? It can be hugely ineffective to send it to everyone at the same time, as you will end up with lots of similar or contradictory comments. Of course this will get more difficult with increasing numbers of co-authors, but it is important to keep at least the PI and supervisors involved.

One last formatting tip: LaTeX. It’s amazing. Like reference managers format your references, LaTeX can format your entire paper. It will take a bit coding (unless you opt for a program like LyX – thank you @JStreetley), but it will be worth it. One downside: the resulting text will be in PDF, making it harder for some reviewers to write comments or make changes.

Naturally, publishing involves a lot of waiting. So as my post is already past the 1,000 word mark, I’ll leave you to wait for part 2 (submitting & final checks, results!, and responding to reviewers’ comments) tomorrow.

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One response to “How to publish a paper: a student’s perspective (part 1)

  1. normally distributed August 21, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    It had never occurred to me to use Wordle in that way, but it’s a great suggestion. Whenever I write anything of length I’m always guilty of overusing a word or two. And I like the idea that it would also highlight key themes.

    Your supervisor’s comment that “If the first journal you submit your paper to accepts it, you didn’t aim high enough” has truth to it, but it also serves to highlight the silly dance we do with the publishing industry. I’m a fairly honest appraiser, and if I don’t think a paper is going to be BMJ/JAMA material then I do think I should spare us all the bother of submitting it there. Nonetheless, there’s the pressure to try on the ‘off chance’, as the act of being published in a ‘higher ranked’ journal has a transformative effect on the perceived value of the paper’s content. Ho hum.

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