Trying to make sense of nonsense

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

Thank you for all for reading my posts! I’ve managed to survive actually presenting it, and got some good feedback so I thought I’d share some other nifty things I’ve learned about.

The session on publishing included Dr Sean Hennessy, editor for the Americas for Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, and Dr Tarek Hammad, deputy division director of the FDA’s Department of Epidemiology. As not-yet-doctor and the person with the shortest ‘this is what I did to get here’-slide I did suffer from imposter syndrome quite a bit, but hearing from other students afterwards, I seemed to have hidden it quite well.

Dr Hennessy, as both an academic and editor, give an outline of what should be in your article, and where it ought to be (and as his presentation hasn’t magically appeared on the internet yet, I definitely need to work on improving on the legibility of my handwriting so I can actually make sense of it afterwards).  Dr Hammad’s presentation leaned on years of experience of publishing papers, and boiled it all down into 10 useful tips, which I will let you read yourself. His first tip, publishing under the influence, is maybe the most relevant one. Although many PhDs seem to focus on getting that coveted thesis written, Dr Hammad emphasised that as a grad student you are also in the perfect position to get some peer-reviewed papers out. You’ve got your supervisors who can help you with the actual writing and hopefully give you lots of feedback so you know what you need to work on most (and as a student, you can still benefit from courses organised by your grad school).

The most interesting topics came up during the panel discussion afterwards. After I had ascertained the room that cover letters were very important, Dr Hennessy assured us that most editors don’t actually read them. Several academics in the room gasped as if they just collectively missed a grant deadline. After I tweeted about it, @Peter_Tennant enlightened me on the fact other editors are of the exact opposite opinion. A few days later Dr Hennessy came up to me to tell me that after inquiring with some other editors at his journal, they do seem to read cover letters. Phew, so I didn’t spend all that time writing convoluted sentences about how great the journals I want to submit my article to are. (As a side note: I suspect the importance of your cover letter might depend on the type of editor – part-time editors at specialist journals who are also academics might head straight for the article while full time editors read cover letters. It would be interesting to find out whether that’s what was behind Dr Hennessy statement).

The discussion on self-plagiarism was also interesting. A lot, if not most of the people attending ISPE work with electronic health databases. Be they electronic health care records, claims data or registries, the number of large databases available are on the increase. Given the size and range of information available in these databases, they can be used over and over again for new research. The team I work in has already published over 35 papers using THIN data. A problem arises when trying to describe this data source in a paper, a necessary and important bit of the methods section. In peer-reviewed papers (and theses, while we’re on it), you’re not allowed to copy text from another paper, even if it is your own. This means that ever time we write a new paper using the same database, we have to find a new way to describe it. Every single time. You’d imagine there are only a limited number of ways to switch between the active and passive voice, mention different aspects of the database or slightly rearrange the order of the words, but the GPRD/CPRD have managed to pull off over 400 research papers, so other options most be there.

A second tip came from a student: learn how to use Word. Most people getting into science now will have grown up with Word, so it might seem a bit too basic. However, there are lots of clever things Word can do that you might not know about as you didn’t need them when you were learning how to use it at age 8 (ah, the times when Comic Sans, Wingdings and the flashy gifs on geocities ruled the world). Again, grad schools might offer good short courses on what Word is actually capable of.


Finally, I got pointed in the direction of Jane. Jane is an amazing piece of software, writing by the biosemantics group at the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. You put in an abstract or article title, and it finds journals and authors that have published similar stuff: an ideal tool for creating that list of potential journals to submit to, and to identify potential reviewers at the same time. Journals are listed by relevance, and listed with their Article Influence score, rather than those evil impact factors. As a bonus, it also finds relevant papers that you might want to cite. Jane’s perfect for impressing your supervisors with a ready made super-relevant list of journals.

So that’s it for now – I’m sure there are lots more helpful tips out there, so if you could add anything: I would love to hear from you!


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