Thursday, 10 January 2013

Some top tips on publishing from some editors of top journals

Posted by Jean Adams

I was recently asked to take part in a panel discussion on publishing for the UK Society of Behavioural Medicine's Early Career Network.

Also on the panel were: Professors Paul Aveyard (senior editor of Addiction, and an editor of the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Review Group), Ronan O'Carroll (associate editor of Health Psychology and British Journal of Health Psychology, member of the editorial boards of Psychology & HealthBritish Journal of Clinical Psychology and Journal of Behavioral Medicine) and David French (associate editor of British Journal of Health Psychology and Psychology & Health, member of the editorial board of Annals of Behavioral Medicine).

I was the token non-male, non-professor on a panel of rather eminent male professors. So whilst they poured forth of their wisdom on publishing, I took notes. With their permission, I've tried to summarise some of the top tips on publishing research of some of the top UK editors of behavioural medicine journals.
Calvin & Hobbes on writing

1. The best way to write a paper is to write a paper. Stop procrastinating and get something, anything, down on paper. Don't expect your first draft to be any good. Writing is mostly about editing and re-editing.

2. Know what your paper is about before you start. One suggestion was to write a structured abstract first to force yourself to condense your work and thoughts into 2-300 clear words.

3. Be clear about the "so what" factor. The editors were particularly scathing about wishy-washy, discussion section stalwarts such as "more research is needed". They wanted to see clear statements about the implications of results and suggestions for exactly what further research is needed.

4. Make sure your work is internally consistent. Don't be afraid to revert to the old skool approach of saying what you're going to do (aims and methods), doing it (results), and then saying you've done it (discussion). This structure of covertly repeating yourself helps keep everyone focused.

5. Learn to deal with rejection. Someone pointed out that the best journals reject more than 80% of the stuff they're sent. Even the next tier of merely 'good' journals still reject at least 50% of submissions. So everyone (even eminent professors) have papers rejected on a fairly regular basis. Don't take it personally and be open with your colleagues about the experience. Focus on what you might be able to learn from any feedback you receive and get on with getting your manuscript ready for the next submission

6. Seek constructive criticism from colleagues before submitting. Don't just find someone who'll say your paper is lovely. Find someone who'll give you substantive comments on how you could improve it.

7. Don't annoy the reviewers. Reviewers are busy researchers and academics - just like you. Bad writing, poor grammar, and non-standard formatting all have the potential to put them in a bad mood with almost inevitable negative effects on the review they write about your manuscript.

8. Focus on what's generalisable about your work and don't get bogged down in local details. There was a strong feeling that to be published in an international journal, work has to be internationally relevant. If you performed your work in Huddersfield, make clear that this setting was merely an exemplar for proving a more widely applicable point.

9. There were fairly mixed feelings on the importance of cover letters. There was much more clarity on the importance of getting the response to reviewers letter right. Ensuring this letter is polite was seen as crucial. One editor admitted that he often writes a fairly sweary first draft of this to vent his rage, before editing to make it more presentable.

10. Don't be a slave to the impact factor. Whilst high impact papers are definitely considered important, one editor also stressed the importance of a journal's standing within its field. So a fairly low impact factor journal that is the best within its field is likely to be considered better than a similar impact factor journal that is mid-ranked in its field. Others felt that, especially for an early career researcher, being able to show that you can write and publish by having a reasonable number of publications on your CV, is arguably more important than having a few papers in very high ranking journals.

11. Don't be afraid to take a punt. Everyone agreed that editors and reviewers can be unpredictable. It is a system based on opinion, so one person might have a very different opinion of your paper than another. Don't automatically think your paper is only worthy of the Journal of Universal Rejection if JAMA turn you down. There are many options in between and another very good journal might still be interested, even if JAMA isn't.

12. Consider making informal per-submission enquiries. This was not something that anyone in the room had substantial experience of, but one member of the panel had once emailed a senior editor with a structured abstract to ask if he would consider the paper for his journal. The answer was no, but at least the response was provided quickly and without any messing around with reformatting references and completing online submission forms.

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