How to get your paper published
03 Aug 2016
The daunting ‘publish or perish’ culture that prevails in medicine is highly competitive, frustrating and can be incredibly stressful. There are over 28,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals with a total of over 1.8 million articles published annually. Nevertheless, acceptance rates for the ‘big guns’ remain in single figure percentages. There is no magic formula for success, but a combination of commitment, hard work and top tips from successful academics may propel the novice academic to publishing success. So here are ten tips:
1. Have a story to tell. Your article should say something new and be credible. Use existing literature as a starting point and establish new questions to answer.
2. There are many different types of articles that can be published and it is crucial to pick the correct article type. It is as unlikely that the novice writer will be asked to write an editorial as it is that the senior academic will be asked to pen a case report. Pick the correct article type for your story and your level of experience. Seek advice.
3. Choose the right journal. Who doesn’t want to publish in Nature, Science or The Lancet? Alas, the chances of your first article having sufficient impact to be accepted by them is very low. Invest time and effort in deciding where to publish early on to save time later. Who is your target audience? Who will benefit most from your publication? Please keep in mind that multiple submissions to journals is considered bad practice and frowned upon. Only submit to one journal at a time.
4. Don’t underestimate the importance of the title and abstract. These are the hooks used to pull editors and readers to your article. Use keywords in the title and avoid abbreviations. Make the abstract original and use the 250-300 words to sell your story (and stick to the word limit).
5. Understand the anatomy of a scientific article. The core structure has stood the test of time. It follows logical enquiry: “Why did you start? What did you do? What was your answer? What does it all mean?” Respect this format.
6. Write in clear English. Do not use jargon; be clear and be succinct. Don’t over-state your claim with words such as ‘amazing’ or ‘dramatic’: the reviewers, editors and readers will decide.
7. Follow correct submission procedures. If the instructions to authors state that the word limit is 2,000 words, then submitting an article with more than that is asking for an immediate rejection.
8. Use the cover letter cleverly. It should indicate what is most important and significant about your article and why it would fit in that particular journal. There is no need to repeat the abstract.
9. Nominate reviewers if the journal gives you the options to do so. The capricious nature of the peer-review process means that a lot is down to sheer luck. Help yourself (and the editor) by nominating appropriate reviewers.
10. Revise. Revise. Revise. Remember that reviewers are unpaid colleagues who are giving up their precious time to help you. If you are asked to revise and resubmit, then you are almost there: do it and do it quickly. Don’t leave it too long and avoid asking for an extension.
If your article is rejected, remember that this is the path to eventual acceptance. Rejection is not personal. Use the comments wisely to better your manuscript. If you did not get any comments, then ask for feedback. Take solace in the knowledge that over 20 Nobel laureates had their work initially rejected. So persevere, develop a thick skin, be resilient and enjoy the journey to publishing success. It will happen.
Jyoti Shah is a Consultant Urological Surgeon at Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Co-Editor of the book How to Get Your Paper Published: a comprehensive guide to submitting papers to medical journals, published this week by the RCS.