Writing and Publishing Scientific Papers – Is it as hard as it seems?

Before I start. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a published academic but I have fewer than 30 papers, not the 200+ some of my colleagues have. See my publications page if you’re interested. There are reasons for this. One, I’ve only had my PhD since 2015. But the main reason is that I’m not your traditional academic. I have a clinical post which is >50% of my time and so my work is about moving research from the research (academic) setting into clinical practice to improve patient care.

Why I Research

I still really clearly remember the stress that writing and submitting my first 1st author scientific paper caused me. It’s difficult to describe the transition from being a good student to being an academic. As students, we fear failure. I, like most academics, have never failed an exam and have what can only be called a visceral dread of what it would mean. You then move into a world where 80% of grants will be rejected and failure becomes part of everyday life. When I submitted my first paper, I hadn’t come to terms with that yet. I was still worried about what rejection would mean for me and how people see me. Now it’s just a fact of life.

Some misconceptions about publishing.

A lot of my friends mistakenly believe that scientists get paid for publishing their work. The opposite is true. If I want my work to reach the maximum number of people, I have to pay (usually several thousand pounds) for my article to be open access (i.e. free to access). Therefore, dissemination of your work can be really expensive and not necessarily reach the right people, as most clinicians and patients won’t be able to read articles requiring payment. It’s one of the reasons why science communication is key.

One of the other common beliefs is that the collection of data is most of the work in getting a scientific publication. This may be personal to me, but I have never found this to be the case. I always have way more data than I have time to publish; I currently have over 18 papers in draft, as I struggle to find solid blocks of writing time. This could be because I find the planning of experiments and data collection an adventure. The writing is stressful as I’m always trying to fit something that requires focus and blocks of time around a dozen other tasks. I often don’t have the mental space to enjoy it.

What about the publishing process?

There are some main stages to paper drafting and submission which are worth bearing in mind:

  • Journal and editor selection
  • Drafting
  • Co-author edits
  • Submission
  • Revision
  • Hopefully publication (if not, back to the beginning)

Many authors jump straight into drafting without really spending enough (or any) time on journal selection. Many PhD students don’t do this as they see their supervisors just jumping straight in. That’s normally because supervisors know a lot more about the publishing landscape and so already know the background.

Why is journal selection important?

Manuscript publishing is like any other form of publishing. You need to choose the right journal for your content. Every journal will have specific topic areas they are interested in. They will also have specific formats they will want you to follow in terms of length, numbers of figures and tables, as well as referencing style. If you start drafting without having an idea of where you are going to submit you will often not put the correct emphasis on your writing to get it into your journal of choice. You will also waste time you could spend on other things restructuring what you have already written.

Hint 1: Even title choice is linked to your journal of choice. Do they like long titles? Do they appreciate a witty title to draw readers in?

Hint 2: Go through similar articles to the one you are planning to write and look at the length of different sections in order to understand where the emphasis lies. Do they have a long methods section? Do they focus on discussion?

If you get the research right you will save yourself a tonne of time later on with re-writes and rejections.

What about co-authors?

It is obviously crucial to include your co-authors but I have also learnt that it can be helpful to pick the point at which you circulate to them. If you include everyone during drafting, you can end up with too many different points of view that mean you end up with a manuscript that is unclear or meandering. I’ve learnt to include a few key people, get it to a publishable stage and then circulate. Pick your key people carefully if you are working in a multidisciplinary team so that you get the benefit of their perspective, but don’t get too distracted from the agreed paper themes.

Finally. Don’t get disheartened.

Rejection is just part of the process. Papers will become stronger for revisions and contribute more, thus having more impact. Remember that the criticisms are of the manuscript. They are not criticisms of you. My method for dealing with reviews is to open the email and read the comments. I then close the email down, go and make a double gin and tonic and wait 48 hours before responding. The memory of the comments is never as bad as I thought and once you take the emotion out of it you can just crack on.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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