Writing A Paper that will get Published

Discussion in 'Student Research and Publishing' started by qwopty99, Mar 27, 2008.

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  1. qwopty99

    qwopty99 Optometrist 7+ Year Member

    Feb 4, 2006
    Interesting article from The Scientist that gives a broader perspective on what it takes and means to get published.

    Many options exist for researchers to get their name in print

    By Kate Devine
    Courtesy of M. Celeste Simon

    The experts agree: "Publish or Perish" is still alive and well in the research community. "The cardinal rule is, 'A scientific experiment is not complete until the results have been published,'" notes Bob Day, professor emeritus, department of English, University of Delaware, and author of a book on scientific paper publishing.1 In addition to "completing an experiment," publication in scientific literature serves as a means to secure knowledge ownership claims and is an efficient vehicle for communicating this knowledge.2 Bruce Lewenstein, associate professor of communication and science and technology studies, Cornell University, expounds, "Scientific knowledge is a communal resource that only exists because it's available for others to judge and affirm as important." Other experts have a more pragmatic perspective. "Researchers publish for economic self-interest, ... it provides visibility and is evidence of productivity," comments Ed Huth, editor emeritus of the Annals of Internal Medicine and author of a book on publishing in medicine.3 Jeremy Flower-Ellis, associate professor, department for production ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who has taught a course on how to write and publish a scientific paper since 1968, succinctly agrees, "No publications, no funds; no funds, no job."

    Lewenstein, who is also editor of the journal, Public Understanding of Science, says it is important to recognize that scientists are individuals in a large system, with personal, less altruistic reasons for publishing. He explains that publishing is the means by which a scientist can be rewarded. Those rewards can include recognition for ideas; others seeking the author out for collaboration; invitations to meetings to talk about ideas and thus, stay intellectually alive; invitations to meetings at locations that are personally pleasurable; recognition from deans and department heads regarding the value of the researcher's work in the form of increased resources (i.e., lab space and graduate students); and higher salary from those same deans and directors when another institution tries to hire the scientist because they value the work they see published.

    Not All Journals Are Created Equal

    This pressure to publish and the limited number of pages in existing journals has contributed to a proliferation of journals, notes Lewenstein. He adds that while there are an estimated 70,000 journals, only a few thousand are considered really important. Jeff Skousen, professor of soil science, West Virginia University, points out that there are varying levels of journal prestige and not every paper qualifies for the most well-known. Top-tier journals usually reject more than 50 percent of the papers submitted to them, and some have rejection rates as high as 70 percent, Skousen says. These journals are rigorously edited and require very sound science and results that have meaning and application in the field. Other journals have a much lower rejection rate and are not as tightly edited, but they generally contain good research.

    Third-tier journals rarely reject a paper unless the entire study is flawed or the data are improperly interpreted. These journals are also acceptable because they generally answer real questions and report good science, but they often do not account for all the variables required for a top-tier journal. Huth agrees that as the prestige of journals goes down, the tendency to publish whatever is legitimate goes up. "The most prestigious journals tend to publish what is the most important in new work," he notes. Flower-Ellis also affirms, "A paper rejected by one journal may be slightly rehashed and submitted to another, then another, and so on, until it eventually is accepted by a journal with a sufficiently low threshold. Thus, because of the numerous journals available, and the varying prestige, most people can publish their work at some tier level." Huth points out that there may be a trade-off to consider between how important it is to publish rapidly and get results on the record versus how important it is to publish in the most prestigious journal possible. In addition to journal prestige, the author's track record can also be a factor in publishing success. Day says, "Editors are human and, therefore, they can be affected by past work and influenced by a name they recognize." Presumably, "that is why ... many papers include the names of established scientists among their authors even when the established names may have contributed little to the work," remarks Flower-Ellis.

    Experience gained from previous publishing helps as well. According to Skousen, "Scientists who publish know some of the pitfalls and obstacles that hinder the publishing process, especially in the top-tier journals." Daniel W. Byrne, director of biostatistics and study design, general clinical research center, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, however, believes it probably does not improve the odds of acceptance very much. Instead, says Bryne, who has authored a book on publishing medical research papers,4 once a person has developed the skills to publish a paper, the next papers are much easier to publish.

    Criteria for Authors

    While originality can be a persuasive factor, "People are still able to get their work published even if it seems similar to previously published work," observes Skousen. Although one may think that most of the pertinent questions in a subject area might be answered after long periods of testing and experimentation that does not seem to be the case, he continues. "I'm surprised that there are not that many new ideas in our journals today compared to past decades," he remarks. "Sure, we get new instruments and tools that allow greater precision or accuracy of measurement, but the ideas are not that dissimilar, nor are the results that dissimilar after data collection and interpretation." Flower-Ellis predicts that more and more papers will be assessed as "valuable confirmations" rather than as "original contributions to knowledge." Another consideration is the manuscript topic. A hot topic "is more likely to be published than is an equally sound paper dealing with a currently unfashionable subject," says Flower-Ellis The scientific community does display some of the proverbial characteristics of lemmings, in publication no less than in choice of research area."

    The criteria publishers use as measures for accepting a paper vary a lot more than is sometimes realized, notes Lewenstein. Publication is not a cut-and-dried process--it's infinitely variable and flexible. In particular, "peer review" is not a simple criterion, he continues. Some journals may send an article to three to five reviewers, and the editors make an informed judgment by weighing all reviews. Other journals may send an article to a single reviewer and make simple yes/no decisions based on one review. Some journals may do a lot more editorial work with an author, while others take manuscripts more or less as submitted.

    Although the review process can be flexible, acceptance criteria are relatively standard. Experts consulted offer simple advice for optimizing publishing success. Many say influential factors include the need for clarity, originality of thought, novelty of finding, organization, completeness, and good writing. The experts' advice may seem evident. Skousen, however, states that the most elegant research is usually simple and direct. According to Byrne, who published an article last year on common reasons for manuscript rejection,5 flawed or poorly planned study design and lack of detail in methods were the two elements most often leading to rejection.

    One life science researcher with an impressive publication history (71 papers over 20 years with 50 of those papers since becoming a faculty member in 1993) is M. Celeste Simon, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor in cell and developmental biology. A Howard Hughes Medical Institute associate investigator at Penn's Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, Simon's philosophy is one for all researchers to consider, "Publishing is the currency in which researchers deal." Kate Devine can be contacted at [email protected]


    1. R.A. Day, How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper, 5th ed., Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1998.

    2. A.G. Gross, J.E. Harmon, "What's right about scientific writing," The Scientist, 13[24]:20, Dec. 6, 1999.

    3. E.J. Huth, Writing and Publishing in Medicine, 3rd ed., Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999.

    4. D. W. Byrne, Publishing Your Medical Research Paper: What They Don't Teach You in Medical School, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1997.

    5. D. W. Byrne, "Common reasons for rejecting manuscripts at medical journals: a survey of editors and peer reviewers," Science Editor, 23[2]:39-44, March-April 2000.
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