Research During Residency

5 medical publishing pitfalls residents often overlook

Lyndra Vassar , News Writer

If you’re hoping to get published in the coming year, take time to learn common mistakes residents make in the publishing process to ensure your plan is a success. Avoid these five missteps when writing or submitting research to journals. 

Susan Bates, MD (pictured right), gave expert insights to a group of residents at the 2015 AMA Interim Meeting in November. Dr. Bates has been published more than 250 times and owns multiple patents. She’s the senior clinical investigator and head of the Molecular Therapeutics Section in the Developmental Therapeutics Branch and Coronary Vector of Columbia University’s BA Cancer Initiative and has mentored multiple fellows.

As an advisor, she urges young researchers to avoid some common mistakes in medical publishing.

Surprised? This one may seem shocking, but many people still forget to follow author guidelines—a major pet-peeve for journal editors. Instead of rushing to submit, “be sure to read the instructions for authors,” Dr. Bates said. “Sometimes you’ll prepare a paper, and it’ll be just perfect, but it’ll [have] three times too many figures and twice as many words” as the required author guidelines.

Your ability to target the right journal will often depend upon how well you assess your research. “Think about the journal’s scope and audience,” Dr. Bates said. “Try to [determine] whether your research is really high profile.” Ask whether your work represents a “big conceptual leap” or an incremental change, Dr. Bates said, noting that it’s perfectly acceptable for a paper to be “incremental” as long as it contributes meaningful research to your field. After assessing the content and quality of your paper, find a journal that you think will be receptive to your project. Avoid submitting to elite publications if your paper doesn’t fit the scope of research that particular journal typically publishes, Dr. Bates said. Targeting the wrong journal or submitting papers to high-profile publications that don’t align with your research topic can prompt unnecessary delays in the publishing process. “Your papers can end up rejected. You can [start] a new rotation. Your research sits on the back burner. The data gets overturned by other events, somebody else publishes it and pretty soon you’ve lost all that work,” she said. “So it’s very important to target the right journal and be sure that you don’t go too high.”

“People do not pay enough attention to their titles,” Dr. Bates said. Avoid bland titles for papers you want to catch an editor’s eye. Instead, craft headings that are meaningful, clear and interesting. “I often write three or four titles and get other people to give me their thoughts about which title they like [more]” before finalizing a paper for publishing, Dr. Bates said. She also urges residents to fine-tune every word and figure in an abstract. “It’s really important that your abstract tell the story you want to tell. Don’t write an incomplete abstract or save it for the last minute.” Sometimes, Dr. Bates said, the abstract may be the first—or only—component of your paper reviewers see. To write an effective abstract, she recommends residents “spend time thinking about keywords” and how to integrate them in the abstract description. This is important when submitting to online research databases “because the abstract and keywords you use [determine] how people will find your paper, especially on PubMed,” Dr. Bates said.

Before diving into lab work, take time to carefully review published literature on your research topic to understand if certain aspects of your project are already dated. Think expansively about new questions you can answer with your data and how it aligns with the literature in your field. “It’s always so easy—particularly in this day and age with the way PubMed is—to miss key papers in the literature. But a friend of mine says, ‘A day in the library can save you a year in the lab,’” Dr. Bates said.   She also encourages residents to think about whether there are discrepancies between the literature and their own data and to be transparent about sharing this information.

Because of the competition to publish, it’s very common to get rejected from publications, especially as editors continue to request more data before committing to publish papers in print, Dr. Bates said. She noted that even the “work horse” journals that have historically been accessible for publishing have become more selective. “You’re more likely now than in the past to get a rejection or at least get a ‘major revision’ [letter],” Dr. Bates said. Still, being rejected by one journal doesn’t mean your paper can’t find new life. This is especially true if a journal offers to reconsider your research provided you revise or update it. One of the common mistakes Dr. Bates said new researchers make is viewing reconsideration letters as official rejections from journals when, in fact, they’re actually opportunities. “I can’t tell you how many [residents] at your stage of the game have thought that a [reconsideration letter] was a rejection and have put their research down and never come back to it. It’s not a rejection. It’s great news” when a journal allows you to revise and resubmit your work for another chance at publishing, Dr. Bates said. If your paper was rejected without review, simply reformat and send it to another journal to see if they’d be interested in it, she advises. However, if your paper was rejected with notes for review, Dr. Bates suggests revising and resubmitting the paper provided you have time to actually enhance it. “If you choose to revise and resubmit the manuscript, one thing that’s really important is to try to address every reviewer comment. Even if they give you 20 comments, you don’t have to make 20 changes. But say why you didn’t make that change or try to make some small change …. Reviewers hate spending time [offering comments on papers], then having you resubmit and it didn’t change at all …. Whatever the reviewer wants, try to do it,” Dr. Bates said.