Publish, Publish, Publish: Writing as an Important Early-Career Step

Career Advancement / January 10th, 2017

For many, one of the hardest things to do in their early career is also one of the more important. Getting your research published is crucial for promotion and funding.

“If you are in academics and research is a part of your job description, then the amount and quality of the journals you publish in are objective measures of your success,” says Emily K. Sims, MD, assistant research professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “For funding, part of your score is based on personal qualifications and previous research productivity is a major factor. It is important to be consistently putting good quality work out there.”

One of the first questions a new writer needs to answer is, “When is the article done?” It can be hard to decide when to pull the trigger and submit your research.

“The biggest issue for someone starting a career is deciding the best time to publish your research,” says Stephen R. Hammes, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York State. “As a new investigator you want to publish good quality, but you don’t want to hold off too long. People need to read your article.”

There are two schools of thought. One suggests that you publish as soon as you can. It may not be full formed, but a new investigator needs to get something out there.

The other is that one should hold on to their research and keep adding more and more information. There is the hope that this will be the one big score needed to set yourself up for life.

Lean on a Mentor

Hammes, who also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Molecular Endocrinology, says a good resource is your advisor or mentor. Sims agrees.

“Beyond the actual work, I think finding the right mentor is the most important part of getting published for an early-career researcher,” she says. “Having a mentor gives you guidance and I don’t know what I would have done without one from the beginning. You have to make some mistakes to learn, but there are so many good things that can come from their experience and concern about your well being.”

However, you should keep in mind that they may have very different ideas about when submissions should be made.

“Often the advisor wants to wait to publish this great monolith of a paper,” Hammes notes. “They are established, have time to wait and have a lot going on at once. The new investigator has only their own project to think about.”

It may be necessary for the writer to approach their
mentor and tell them the research needs to go out for publication now. Personal concerns such as the requirements for promotion or the need to begin getting their own grant money lead to imperatives that the more seasoned investigator may not share.

It is also suggested that you call or email the editors of the journals you are considering. Most will be happy to talk to you and give advice on timing and any other question you have about submitting to their publication.

Choosing the Right Venue

After deciding when an article should be published, where it will be submitted is another important step. Journals are ranked by impact factor (IF). The IF reflects the average number times recently published articles have been cited in other publications. Generally, the higher the IF, the more important a journal is thought to be.

“One of the first things you need to think about when deciding where to place your article is the IF of the journal,” says Sims. “You try to publish in the higher IF journals, but you also have to realistically evaluate whether your project will make the cut. I always try to shoot for an IF I think is reasonable, but you want to get published so people can see your work.”

Study the publication(s) you are considering. How does their audience match up with the audience you see for your article? For example, if you have done a clinical study, it isn’t likely to interest a journal with a basic science focus.

“ACC members should consider the ACC journals,” says Hammes. “You want to publish in a place where you feel comfortable. While the editorial board may not be your friends, they are people you are probably familiar with. The journals are there for Society members to get their work out and I think newer researchers should take advantage of that when they can.”

Customizing the Manuscript

When getting ready to submit your research to a specific journal, it is time to visit the information for authors page. This gives you the formatting, the person who should receive the article, and other technical requirements of the publication.

“The authors page gives specific information on how they want the bibliography to look, how many words they’ll accept for the abstract, and other important parts of the submission,” says  Sims. “Some feel that the research is important and the publishing details not so much. But the people who decide on the publication’s content take these details very seriously.”

Following guidelines can be an important part of getting your manuscript accepted quickly, or at all. The editors will send an article back to the authors for revisions to meet these requirements. This will delay the time when you know if your article is accepted or rejected.

“Everybody should look at the information for authors, yet it is amazing how many don’t,” says Rebecca Kelly, managing editor for ES publications. “We generally won’t reject solely based on format concerns. It makes us wonder if they did not pay attention to the technical parts of submission, maybe they did the same on the research itself.”

The tone and method of your writing is often the hardest part of the process for both young and established writers. It needs to be easy to read and easy to follow. You have to be able to communicate the important parts quickly and concisely.

“Writing a manuscript is an art,” says Sims. “You can do the most exciting work ever, but if you can’t communicate it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Use resources that are readily available to you as you go along. In some instances, the reviewers are the first people to see the manuscript. This is seldom a good idea.

“Make sure lot of people have read your paper and commented on it long before the journal reviewers get it,” says Hammes. “Have your co-authors look it over and get feedback as a first review. Get input from other colleagues. When you have considered their suggestions, you can send it along to the journal.”

During the final check, make sure that any illustrations, tables, or figures are in a format the journal can use. Be careful when making them that no bias is introduced.

“We have noticed some authors have tried to make an illustration stand out,” says Kelly. “They may darken a gel to draw attention to the one they feel is more important or sharpen to make it look nicer. Even if you feel the images aren’t dramatic enough, don’t touch it up to make it look prettier.”

She says most of this is done out of ignorance and not an attempt to fake results. However, the staff of the journal will examine the manuscript closely so that they can be sure there is no attempt at fakery. These concerns are taken very seriously by all journals.

Credit Where It’s Due

Another important step is deciding who will be first author and last author. Again, where you are in your career makes a difference in where you want to be.

“Authorship is a very important issue for young researchers who have to have their own work to be successful,” says Hammes. “Working in your first post-doctoral lab you will want to be first author and your senior investigator the last author. Where it becomes a little cloudy is when you are on your own.”

In these cases, Hammes thinks it is very important to sit down with your mentor and get senior authorship status. This can help cement your status as an independent investigator.

“I always encourage my junior investigators to have these conversations when everything is their work,” he notes. “They should tell their mentors that they want senior authorship. Some will be more willing than others to back off. It is a conversation most early-career investigators have to have eventually.”

An important trait a new investigator must develop quickly is the ability to not take a rejection personally. Most papers get turned down at least once.

“One of the first things I learned is that you have to have a very thick skin, otherwise you won’t come out of it with your self-esteem intact,” notes Sims. “Even when they turn down your paper, usually you will get invaluable feedback on improving it for the next submission.”

Another reason for a newbie investigator to not take it personal, is that not just the young ones getting rejected. Hammes notes that even Chiefs of Service and full professors don’t get in print 100% of the time.

“Just because it was returned doesn’t mean it was bad science, it just means it wasn’t appropriate for that journal,” he notes. “The easy thing to do is complain and be mad at the reviewers. But then you calm down, look at the comments, and know what you have to do to submit a better paper to the next journal.”