Publish or Perish: Insider Tips for Publishing in Peer-Reviewed Journals for Fellows
As an oncology fellow you have chosen what is arguably the most research-driven field in all of medicine. Indeed, the lives of your patients depend, in large part, upon the expeditious flow of novel and increasingly safe and more effective therapies from the lab to clinical practice. This seemingly lofty goal is now more attainable than ever, but requires that knowledge be shared and information exchanged in reputable peer-reviewed journals.Patients are clearly the primary stakeholders in this endeavor, but the list of those who rely on a solid track record of publications as a means to a critical end is a lengthy one. To varying extents, the ability to publish impacts everything from research funding to clinicians’ reputations to the good standing or very existence of programs and entire institutions—and the competition is stiff.While researchers and clinicians are not necessarily expected to be world-class writers, a well-written article that effectively communicates the topic at hand and adheres to the journal’s standards, style, and guidelines is, indeed, more likely to be published than one that doesn’t live up to these standards.But can an article really be rejected based solely on an author’s inability to produce a well-written manuscript? “Absolutely,” said Kelly Brooks, managing editor of Journal of Oncology Practice. “The content might be appropriate for our journal, but all manuscripts are peer-reviewed. If the editors think the writing quality isn’t worthy of inclusion in the Journal, they may certainly reject it for that reason,” she cautioned.Luckily for you, few, if any, would-be authors ever bother to read an article about the ins and outs of getting published, and instead move blindly through this unfamiliar and often confusing territory. For this reason, any effort you make to inform yourself about this process will give you a proverbial leg up.
Behind the ScenesUnderstanding the process that leads to a paper’s acceptance or rejection is the first step toward attaining the above-mentioned advantage. Much like going to a job interview, preparing an article for submission to a peer-reviewed journal would be somewhat of a fool’s errand if you did not first get a sense of what the decision-makers are looking for.While the process varies somewhat from journal to journal, newly submitted manuscripts generally get their first perusal at the hands of the editor-in-chief, who is usually a renowned expert clinician who evaluates the submissions less for the quality of their writing than for their timeliness, relevance, and potential interest to readers.Once accepted by the editor-in-chief, the paper must pass muster with the editorial review board, a group of clinicians and academicians—all experts in their fields—who are charged with the task of evaluating the submission for content, scientific accuracy, appropriateness for their journal, and relevance to the journal’s readers. Based on these criteria, review board members can accept or reject a manuscript outright, but can also return the paper to the author(s) with a request for clarification, revisions, or even a complete rewrite. At that point, acceptance for publication becomes contingent upon the author’s ability to make the requested revisions to the satisfaction of the board.“We have, indeed, rejected papers after asking for revisions,” said Brooks, “because the author(s) ultimately couldn’t produce a well-written paper.”It is only after these requested revisions have been made and approved that the paper moves on to the journal’s editorial staff, whose job is to ensure that the article is as clear, concise, and error-free as possible. Ideally, the editing process serves as a series of checks and balances, with an initial edit performed for content and scientific accuracy (by the managing or senior clinical editor), followed by a second edit for features such as flow, organization, and proper style (by the copy editor) and, finally, a proofreader’s line-by-line inspection for typos and errors in spelling and grammar. In this way, the paper is seen by multiple individuals, each of whom contributes a fresh perspective and pair of eyes, hopefully catching errors and inconsistencies not seen by the previous editor.