The posting below gives some excellent advice on publishing in the sciences.
It is taken from The Scientist - The News Journal of the Life
Scientist, [http://www.the-scientist.com/homepage.htm], 15:30,
April 2, 2001 ? Copyright 2001, The Scientist, Inc. All rights
reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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WRITING A PAPER THAT WILL 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,
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
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
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, 13:20, 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,
23:39-44, March-April 2000.
The Scientist 15:30, Apr. 2, 2001
? Copyright 2001, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved.
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