Scientific Writing: What Editors Want
Academics and researchers in all fields of science are under extreme pressure to publish. Some say publish or perish, and others say publish and flourish. Such pressure makes writing painful. However, publishing our observations from research is necessary for the growth of science.
Scientific writing was the focus of a panel discussion as part of the 3rd Manipal International Infectious Diseases Conference at Manipal recently. Manipal Centre for Infectious Diseases (MAC ID) organized this international conference. It was interesting to have three well-known academic researchers – Prof Sir Nicholas J White, Prof Nicholas PJ Day and Dr. David Richard Bell – as the panelists. These researchers have about a thousand publications between them. The panelists spoke at length about what they expect in a paper. They also gave tips on writing scientific articles. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Sneha Deepak Mallya and Dr. Murali TS, of Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.
Here are excerpts of the panel discussion.
How should authors write an article to catch your attention?
Most papers we receive have meaningful questions. However, the writing style can be better. By better, we do not mean difficult words and long sentences.
Scientific articles should have a simple and clear message. The writing should be in short sentences that are easy to read and understand. The reader mustn’t fall asleep by the time she reaches a full stop!
Find a good mentor. Ask for their honest criticism of your paper before you send it to a journal.
Sometimes journals take a long time to reply. When is it appropriate to remind them?
It depends on how important the paper is. How important is it to the field, and you?
But please do have some pity on the editors too. It is tough for them to get reviewers. You can gently ask them if they need reviewer suggestions also.
What if we don’t agree with the reviewers?
You may not agree with some modifications suggested by peer reviewers. Handling that situation requires some skill.
But first, don’t roll over! Concede on some points, but don’t give in on issues that matter. It is your paper. Disagree with the reviewer when it is essential. After all, some reviewers are competent, and some are not.
What do editors do when two reviewers differ?
It is difficult for the editors when the first reviewer recommends accepting the paper without any change, and the second asks for significant revisions. At such times, they look at the background of the reviewers. Did the authors recommend the first reviewer? They may even take the help of a third reviewer. But this delays the decision time.
Should we publish negative results?
It is vital to publish the negative results of a study too. It avoids the significant bias of publishing only positive results. While sending a paper with negative results, it is better to lay out an explanation of why that is significant in that field.
It is sad, but true that most journals behave like newspapers. They need to sell their journal, and it is difficult with negative results. This explains the reluctance of many journals to publish negative outcome studies.
How important is the novelty of a study for considering publication?
Should a study always be novel? No!
Just a single study tends not to change policy or protocols. More trials confirming such outcomes help, and it is crucial to repeat experiments for this reason. We often see fantastic results in the first trial and subsequent trials give the actual, and often real, picture.
Using a well-planned study to confirm or reject the findings of another study is perfectly valid. It is important to describe why you did it and what it means. Why are you presenting it?
How do we choose journals for publication of our work? High impact factor or open access?
The impact factor of a journal is not important. Do not consider impact factor for choosing a journal. Impact factors are now regarded as phony. Many funding organizations have stopped giving importance to impact factors of previously published work to consider funding.
On the other hand, open access is all too important. Researchers should be able to access your paper online without payment for reading the articles. That’s how it becomes useful and improves citations also. Moreover, scientific funding is usually public wealth, and more people should have free access to it.
How important are supplementary data?
Many journals impose limitations on the length of text, especially for the print version. Some restrict the number of images and tables. However, many journals allow publishing additional text and graphics as supplementary data in their online-only versions. This is good, as most researchers access the online versions of a paper. A valid excuse for publishing them as supplementary data is the need for conciseness in the main manuscript.
However, most journals do not edit the supplementary data. They are published online as-is. Hence, authors should send refined and thoroughly checked information as supplementary data.
Journals often reject a paper and recommend transferring the manuscript to another journal. What about that?
This has become so frequent that it is annoying. It is often a journal of the same publisher with higher publication charges too.
The advantage is that you don’t need to reformat to make journal-specific changes. They will take care of it for a fee. But if you want to send to another better journal, you don’t need to agree.
Do industry-sponsored studies get preference?
Hopefully not! Industry-sponsored studies are generally well conducted. They have more resources and employ professional writers. Their statistical analysis is usually good and graphics impressive. If they do not have an obvious bias, they usually go through the editorial process relatively smoothly.
They are often biased, and that is the main problem.
Do you have any other questions?
Dr Shashikiran Umakanth (MBBS, MD, FRCP Edin.) is Professor & Head of Internal Medicine at MMMC, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, and has clinical responsibilities at the Department of Medicine, Dr TMA Pai Hospital, Udupi, Karnataka, India.