Publishing your scientific research: Advice from a journal editor’s viewpoint

Let’s discuss the submission and review of manuscripts from a journal editor’s perspective. I am the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Personalized Medicine, and have served on the editorial boards of 14 other journals. The things that I have seen will surprise you. Thus, here’s some advice along the lines of publishing scientific research as seen from this angle.

First, you really need to follow the directions. It is a simple task, but often not followed. An editor or reviewer can really be put off when the required format is not followed. It might suggest that little effort was put into the journal submission, and maybe the science is sloppy as well. Or, perhaps the manuscript was rejected from one journal and then dumped into a submission at another journal. For example, the location and density of the methods section varies greatly between journals, as do the rules for abbreviations, figures, figure symbols, and statistics.

Realize that the best papers tell a “story.”

You snag the reader by providing the background and importance of the issue being studied, and by clearly showing the gap in knowledge in the field that your body of work fills. A successful introduction compels the reader (and reviewer) to read further. The results section should also be presented as a story, rather than just pouring out the data. Show the logical progression of the experiments, essentially telling the reader what you were thinking at a given stage within the set of experiments.

Each journal seems to have a certain flavor of how stories are told. And even within a journal, the styles can differ (a research article vs. research report in the journal Science reads quite differently). So take some time to read several issues of the journal to which you plan to submit, to get that flavor. The “online supplemental information,” which most journals allow, can be your friend in this regard, providing space for more detailed methods, raw data, more extensive tables/datasets, and results of additional experiments not needed in the body of the paper. Reviewers hate it when they cannot figure out what, exactly, you did in a given experiment, so take advantage of supplemental information space if you are allowed to use it for this purpose.

Figures play a big part in the first impressions of a reviewer or editor.

Those familiar with the field, it is often said, should be able to gain a reasonable understanding of what the paper is about by reading the abstract and looking at the figures and legends. I suppose this is true, but one should be careful about being too figure heavy. I sense that editorial boards are getting frustrated by an overabundance of figures, especially when figures are combined as a part a, b, c, etc. to stay within the figure limit. Try to reach a good balance.

Finally, carefully read the letter from the editor. The best editors offer guidance about critical comments from reviewers that will probably require additional experiments. Sentences such as “you should address all the comments of the reviewers, particularly those of reviewer 1, comments 1-3” tell you a lot. Unfortunately, some letters are more cryptic and you must read between the lines. It is also important to read the whole letter. I once had a paper flat out rejected, and never even finished reading the letter. But, the last sentence said “I have taken the liberty of rewriting certain sections of your manuscript to conform to the writing style of Science, which you should retain upon resubmission.” My graduate student had to point out that last line to me.

Remember that MCOM uses the services of Still Point Coaching & Consulting to provide our faculty with one-on-one assistance in the preparation of grants and manuscripts. The costs are fully covered by the Office of Research. Please visit our website for more information: https://health.usf.edu/medicine/research/grant_manuscript_consulting.

Stephen Liggett, MD
Associate Vice President for Research, USF Health
Vice Dean for Research, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology

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