Updated: Jul 19, 2020
First of all, why publish?
Publications are a great way to not only improve your research skills but it can also gain you extra points for the FPAS (Foundation Programme Application System) which is used to rank final year medical students and assign us to our junior doctor jobs once we’ve graduated. Publications are by no means necessary, but they are desired! However, there are a few requirements that you must meet for your publication to be counted for the FPAS, keeping in mind that up to 2 publications will be counted (= up to a maximum of 2 points)
You do not need to be the first named author on the publication, just a named author. Please note that collaborators do not qualify for points. Applicants must be a titled author.
The work must have been published and must have a PubMed ID number (PMID). If there is no PMID, the point will not be awarded. DOI, ISBN or PMCID numbers are not sufficient and will not count.
This highlights the relative unimportance that the FPAS places on a publication compared to the Situational Judgement Test (SJT) and Educational Performance Measure (EPM) - you can find out more about the FPAS breakdown in my blog post here. They do so because it is more important to have doctors who know how to deal with a difficult situation safely and appropriately rather than being good at research. More emphasis is placed on your extra academic achievements like publications in the AFP. Later on, in your core or specialty training applications, publications will also begin to count for much more.
Nevertheless, working on a manuscript for publication cultivates your critical appraisal skills and you will do a lot of further reading that can bring you up to speed with the latest research on your topic of interest.
So the big question is: HOW do I get published?
Below are some of the ways you can get your work published and a few tips I picked up along the way.
I entered into a national medical student essay competition and won 1st place which included a cash prize and a PubMed publication. You can have a read of my publication here. There are several medical student essay competitions out there (Google is the best way to find these) and I advise that you enter an essay competition for a subject you find interesting and can write confidently about.
Look at the number of words you have to write, the prizes at stake and the deadlines. These must all be considered and weighed up, so you know how much time and effort to spend on your essay. Some competitions offer a publication, others give you the chance to win up to £750! Royal College essay competitions are the most well-known (and therefore, competitive) but have some amazing prizes up for grabs.
Have a look at my blog post on essay competitions for my tips and further information.
SSCs, QIPs and Audits
Other options are projects during medical school such as Student Selected Components (SSCs), quality improvement projects (QIPs) or audits. These are a good way to attempt to get published as you are assigned a supervisor who can guide you through the process and you are able to choose topics that you are already interested in. Be keen and enquire about getting published with your supervisor! They can give you invaluable advice and guidance on the process. I am currently writing up a manuscript of my Year 2 SSC for publication as I chose a topic that has not been published much about and my supervisor had lots of data for me to analyse. I am also working on a manuscript with other medical students about a conference I ran with them and the survey data we collected.
During your intercalation year: BSc, BA or MSc
This is an extra year out of your medical degree to pursue a subject of interest and get an extra degree in it. If you're at this stage, highlight the fact that you want to get published as a priority to your academic supervisor. Some medical students manage to get their dissertations published!
It is unrealistic to expect to produce and publish original medical research on your own. Most research involves a team, led by a senior (who will typically be named as the first author). This senior is often a clinical scientist or consultant in the field you are interested in. You may meet them on clinical placement, at conferences or even networking events. Whilst it can be daunting to approach them, more often than not they will be happy to take you on as they simply do not have the time to write up their research and collect data, alongside their busy careers. Approach them face to face if you can and politely ask for contact details to email them for follow up later. Alternatively, if you have found out about their work online, it could be worth emailing them to express your interest in their research.
What can I publish?
There are several different types of publications, some of which I mentioned above and each has a specific format depending on the journal you are hoping to submit to. Take advice from your supervisors on what is most likely to be published based on the work you are doing i.e. my SSC involves a large data set of ~50,000 patients and their Vitamin B12 serum concentrations - therefore, I am most likely to publish a Research Article as this is original data that I am adding to the field.
In general, editorials (which I submitted my winning essay as), letters to the editor (regarding something already published or bringing attention to an important topic in the field) as well as case reports (interesting patient cases that add new information to the medical field whether that be in the diagnosis or treatment of a condition) are easier and less time consuming to publish than full research projects. For case reports in particular, try and look out for any interesting patient cases you see whilst on clinical placement (or even on your elective) and ask the doctor looking after that patient if it may be worth publishing about.
What’s the publication process like?
1. It is unlikely that your work will be accepted first time round.
After winning my essay competition and submitting it to the journal who collaborated with the organisation, anonymous peer-reviewers (who are experts assigned to read your work and critique it) deemed my essay “unoriginal and unsuitable in its current form”. I was given a month to make a LOT of major revisions/changes. Since winning the essay competition in January, it has taken 6 months to officially get published in an issue.
It is common for papers to be rejected but this does not mean it is the end of the world! Alternatively, you may be able to present your work/abstract at a conference or submit it to another journal (some journals even kindly offer a transfer service if they know a journal for which your work is more suited to). Regardless, you would have learned something new from the process!
2. Publications cost money.
After your work is accepted, you are often required to pay a fee upwards of £500 (often higher for a high-impact, open access journal). Thankfully, this was already agreed between the organisation and the journal who had collaborated to run the essay competition but most of the time, medical students work under a supervisor/researcher, so that the educational institution foots the bill.
3. Where you get published matters.
Free open-access, high impact journals are your best bet as your work will most likely be published to PubMed. Any journal indexed to PubMed will be seen as credible for your future medical endeavours. However, private journals (that readers have to pay a subscription for) may be easier to get published in. It is important to remember here that once your work is published in one place you CANNOT submit it for publication or distribution elsewhere. This can mean that all your hard work can go to waste if you’re accepted for publication in a journal that doesn’t reach a wide audience and is not indexed in PubMed. Certain journals are dedicated to medical students, such as BMJ Student.
You also cannot submit the same work to multiple journals at once so you must choose a journal that you think your manuscript meets the aims and scope of. This can be checked on the journal’s homepage. Applying to a journal and waiting months for a decision lengthens the process – it is very much a waiting game and patience is a virtue (this drove me crazy). To make it as smooth as possible, try and choose the right journal from the start.
Publications usually require 6 months to a year of work and must be relevant and of interest to the scientific community. Also, be prepared for an IMMENSE amount of reading! My advice would be to not put pressure on yourself to publish any old thing because the chances are you will be disappointed at the outcome (and your manuscript will probably not be accepted by a journal). Enjoy the journey and take it as an opportunity to put something out there that you’re passionate about and want to educate others on (and help bolster your junior doctor application as a bonus).
Foundation Programme Guru blog post - I read this post last year and it inspired me
Have a read of my blog post: Understanding the publication process