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The publishing process - a brief overview

Publications are highly sought after by medical students - mainly because they serve to add some points to your Foundation Programme Application (explained in my blog post here).

However, more importantly, getting published allows you to make huge strides in advancing your knowledge on a topic that interests you and may be essential to clinical work. If you're an academic person who wants to get involved in research and share this knowledge with the world, this blog post briefly outlines the publishing process and how long it takes.

Editors and reviewers look for original, innovative research or opinions that will add to the field of study your paper is focused on and/or can immediately impact patient care. This means that the conclusions that you give in your scientific work must be sound and based on sufficiently robust data. The more original your research, the more people will be interested - and you must consider what audience you want your paper to reach. Identifying your audience is a major factor in selecting the right journal to submit your manuscript to.

1. Writing up your manuscript and submitting to a journal (1-6 months)

Your manuscript is the final write-up of what you decide you want to publish. There are several different article types that you can submit to a journal such as: a systematic review, a research article, a letter to the editor and so on. You have to decide what type of article your work fits into and choose a journal that suits its content. For example, I would ideally want to submit research on the 'gut microbiome' to a journal that focuses on Gastroenterology or Nutrition and would search for journals of this nature. This gives you a greater chance of getting accepted because your work will match the journal's main themes. You must look at your chosen journal's guidelines for authors to find out what type of article your work would be considered as and how to structure it appropriately.

Please be aware that you CANNOT submit your work to a journal if it has already been published or if you have also submitted it elsewhere. You must make submissions one at a time.

2. Peer Review (1-2 months)

After submission, each manuscript is checked for plagiarism, and assessed carefully to determine if it fits the aims and scope of the journal. If journal representatives are enthusiastic about the work, the journal editor will appoint reviewers.

However, you may receive an outright rejection at this point if the journal editor feels that your work does not suit the journal. You are unlikely to receive much detailed feedback from this decision so it is best for you to work on your piece to improve it before trying to re-submit to a different journal (or the same one in special circumstances - usually when you have made major changes to the manuscript).

What does the peer reviewer do?

Reviewers help determine the validity, significance and originality of the work, and can suggest improvements to your manuscript. Depending on their feedback, editors will decide to accept, accept with revisions, or reject a manuscript. To make good judgments, peer reviewers use specific checklists to evaluate your content for scientific value and originality, to see that your article adheres to general scientific practice as well as the journal’s guidelines. They also check that you’ve referenced correctly and haven't attempted to plagiarise. The peer reviewer will look closely at your methodology and the validity of your data and consider your ethical approach. They will then recommend changes (revisions) before the editor decides to accept and publish your manuscript.

3. Decision

It is highly unlikely that your work will be accepted the first time round. Therefore, when submitting your work to a journal, always keep at the back of your mind that you may need to make changes to it.

REJECT - outright rejection as your work does not meet the scope or aims of the journal or is poorly written, referenced or results are skewed.

REQUEST MINOR REVISIONS - This will require you to make minor changes such as adjusting tables and figures and rewriting sections. You will be provided with the peer reviewers comments and will be expected to work through them one by one and answer to them. The good thing is: these comments are usually straight to the point (sometimes even brutal) and specific. So you know exactly what you need to change.

REQUEST MAJOR REVISIONS - This could involve repeating experiments or in my case, I was expected to add in sections and completely change others. I had to rewrite a lot of my manuscript/essay before the final publication. Peer reviewers commented that my work was 'unoriginal and unsuitable' in its current form and added nothing new to the literature. I was given a month to do further research and address each specific comment. All worth it in the end though!

ACCEPT WITHOUT REVISIONS - rare! But yay! Straight through to publication.

4. Acceptance (1-2 months after revisions have been made and have met the expectations set by the peer reviewers)

You will be notified of acceptance of your article. Congratulations! This could also be a rejection but not to worry, your article is probably better off for it and can be submitted elsewhere.

5. Article in Press (1-2 months)

Accepted articles for most journals are published online as an ‘article in press’, and assigned an issue at a later date.

6. Article published in an official issue

Your article is officially published in a permanent issue. This means it will have its full bibliographic details for citation and can be indexed to PubMed (if your journal has a subscription to PubMed - an important consideration if you want it to count for FPAS).

I hope this gives you a bit of a better overview of the process. If you wish to get more detailed and specific timelines of events, please check the Guideline for Authors webpages or booklets for your chosen journal on their website.

Sources (based on my publishing experience with Elsevier):

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