Despite thousands of articles being published every day, it always seems difficult to get your article published. Co-authors bicker. Journals seem to be picky, and peer-reviewers…well, peer-reviewers just seem to be out to get you. (I know. I’m one of them.) Now, there are dozens of guides that offer advice on how to be more successful at publishing. Here, I am going to talk about a new publication guide that just came out. How is this one different? Because I’m going to summarize the whole thing for you.
(Note: There is a conflict of interest here. I’m an author on a few of the chapters in this guide. Sadly, I don’t receive any royalties. Just your admiration.)
Publishing Addiction Science: A Guide to the Perplexed was published online a few weeks ago. I’ll go over the major themes of the book shortly, but first, I want to point on two huge benefits of this book. First, it’s free! Yup, free. Yes, for those that want a paper version, a print copy can be purchased through Amazon, but I won’t even link to the page because it is unnecessary. Download the entire edition by clicking HERE. Second, despite its title, the lessons of this book are entirely generic. Every field is not identical and the requirements for publication may differ, but the process of publication is largely identical across disciplines, with the exception of physics and mathematics who often publish non-peer reviewed articles on arXiv.com, but even they are required to publish in peer-reviewed journals eventually.
Now, on to those themes. Well, more like lessons really, which can be succinctly summarized as plan, discuss, and be wary.
It has taken months, if not years, but you have finally completed your study. The last subject was enrolled, the data has been collected and cleaned, and you are able to answer your research question. Because you think your study is important and will make a valuable contribution to society, you decide to have it published in a peer-reviewed journal, which is an excellent decision by the way. Once you have made this decision, the best way forward is to plan out the entire process ahead of time. Before the paper is outlined, before the first word hits the page, ideally before the analysis is even completed, plan.
First, you need to determine where you are going to submit the manuscript. For better or worse, I take a two-step, hope for the best/prepare for the worse, approach. I search for a journal that I consider a “reach” journal. A reach journal is a peer-reviewed journal that has a high impact factor and is considered one of the pre-eminent journals in your field. Since I often conduct public health or addiction research, the American Journal of Public Health or Addiction may be reach journals for me. JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine may be reach journals for someone else. I don’t expect the paper to be accepted by the reach journal, but it is worth the extra effort if publication does occur. After selecting a reach journal, I always have a back-up. Or 2 back-ups because I know the risk of rejection is almost absolute. A back-up journal doesn’t mean some unknown journal that isn’t indexed anywhere or an open-access journal that doesn’t even qualify as peer-reviewed. A back-up journal simply means a well-known, second-tier journal that doesn’t have quite the aura of the reach journals.
Selecting the right journal, especially when you are new to publishing, takes time and effort. Journals should be researched regarding what topics they have published in the past and what topics they publish now. Rejection rates, if known, and impact factors, should be consulted as well but not taken as rules. Selecting your journal early allows you to plan how to write the manuscript. Each journal has a unique way of organizing and presenting research articles. Some journals require certain tenses to be used (e.g. present v. past) and certain person-voices to be used (e.g. 1st v. 3rd person). Others focus on the use of active or passive voice, and I can rant for hours about the differences in reference formatting. Knowing this information allows you to plan how you will write your article.
Before you write though, you need to identify who your co-authors are, if any. Who contributed to the project? Who can be counted on to contribute to actually writing the manuscript? Who will be responsible for what parts of the manuscript? These are only some of the questions to consider when deciding on the authorship list.
Hand-in-hand with planning is discussion. The most important discussion you need to have is with your co-authors because the first task after deciding on where to publish is who should be included as a co-author on the paper. Deciding on co-authorship is a classic “easier said than done” issue. It seems really straightforward. Whoever worked on the project should be included as a co-author. But does that include the research assistants who collected the data but may not have the training to integrate the results into a cohesive argument? Does it include the investigator who obtained the funding to conduct the study even if they had no part in the planning, analysis, or writing of the paper? Did anyone who was thought to be a co-author simply not do enough work to merit inclusion?
These can be tricky questions to answer and require open discussion between all parties to avoid awkward, and potentially, angry confrontations. As lead author, it may also require making tough decisions. I was talking with a junior investigator for a very large international research project about publications a few years ago. Hundreds of papers have been produced from this project, and she was working under the supervision of the overall principle investigator. She followed the project’s protocol for retrieving data and proceeded to conduct a unique analysis of the data and write a manuscript meant for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Her and her fellow co-authors had reviewed the draft and were ready to submit to a journal; however, her supervisor, the overall PI of this massive international research project, never got back to her. There was no indication he had made any edits to the paper or was even reviewing the paper. So, she took the PI’s name off the authorship list and submitted the paper without him. Even if a research is one of the greats in the field, they do not deserve authorship credit unless they have actually contributed to the paper.
Finally, Publishing Addiction Science asks the reader to make a mental note of the funding source of articles that are read and to be wary of who funds an investigator’s research. We tend to assume that research is unbiased. That a $1 million project funded by NIH will produce the same results if funded by an industry group if the same methods are employed. Sadly, that is not the case. For a not unsurprising reason, studies funded by for-profit industries typically produce results that are favorable to that industry. Studies funded by government or non-profit organizations typically produce results that are favorable to individual or population-wide health. These two notions, industry and health, are often at odds with each other.
A classic example of this is tobacco, and there are countless examples of the tobacco industry funding research studies that were deemed favorable to industry interests. But I’ll highlight a more recent example. Energy drinks and alcohol do not go well together. People who drink alcohol mixed with energy drinks suffer from significantly higher levels of negative alcohol-related consequences compared to people who just drink alcohol. There are numerous articles and systematic reviews that support this position with the exception of articles funded by the alcohol or energy drinks industries. These studies, funded by for-profit interests, conclude that energy drinks have no effect on alcohol consumption or are even beneficial to the user!
Be wary. Be cautious. Be alert. If you are seeking funding, know who the funder is and what the expectations are. Research must be performed independent from interference of those who may not like some of the results, yet some funders require just the opposite.
The take home message: If you have decided to publish your research in a peer-reviewed journal, plan each step advance, facilitate open discussions with potential co-authors to determine authorship order and division of labor, and be wary of stipulations and requirements some funders may put on grants, fellowships, and other funding mechanisms. And if you don’t believe me, read PAS. It will literally cost you nothing.
It still amazes me, even though it shouldn’t, how much directions matter. Not so much the directions themselves but how closely they need to be followed. There are extraordinary few circumstances where we can purposefully disregard the directions and still get our grant funded or our paper published, and even in these circumstances, we inevitably know someone who is part of the approval process.
Funding and publication. The two areas where directions are paramount yet are often overlooked.
Let’s start with funding first. Funding, whether a grant, donation, or endowment often has strings attached. At multiple points in my graduate career, I was funded by an endowment left to my university, and I was awarded the funds because my research fit within the terms and conditions of the endowment. Unfortunately, other research being conducted in my program could not be funded through these revenue stream because the research was too outside the rules set by the endowment, even though we all work in the same general field (Think infectious versus chronic disease epidemiology, not art history versus physics).
But that is a relatively simple case because I didn’t need to apply for anything. When actually seeking a grant, I have come across numerous situations where I either could not apply for funding or the application was rejected because the proposed activities did not meet the goals of the funder. When applying for a grant, there are two types of directions that must be carefully followed: format and content. The formatting directions are often the easiest to follow but can put significant limits on our ability to follow the content directions. Whether limited by page numbers, word counts, or margins, following the formatting directions is a requirement in order to have your grant reviewed. Within the formatting sphere, make sure you have each section that is required as well. Following the page limits are a must, but if a limitations section or power analysis wasn’t included, the grant won’t be funded on the grounds of an incomplete application.
Content directions for funding are often more difficult to follow, not because the funder isn’t funding an interesting topic but because the competition for funding is so fierce that we often stretch the funders goals to suit of research or programmatic interests, or vice versa. I have done this, and I’ve seen grants fail because of it. For example, I was listed as a Key Personnel for an NIH infrastructure grant. (If that seems weird, it’s because it is). Our problem was that the vast majority of the funding was supposed to be spent building research infrastructure in developing countries. Instead of specifically following that guidance, we essentially wrote a training grant. We would travel to developing countries to train researchers in our techniques, and while these countries would see some funding, the vast majority would have stayed in our university to pay for salaries. That was a mistake and cost us the funding.
The contents of a grant matter, and if your project doesn’t line up with what the funder wants, do not waste your time writing the grant. We can easily rationalize to ourselves how our round project fits into a very awkwardly designed trapezoidal hole, but such rationalizations don’t often makes sense to those around us. For example, I have been involved with several projects on alcohol use, and I can make a very strong case for why alcohol use should be considered part of nutrition and other dietary sciences. But the nutrition world thinks different. To them, alcohol belongs solely to the addiction field and has little in common with foods and beverages.
Alright, we skimmed the surface on funding, but we also need to talk about writing up the findings. Although reports and other forms of grey literature (such as this blog) are good, we really aspire to have our research published in a peer-reviewed journal. By doing so, the scientific community has essentially given their blessing on our findings, our methods, or, hopefully, both. I’m going to assume you have already located a journal that is appropriate for your study and your field. Now, the key is recognizing the fine details in order to ensure the paper is being critiqued on the merits of the work, not on whether you used the right font size.
In my experience, there are two important directions to follow when publishing in a peer-reviewed journal: pick the write manuscript type and know the reference style. Picking the manuscript type appears straightforward, and for the majority of papers, it is, thankfully. The importance of choosing the appropriate manuscript type lies in the restrictions each type puts on your paper. In the journals I prefer to publish in, a traditional research paper is likely to have a word limit of 3,500-4,000 words not including references and tables, a reference limit between 40-50, and a limit on the number of tables and figures of 5 (most journals allow online, supplementary tables as well so this rule can be worked around). Other journals may have a limit of 10,000 words including references and tables, and still others may have a reference limit of 50 but you can pay the journal a fee to include additional references. The quick point I am trying to make is that you never have unlimited space to write. You need to follow the directions according to the type of article you have chosen.
Onward to references, the bane of everyone’s existence. References are a necessary evil and a common comment I will write when being a peer-reviewer for a journal. (As an aside, it is amazing the type of information some people believe is common knowledge to enough people to not need a citation). References are necessary because we need to provide proper attribution to whoever conducted the studies our study is built upon. References are evil because there are numerous reference styles (e.g. APA, AMA, ASA, MLA, Harvard, Vancouver, etc.), and even journals who appear to pick a standard reference style often include some minor change that is not duplicated anywhere else. Despite all that, you need to properly format your references. I’ve had papers returned without review for improperly formatted references.
But if you need to spend hours (yes, it will be hours) of your life completing an inherently evil task, take as many shortcuts as you can. Store your references in a program such as RefWorks will help you seamlessly transition from one reference style to the next. Some journals with very specific or peculiar referencing styles have included their format has a specific option in these programs. If you are uncomfortable with RefWorks or its companions, use the reference manager that is built into Microsoft Word. This feature is similar to RefWorks but the citations are stored on your PC and cannot be accessed from multiple locations. Personally, I am a late adopter of most technology, and I primarily use the reference manager in Word. It is not perfect, but the references are close enough to the intended style that editing takes only a few seconds per citation. It is also possible to download or program additional reference styles that are not included in the native program.
I’ll conclude this discussion by explaining in no uncertain terms what happens if you don’t follow the directions. 99.9% of the time, you will fail. Your grant won’t be funded, and your paper won’t be published.
The take home message
Read the directions. Follow the directions. They may not always be simple. They may even contradict themselves. But they are necessary to be successful.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed a pilot study for a health promotion campaign. The set-up was pretty simple. Five images were created to inform the population about the dangers of engaging in this specific health behavior. A number of adults were recruited and asked questions about their attitudes toward this behavior. They were then shown 1 of the 5 health promotion images and were asked the same attitude-related questions again. It was a standard one-group, within-subjects design evaluation.
Unsurprisingly, attitudes about the behavior decreased after viewing any of the health promotion images, exactly as the campaign creators had hoped for. But there was a problem. A very simple problem that could have been rectified before the evaluation even began.
I have no way of knowing if the health promotion images actually changed attitudes towards the behavior.
How is this possible? Because there was no control group.
Think about it this way. If you are part of a health-related study that relies on self-report, as in this study, it is fairly easy to guess what the evaluators or researchers want to hear. You are promoting a new exercise program? Great! I say I’ve doubled the number of days that I have exercised since participating. A new poster about how bad smoking is? Of course I agree that smoking is a terrible habit to have. Do I think fruits and vegetables are good foods? Why yes, yes I do.
Did you pick up on it? Depending on how an evaluation is designed, how an individual’s response is measured, and how often an individual’s response is measured, subjects may be inadvertently primed to give you the answer you want to hear, particularly if you are taking measurements at multiple time points (which you should be doing). This is what I call testing bias. By measuring something at one time point, we may inadvertently influence the measurement at a subsequent time point.
The solution to this is rather simple. Whenever we are testing individuals at multiple time points, there needs to be a control group that doesn’t receive the new program or intervention. The exact nature of the control depends on many factors. First, you must consider whether you have the ability to randomize subjects. This is what is done in true experimental trials but is often difficult when evaluating a new program. Programs often cover geographic regions, and if there is belief the program has positive health benefits, there are limited ethical arguments for refusing to provide such services. In these situations, we often create a non-randomized control group be selecting individuals in a different town or neighborhood, which is done in quasi-experimental studies, often known as natural experiments. There are even instances where different states or countries have acted as non-randomized control groups.
Second, you must consider the type of control group to create. A true control group receives no intervention. For the pilot study mentioned above, a true control group would have simply been asked questions about their attitudes toward a health behavior on two separate occasions. A placebo control group is given some other intervention that isn’t expected to influence what you are measuring. For example, if the health promotion campaign was to discourage smoking, a placebo control group could have been shown images about climate change, which would not be expected to change attitudes on smoking. Finally, the control group could be exposed to a previously tested intervention. These studies are known as comparative effectiveness studies. For our pilot study, the subjects could have viewed last year’s health promotion campaign materials. In these studies, we hope to see the new intervention work as well or better than the previous intervention.
There is an unintended consequence of using a control group in a multiple time-point evaluation. Whoever is in charge of the data must be knowledgeable enough to properly analyze the data. This isn’t a scenario that can be handled with t-tests and chi-square analysis. At a minimum, your data analyst needs to be proficient in repeated-measures ANOVA, multi-level modeling, or path analysis/structural equation modeling.
The take home message: Unless absolutely impossible, always use a control group in your evaluations. Programs, campaigns, and other interventions require considerable resources to develop, and funders will want to know that your new intervention worked. That is not possible unless there is a control group.