Paper Hack 101 – How to Get Published with 10 Easy Steps

"Wanna write that up?" Not many phrases in emergency medicine can induce as much anxiety as these four innocuous words. These 10 steps can help you overcome that anxiety and get published.

We, as physicians, are constantly at the forefront of exploring our fields of expertise through a dynamic process involving a seamless integration of existing knowledge with novel information. Thus, we bear the responsibility of exploring and disseminating new findings to the scientific and medical communities.

Whether you encountered an exciting patient case, developed a new wonder-drug, or piloted a new educational curriculum, you owe it to yourself to showcase your hard work and of academicians.1

While publications can be considered as promotional currencies to get into your next job (ie, residency, fellowship, or faculty position), it is more than just another line on your curriculum vitae. These works represent the opportunity to provoke debate, share your experiences, change potential practices.2-3 Now that you have been reinvigorated with the passion to publish your hard work, let us address the major elephant in the room: how to publish scientific articles.

While there are numerous online resources and peer-reviewed journal articles on “How to write *insert blank* in a scientific journal,” we aim to tackle an even larger theme that transcends specific journal categories, writing styles, and citation formatting. We want to provide a simple-to-follow guideline to gain and and finish any scientific publication during a pre-determined time frame.

The process of writing a scientific article requires more than one dedicated individual. There must be a collaborative effort of all of the research stakeholders, from the planning to the final approval process of the article. The conceptual framework for these steps follows the basic guidelines behind the popular SMART acronym for goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound).5 In order to guide new researchers in navigating the expansive ocean of scientific publications, authors with various research and mentorship experiences reviewed, discussed, revised, and compiled these 10 Easy Steps to Get Published FAST, based on available research literature.

STEP 1. Work effectively with a mentor. While you feel like you are the only person responsible for publishing, you are likely working with a mentor, whose primary purpose is to train you to become an independent researcher. One of the most crucial element to publishing is for both you and your mentor to articulate specific and tangible expectations for all responsible stakeholders (aka authors) during the write-up.6 Instead of asking your mentor open-ended questions (“What should I do?”) ask targeted questions for more constructive feedback and guidance. The purpose of these questions is to construct a basic foundation (think of it as a mission statement) for you to spearhead the rest of team into a final, successful deliverable.

  • How does our research impact the scientific community? Is this an original study? (“What’s our elevator pitch?”)
  • Are there any particular journals you would like us to submit to? If so, why?
  • In which category (ie, original research, technical report, brief report) should we construct the manuscript?
  • How often would you like to meet on a scheduled basis to review our progress?
  • Are there any institutional research personnel (ie, statistician, librarian) who can assist with the data analysis?
  • Do you have any supporting literature regarding our research topic?
  • What is our backup plan? 

STEP 2. Find the *perfect* journal and court the editor. Let’s be honest, we’d all like to submit to high-end journals with one-word names such as Nature, Lancet, Science, Cell, or perhaps one of the popular acronym-al giants like JAMA, NEMJ, BMJ. However, unless your name rhymes with -attu, -eingart, -rman, or -aminathan, you likely need to work on your research game first.7 That being said, there are numerous domestic EM journals, such as Annals of Emergency Medicine (Annals), Academic Emergency Medicine (AEM), Shock, Western Journal of Emergency Medicine (WestJEM), Journal of Emergency Medicine (JEM) that may fit your research.8 This is a high-level discussion that should be addressed by your mentor in Step 1. Once you select a journal, the next step is figure out which category you want to construct your manuscript in, follow the author guidelines to the letter (ie, word count, reference styles), and pitch your idea to the editor-in-chief. This may be a contentious topic among mentors, but a well-drafted letter of intent and a “would you be interested” email may pique the editor’s interest, help them remember your submission, or worst-case scenario, save you from hours of formatting in a work they won’t use. Given this is a high-stakes proclamation, show it to your mentor before clicking the “send” button. (Disclosure: The authors have no financial affiliation with any of these journals.)

STEP 3. Establish early backup plans. Why talk about a backup plan at Step 3? Isn’t this bad voodoo? Not necessarily. Each journal receives countless submissions on a monthly basis, so if your submission meets resistance, don’t fret and definitely don’t give up. Having a backup plan — if Journal A doesn’t accept, then reformat and re-submit to Journal B, C, D — can be helpful for the team when receiving bad news.

STEP 4. Determine authorship early. This is very important, as you are dedicating a large chunk of your time to something that you hope will be immortalized in scientific literature. As a result, you should be compensated appropriately for your time spent.9 While first and last authors hold the highest academic currency value, this is only pertinent for people going into hardcore academic settings. Being an author on any paper will be beneficial to your career. As the primary author, you are ultimately responsible for getting all the pieces together and reformatting it in the correct vernacular and context. Realize there’s always a chance you’ll need to write the entire piece if your team members aren’t pulling their weight in time for the deadline.

STEP 5. Make a deadline and stick to it! Having a reasonable timeline agreed to by all authors allows everyone to contribute their weight in digital characters and justify their authorship. The key is to have group consensus with the agreed-upon deadline and send it via a traceable platform (ie, email) so it can be readily referenced. Common deadline items include:

  1. Literature search
  2. Data analysis
  3. Abstract compilation
  4. Manuscript compilation
  5. Abstract revision + submission
  6. Manuscript revision + submission. 

STEP 6. Seek out the incentive. In order for the entire team to work together, it is imperative to dangle the appropriate carrot in front of each author to ensure successful publication. Common publication incentives include:

  • Department promotion (mentor)
  • Residency requirement (ie, scholarly project)
  • Departmental funding for abstract acceptance + presentations
  • CV fodder

STEP 7. Start writing what you know. Sometimes the best way to build momentum and overcome writer’s block is to write what you know. Whether it’s the method section or results section, start jotting down as much as you can and allow the momentum to carry you from start to finish. Save the abstract for last; it’s often the most challenging part of any manuscript.

STEP 8. Look up articles for reference. Work smart, not hard. While your research may be original, chances are that many authors have tried to implement certain aspects of your study design. This creates a perfect opportunity to consider how to phrase your research terminology and methodologies in a professional vernacular. Just don’t forget to cite any pertinent references.

STEP 9. Sharing is caring — but use with caution.* Shared documents (ie, Google Drive) allow each author to contribute in real time; however, it can also result in procrastination. Consider it as an option after the initial rough drafts are compiled to allow for easier group revision. Of note, one of the most challenging aspects of paper-writing is assigning the citation after it has already been written, and this is exacerbated by multiple authors. Granted, the introduction section contains the most amount of references, but it is not uncommon for the discussion method or section to contain references as well. The best thing to do is cite as you write in a format that is required by the publishing journal. Free software like Mendeley can simplify all of your citation goodness.

STEP 10. Follow directions! Review all of the specific requirements, no matter how mundane (ie, margin size, font, citation style) of each journal submission. When you click submit, you are guaranteeing the editors of a finalized product ready for prime-time consumption. If your submission is riddled with errors, formatting faux pas, or poorly referenced citations, you may receive a flat rejection solely based on inability to follow directions.

BONUS: Impressing your mentor! In case those 4 words “Wanna write that up?” don’t come up, but you have a research idea you’d like to pursue, you will have to broach the topic. Be sure to clearly state your research question and what direction you want to take. Show your interest and commitment to the research, and ask if s/he has both the time and similar interest to pursue this with you. You may need to supply your previous research experiences/CV, so be sure to have both updated.

Next Steps
Now that you’ve survived reading this research guide, let’s get to work! Be proud of your scientific achievements and declare your findings to the rest of the world.

1. Marusic M. Why physicians should publish, how easy it is, and how important it is in clinical work. Arch Onc. 2003;11(2):59-64.
2. The Literature Page. Sir Francis Bacon. Accessed March 29, 2018.
3. The British Medical Journal. Guidance for new authors. Accessed March 29, 2018.
4. Lundberg GD. How to Write a Medical Paper to Get It Published in a Good Journal. Med Gen Med. 2005;7(4):36.
5. Doran GT. There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management's Goals and Objectives. Management Review. 1981;70(11):35-36.
6. Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Mentor Information and Responsibilities. Accessed March 29, 2018.
7. Riddell J, Brown A, Kovic I, Jauregui J. Who Are the Most Influential Emergency Physicians on Twitter? West J Emerg Med. 2017;18(2):281-287.
8. Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Emergency Medicine. Accessed March 29, 2018.
9. Newman A, Jones R. Authorship of research papers: ethical and professional issues for short‐term researchers. J Med Ethics. 2006;32(7):420-423.

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