PhD comics conference abstract

Getting your paper published: Cover letter and abstract

I recently attended a talk given by the editor of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, who gave his best tips and things to look for when you’re trying to get published. As this was starting to get pretty long, at your request (cheers, Instagram) this is part 1 of 3. Check out part 2, how to write it, and part 3, responding to reviewers’ comments.

What editors are looking for

Editors from the top journals receive hundreds of abstracts each year, straight to their inbox. What is it that they’re wanting to see in your carefully prepared cover letter and abstract, before they even get around to reading your manuscript?

  • Does it match the journal’s philosophy, and will it interest their audience?

Each journal, or group of journals will have a specific philosophy that they stick to. For example, The Lancet focuses on matters which affect public health. The Lancet Infectious Diseases really only publishes articles that focus on, you guessed it, infectious diseases like polio, HIV, Zika to name a few. If you’ve got a really cool piece of research showing that some bacteria produce a never-before-seen thing, chances are that would not be the journal for you. Is it affecting people? Do you have clinical data to show that your finding is having an impact right now on people? Then it probably isn’t the journal for you.

  • Is your work a first, last, or necessary replication?

I’m fairly certain that every journal loves to publish new and exciting research, but sometimes replications of previous work, that expands slightly on the previous paper is just as important. Science is all about repeats, and when it comes to research that could imminently have an effect on patients lives, other scientists being able to replicate others work is crucial to ensuring that the science out there is robust and that we can rely on it.

  • Are the results reported fully, and without bias?

It’s very easy for bias to creep in to research. When results don’t quite go your way, it doesn’t mean that you repeat it until you get the result that you want. Especially when you’re working with large data sets and statistical methods. If you do get results that don’t quite match up to your expectations, it should be an opportunity to take a step back, and think “Huh, how does that fit into my hypothesis? Maybe I need to rethink what might really be happening here.” If you still can’t explain it, then say that. Editors would rather you be honest, and say that you found 10 things that back your data up, but this one thing doesn’t quite fit in right now. It could be that unexplained result is due to a phenomenon that hasn’t been described yet.

PhD comics abstract MadLibs

OK, so far so good. Now what should actually go into the cover letter and abstract?

  • Follow the journal’s reporting guidelines.

If they want your abstract broken down into sections, do it that way. It’s much easier for an editor to look at an abstract the way it is supposed to appear in their specific journal, rather than having to try and pick out what is relevant to them.

  • How many?

Use absolute numbers. There were 4398 patients in your data set or clinical trial? Say that. If for 189 of them, the data were censored, say so. Providing the numbers used during this section can help the journals to identify quickly and easily if your data are robust enough to provide reliable results.

  • How much?

Give your effect size, your confidence intervals, your p-values. If you state that your data show there is an effect, prove it to them. Equally, don’t dance around p-values of greater than 0.05. They will see it eventually, and just because something isn’t statistically significant, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still interesting. It could mean that with further replication or larger data sets, you could see an effect. If you’re trying to hide your non-significant data, by avoiding writing non-significant, it will make people doubt the otherwise superb research you’ve been doing.

  • How useful?

Editors are busy busy people. tell them straight up why you think your research is important. What are the implications for research and current practices? Perhaps most importantly, what future work could be done to further clarify your results and help it to make a difference sooner?

  • How was it funded?

This one might seem unimportant at first glance, but if you’ve been funded by a company, and your results back up their claims, despite no other groups being able to show similar things, it is important. It can help to decipher whether there is any bias, intentional or unconscious.

  • Do not use abbreviations.

Most importantly, avoid jargon like the plague. Try not to use abbreviations, even though you may think they’re obvious, if you aren’t 100% familiar with the field, they will confuse the heck out of anyone else. Basically, an abstract should be understandable to another scientist in a different field. It may be worth leaving your cocoon, and wandering down the hall to another group and see if other people in your building can understand it without your interjections and explanations.

What are some things that you’ve found useful when submitting articles for publication?

2 thoughts on “Getting your paper published: Cover letter and abstract

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