Biomedical Journal Manuscripts 101

So, when I’m not reviewing/editing/writing grants at work, I fill my spare time helping with manuscripts destined for peer-reviewed journals on the side. One of my current projects involved starting from very scratch and reminded me of some tips to pass along to keep the blog title here honest.

First, my colleagues get a gold star and bonus points for asking how to distinguish authors from contributors. This paper is going to JAMA, so it’s not a small issue – but one that is easily & objectively addressed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (formerly known as the Vancouver Group … no funky symbol involved). The ICMJE clearly states:

“Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3. … Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship.”

In other words, no more listing the dept chair, center director, lab leader, etc. if he or she was not directly involved in the project being written up and the writing up process itself. Keeping the lights on does not justify a by-line on the paper. The supporting cast & crew are acknowledged … in the Acknowledgments (versus the Acknowledgements) section:

“All contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship should be listed in an acknowledgments section. Examples of those who might be acknowledged include a person who provided purely technical help, writing assistance, or a department chair who provided only general support.”

In fact, ICMJE gives the soup to nuts low-down on preparing a manuscript for submission to most biomedical journals (please check the target journal for specific requirements, especially with regard to style manual preference).

However, what those wily editors don’t tell you is to write out of order. To wit: draft your results section first. This is the exciting part – the whole reason for this damned exercise of augmenting your CV in the first place. You have results! You are eager to tell the world about your Nobel-worthy accomplishment. Life is short, eat dessert first – and write your results section first.

Now, you must take care not to interpret any results here – watch how you word those sentences. And as you develop figures and tables to include (graphical presentation definitely worth a thousand words), be sure not to repeat the same data in the text. Remember that real estate on the printed page is precious, as is your readers’ time.

Just as you want to prepare a robust set of specific aims to guide development of a grant application, you want your results to drive your manuscript. You can now pull the appropriate methods out (you probably don’t need them all) from your grant or protocol to explain how you arrived at these results. Be sure no results creep into the methods (you likely didn’t start off knowing the mean age of the population or what percentage would be women, for example). Be sure no methods are included for which you did not include results. Be sure the results all have corresponding methods for their derivation.

Okay – you’ve got the filling set. Now you can begin your interpretation with a draft of the discussion/comment section. You want to discuss the important results first – and then the importance of these important results, particularly in relation to the greater body of knowledge on the topic at hand. This is really where you’ll do your literature search (not for the introduction, which is quite cursory), since this is where you need to place your findings in the greater scheme of things. This is also where you address those niggling shortcomings and limitations to qualify your place in the body of literature.

Having discussed your results & where they stand in the cosmos, you usually need to prepare a focused conclusions section, and often there are two sets of conclusions: one scientific (were the data statistically significant) and one clinical/public health (do your findings affect how care is given, diagnoses made, drugs developed, policy set, etc.).

Now you can go back and draft a very brief introduction to prepare the reader for why the study was done & paper written. This is tight and concise, but that first sentence does need to sell the concept, so take some care there.

And finally, you can organize your abstract (usually quite structured) and set down a final title (having had a few working titles kicking around in the drafting phase).

Throughout the writing process, remember to not labor over the writing itself. Let your manuscript “rest” between drafts. Start with bullets & stream of consciousness to get ideas on the page … save the real writing for the first full draft… save the revising until after you have a draft or two under your belt. Read the paper aloud occasionally, and bribe a colleague to read a complete but not final draft (aloud or silently – reader’s choice).

A few final parting points … write to communicate, not to pontificate. Strive for a logical, clear, concise, accurate, and focused writing style.

Write what you know.

Write so others can know.

Write so others will want to know.


1 Comment »

  1. […] brief all-purpose advice (some already shared here) comes to mind as I slog through this. Keep the introduction concise and laser-focused. Don’t […]

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