Anyone who has co-authored a peer-reviewed medical paper knows first-hand the time and effort involved. The process of drafting, editing, incorporating comments/changes, formatting, submitting, re-submitting, etc. requires a significant personal investment from all authors. Certainly, papers are a serious endeavor that deserve adequate attention, but the reality is that often the process is thoroughly inefficient. That is, even though a good paper requires substantial time and effort, there are often unnecessary delays, duplication in efforts, and confusion or disagreement among co-authors regarding the content. Additionally, there are often aspects of the overall scope and message of the paper that exacerbate these issues and cause further delays.
Paper publishing doesn’t have to be so hard. There are 3 key aspects of the development process that can greatly improve the efficiency and impact of your paper.
1. Intelligent Strategy: Most of the time, papers are developed on an ad-hoc basis: that is, the paper gets drafted whenever the key authors can find the time to devote to it. However, even if it's not explicitly stated, authors often develop and submit papers within the context of a larger vision regarding their research, funding, clinical or policy interest, and so on. Maybe they even have an informal plan for future works that will build upon the current paper. However, rarely are these things specifically articulated as part of a specific strategy. Why not? While published papers are great for the development of the co-authors' careers, they can also help further the mission and vision of the larger organization or institution from which they emanate. Doesn’t it make sense that leaders and administrators of that organization or institution would be interested in fostering and encouraging the production of these papers if they understood the positive impact they could have? As I wrote previously, some organizations are realizing that being more intentional about what gets written, as well as when and why, can have a profound impact on widening the reach of an individual publication. An intelligent strategy for dissemination often involves a series of papers, and may also include conference abstracts, press releases, and white papers. If done correctly, this strategy can position an individual or department to increase their chances of funding and raise the standing of the organization as a leading voice for a particular method, policy, or clinical area.
2. Effective message: If you have been doing this long enough, you have probably realized that the best papers (and the ones most often downloaded and cited) are those with onespecific message aimed at a targeted audience. Most of us (myself included) are guilty of trying to include too much in a single paper. We try to interweave multiple messages for multiple audiences because we know that all of the messages are valuable and may be applicable in several situations or for a variety of readers. Unfortunately, this only impedes the process because effectively combining multiple messages is a complicated endeavor, and as the number of co-authors increases, so does that chance that there will be different opinions on the degree to which each message should be explored in the paper. This results in debates, re-writes, changes in focus, and all sorts of things that also continue to delay the final product and add to everyone's workload. If, instead, a single, targeted message can be agreed upon prior to the first draft, much of this is alleviated. When authors can agree up front to focus their efforts, much of the complexity that can bog down paper development is eliminated and the scope and structure of the paper becomes clear and straight-forward. Gone is the back-and-forth between co-authors regarding which message(s) should be at the forefront; there is only one message. And, when the target audience is clear, it becomes easier to frame the research question within the relevant background, advocate for the importance of the work, and describe the implications of the results. (Note: it becomes even easier to identify the message and target audience once an intelligent strategy has been specified and the role of the current paper within that strategy is known.)
3. Efficient production: Once the paper has a clear message and resides within a specific strategy, there is still the tremendous juggling act of developing, editing, formatting, submitting, tracking, revising, etc. Often many of these tasks fall to the first author, who is already over-burdened with shouldering much of the writing and paper development in addition to his or her other job duties. The reality is that there are several relatively simple hacks that not only reduce the time it takes to develop a paper, but that also greatly ease the administrative burden required to keep track of all that is necessary. These include utilizing templates based on commonly targeted journals to reduce back-end formatting and implementing a system of sequential co-author reviews instead of simultaneous reviews (which require someone to incorporate feedback from several documents and reconcile conflicting edits or suggestions). Additionally, once the paper has a clear message and its role within a larger strategy is specified, the production process is streamlined because the paper is more focused and intentional.
Understanding and addressing these three areas can greatly improve your development process, which will lead to publishing more in less time. For those who want to be seen as a leader in their field, peer-review papers provide a vehicle to disseminate discoveries and share unique insight regarding medical practice and health policy. Ensuring that the process of writing papers is as efficient as possible is critical for maximizing impact and reach.
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