AIMING FOR PUBLICATION
Publishing is an essential activity for a scientist, but it can be a daunting task for clinicians working in clinical practice. ECVBM-CA aims to be a College which is open to both research orientated individuals and clinicians and therefore wishes to offer guidance for those for whom publication is not an everyday activity.
When considering publication it is necessary to consider three important questions: -
What kind of study do I want to publish?
How do I plan the project?
In which journal am I going to publish?
What kind of study do I want to publish?
This is the easiest question to answer. Studies can be divided into two groups:
Inductive and deductive studies;
Inductive studies are traditionally considered in science as being more preliminary in their nature, but they can be very valuable, especially in an emerging field, such as many aspects of veterinary behavioural medicine. This is actual the more typical research approach used in the social (as opposed to biological) sciences. These studies seek to review the evidence relating to a topic or describe a phenomenon in relation to what is known. Examples of inductive studies include clinical case reports, meta-analyses of published material and critical reviews. Individual or short series case reports will be taken for publication particularly by some of the veterinary journals such as The Veterinary Record or Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, whilst critical reviews may be taken by journals such as Anthrozoos, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and Animal Welfare. It is essential that such reviews bring something new, original and insightful to the subject if they are to be considered for publication. It is also important to consider the evidence both for and against an opinion as a common error is to overlook evidence that does not agree with your opinion.
Deductive research tends to involve setting out to test a hypothesis more explicitly through experimentally controlling variables so you can determine whether other factors are significant. The research may be pure or applied in its nature. Clinical trials, where the efficacy of a drug is assessed, and many laboratory studies are examples of deductive research. Publication for this sort of work is more widespread in the scientific literature.
In an emerging field publication often starts with inductive studies which assess what we know and then moves onto deductive research which aims at more precisely distinguishing between competing explanations. At this stage we will often introduce more controls. This allows you to be more confident of the reason for the effect. It is important to pitch the level of your research appropriately according to what is known. Thus if you have a new perspective on something it might be possible to publish this as an inductive study. For example a trial with limited controls might be useful to indicate that a particular intervention is worth looking at more closely, but to establish the efficacy of a particular treatment, deductive studies with more rigorous controls are necessary and are likely to be demanded by any publisher. The way you investigate a problem is critical to the nature and type of conclusions that can be drawn.
Within the clinical field, we also often consider classifying studies according to whether we are looking back at data of previous cases to see what factors they might share in common (retrospective studies) or planning to look at how they develop as a result of different forms of intervention (prospective studies)
Prospective studies are based on a question which you propose and then attempt to answer with your research. For this sort of study the design of the protocol is crucial to the success of the research.
Research in this category can be divided into pure and applied research (such as clinical trials).
Pure research is more focused on fundamentals and is often conducted in a laboratory or other designated location organised for specific observations (for example open field). It is often easier for academics to carry out these studies than it is for clinicians.
Clinical trials are a method used to assess the efficacy of different
kinds of treatments through standardised protocols. They are easier for
clinicians to be involved with but people designing these trials need
a strong background in methodology and statistics if they are to produce
Retrospective studies require a significant amount of clinical data which will be retrospectively analyzed in a clinical, therapeutic or epidemiological manner. These forms of studies are perhaps more accessible to clinicians in private practice. However, retrospective studies still require careful planning and there are a number of potential pitfalls which can lead to rejection of such work when the author attempts to publish. Even in retrospective studies, the precision of the approach is crucial in order to select the most appropriate statistical approach and be sure to obtain consistent conclusions.
The five stages of a research study
Deciding on the objectives of the study
Reviewing the literature
Planning the collection of the data
Collecting the data
Analysing the data
Deciding on your objectives
The objectives must be clearly stated beforehand. It should be possible
to describe the purpose of the study with a general statement such
as 'the purpose is to compare the behaviour of horses with and without
access to a football'. In addition to such a general statement there
will be more specific questions such as 'are there significant effects
of access to a football on the proportion of time spent in kicking
behaviour?' Such specific questions will depend on the nature of the
study. It is important to state such questions at an early stage to
ensure that the data to answer them will be collected during the study.
It is also important that the questions be framed in terms of parameters
of well-defined populations, so that standard statistical techniques
can be used.
It is important to be clear in your own mind whether yoru research is inductive or deductive in its nature, as this will affect the type of analysis expected and undertaken. It is usually better to focus on a specific small area in detail than try to cover a broad and probably less well-defined area. Whether you are conducting practical work or undertaking a literature review, you should have a rigorous scientific methodology for gathering your data focussed on your specific aims. For example, if you were interested in a literature review of the value of toys in the kennels of dogs, you would need to first clearly define what is meant by a “toy” and how “value” can be defined in a way which allow you to make comparisons between different reports. You will also need to consider the quality of different sources of literature, i.e. peer reviewed journal reports, popular press articles, the internet and individual testimonies etc.
Reviewing the literature
If your proposed publication is a literature review, you must first make sure that there is not already a published review of the subject! It is very important to make your review distinctive – to include your own contribution. A literature review will often test a specific hypothesis by assessing the evidence for and against a particular idea, but in any case must include a critical reflective element like any piece of scientific work. You should also draw attention to specific areas of the subject that need further research, or propose a novel explanation for the data, sometimes previous studies may be reanalysed in the light of newer ideas in what is known as a meta-analysis.
It can be a valuable approach to make your review a comparative review – for example you could compare the effects of a drug on cats, dogs and horses. In this way your review easily acquires the important element of hypothesis testing – the null hypothesis, which is being tested in this example, being that the different species do not differ in their responses to the drug.
If your work is of a practical nature, you will be expected to be aware of previous work in the area and it is a good idea to be aware of related studies in areas which are connected. If you are in practice, it is therefore very useful to explore the potential for developing a relationship with an academic institution so you can access their library resources etc.
Planning the collection of data
Experimental data will usually be obtained in one of three ways
From existing records.
By sampling to obtain new data.
By carrying out an experiment /trial to obtain new data.
To a large extent the choice will depend on circumstances. However, in all cases you will need to decide on the sampling or experimental design.
If you need to use statistics you should consult a competent biometrician at this point before you begin the data collection.
As far as sampling is concerned, the sort of questions to be asked are:
Is simple random sampling sufficient or will a more complicated design be used?
What is an appropriate sample size?
As far as experimental design is concerned, the sort of questions to be asked are:
Is a pilot study required to refine the methodology?
Should I / Can I use the same subjects in different treatment groups?
Do I want multiple measures from a small number of samples or a smaller number of measures from a larger sample
Are my methods reliable (consistently repeatable) and valid (measure what they are supposed to measure)
Can the experiment be replicated? It certainly should be, if possible.
What is the sample size?
If you are planning a research project which involves living creatures, you will have to make sure that you comply with all of the relevant European legislation as well as your national legislation regarding experiments with animals. You will also need to consider the ethical implications of your work. If you are organising a clinical trial, you will have to obtain the owners’ informed consent before enrolling any animal on your study. This means you must ensure that such consent has only been obtained following a very thorough briefing of the owner with full details about the aims and design of the study. Written consent is demanded by most academic institutions in such circumstances and should apply to clinicians in practice undertaking this work too. There may be situations where legal restrictions make it impossible for a clinician in private practice to be involved in a research project or clinical trial.
Retrospective studies are based on clinical or epidemiological data which you have previously obtained without necessarily having any plans to use it for research purposes. In thios case it is not necessary to have consent to use the data but specific individuals should not be identified or identifiable Defining the topic of your retrospective study is crucial in order to enable you to select the data which will be really possible to analyse. During this selection, you have to take care regarding the quality of the data. For example do you always record the age, breed and sex of the patients? Have they all been examined in the same way, using the same protocol?. Many good retrospective studies do not reach the point for publication due to problems with data collection. It is also important to define the topic of your study carefully in order to allow you to select the most appropriate statistical tests for analysis of your data. You therefore need to be clear in stating the aims of your study and you need to avoid ambiguous or excessively large topics for which data collection will be more difficult.
Calculation of sample size
The sample size is the number of times an experiment is to be replicated
or the number of samples that are to be taken in a sampling experiment.
In order to calculate a sample size some estimate will be needed of the variability of the data to be collected in the experiment. This may not be easy to obtain unless one or more similar experiments have been done in the past. A pilot study may therefore be required. However, this is not always possible and it is better to use a reasonable guess than to avoid making some attempt at assessing the required sample size. It is also worth realising that a well conducted pilot may in itself be worthy of publication in some cases.
The main point to keep in mind during the process of data collection is the need to do this both accurately and consistently. You should be clear about the analysis before you gather the data, as there is no point gathering data you will not use.
If possible data should be collected in such a way that they can be entered easily into a computer. Different packages may prefer the data in a spreadsheet to be arranged in a particular way. Score sheets should be carefully designed and tested.
A small pilot experiment or survey should be done first to iron out any administrative problems and reveal any unforeseen difficulties or features of the experiment. It may be that as a result of the pilot study some of the objectives of the trial will be changed. Make sure your risk assessments and ethical approval forms are updated accordingly.
Analysing the data
Very often research studies are planned without enough thought being given to how the data will be analysed. No amount of sophisticated analyses can make up for a badly designed study. At the planning stage, as well as specifying the design and conduct of the experiment, the types of analyses that will be used on the data should be clearly specified. If a pilot study has been done then this plan can be tested when the pilot data are analysed. The need to make modifications to the analysis plan and/or the need to seek further professional advice should then become apparent.
Very often you will need to sort and rearrange your data before doing any analysis.
Writing the research paper
Selecting the most appropriate journal is really important in order to increase the probability of being accepted for publication. The choice of journal will determine the style of writing and what is considered acceptable. For example some journals only accept the past passive (“this experiment was done) whilst others encourage a more readable style (“we did this”). Each journal has its own regulations on writing and it is essential you consult the instrctioons for authors for the relevant journal you are considering. There are 2 other important parameters to consider:
- The topic of your study is the first and main one. Every journal has a website where you will be able to find the information about the field that each journal relates to and the instructions to authors. It is always better to choose a journal which specialises in a field which is closely related to the topic of your study. This will ensure that the reviewers are specialists in that particular field and will therefore have no difficulty in understanding and evaluating your paper.
- The reputation of the journal. Journals are rated in different ways but one measure that is used is the Impact Factor. This is a score which is reviewed each year and the higher the score, the greater the potential impact of the journal on the scientific field. Even though there is no absolute relationship between a high impact factor and the probability that your first paper will be accepted, it is may not be appropriate to select one of the major scientific journals for your first publication. Low Impact Factors are not necessarily a poor reflection on a journal and those that serve a small field or those that have only recently been established may have low impact factors but still be suitable for your publication. De facto applications need to be supported by six publications (three as first author) in national or international peer reviewed journals. If you are due to submit a paper for publication and wish to make sure that it is one that would meet the criteria of de facto applications please do not hesitate to contact the College via the secretary on email@example.com
After selecting the journal, you should print and read the Instructions to Authors. It is crucial to submit a paper which is formatted according to the requests of the selected journal. Pay particular attention to the style of references which seems to vary with almost every journal and is a common source of irritation to editors. If you intend to write frequently it may be worth considering investing in a reference management software package (such as Endnote or Reference Manager) to make this job easier.
It is important to be prepared for the fact that many papers are rejected or require major amendments on their first submission. This is common but should be seen in a constructive light as the purpose of review is to educate as well as maintain quality. This does not necessarily reflect on your standard of English, your topic or even your statistical analysis. Achieving publication is hard work and the submission of a paper for publication is always a stressful step in the life of an author. However you need to remember that even the most experienced research teams are regularly asked to provide modifications and improvements before their papers are accepted. Do not be discouraged and do not hesitate to ask for some more information if you do not understand what has to be rewritten. Most of the editors will be happy to give you precise advice. Members of the ECVBM will also provide support too.
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How to write & publish a scientific paper. by Day, Robert A.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998
How to write a thesis : a guide to the research paper by Teitelbaum, Harry
New York : Macmillan, 1994
How to write a research paper by Berry, Ralph Oxford : Pergamon, 1986
Measuring behaviour : an introductory guide by Martin, Paul R. and Bateson, Patrick Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1993
Measuring human problems : a practical guide edited by David F. Peck and Colin M. Shapiro Chichester, Wiley & Sons 1990
Designing clinical research : an epidemiologic approach Edited by Stephen B. Hulley and Steven R. Cummings Baltimore, London: Williams & Wilkins, 1988