William Rasmussen
William Rasmussen
Medical student, Western Michigan University

“As you work through the research and publishing process, what do you actually enjoy?”practice picture.jpg

(Without hesitation) – “Seeing my name on it”.

The above paraphrases part of a conversation I had with a resident physician recently. He publishes prodigiously for someone at such an early point in his medical career, and his valuable insights and experience came across fluidly when speaking to him. His quote doesn’t nearly encompass what research-oriented medical students should know, but it illustrates two themes that crop up in any conversation on the subject:

   

    • It’s a slog. A (mostly) boring, procedural slog.

   

    • It’s an effective tool to make yourself and your talents known.

 

Here’s the perspective I’m writing this from: I’m six months into my first year of medical school at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. It’s where I want to be, and it’s hard, and I’m tired. Still, despite those demands I want to have a publication record by the time I graduate – so I took a short course on the topic through my institution.

What I learned, in a nutshell (details to follow), was: pick a research topic you actually care about, keep up with the current literature, research a question that is answerable, find a mentor, keep a publication plan, pick your journal carefully, cultivate humility, don’t get retracted, don’t get retracted, know yourself, and know your enemy.

I promised details.

Pick a topic and keep up with the literature

Your first task, picking a subject is fairly simple and mostly an effort of introspection. Passion for a subject is important – if it’s bound to bore the bejeezus out of you within a few months, reconsider. Make sure the field is active, and follow it – set up search alerts using your account with the database you use. Keywords, journals, subjects, etc. will ping when any new relevant publications appear. Check regularly, and hope your research doesn’t get scooped.

Pick an answerable question

Your research can change the face of the field you choose to study. This is, however, statistically very unlikely. Your time and resources are limited; you need to keep the scope of your study manageable. Don’t balk at thinking small, if you think someone out there can use the answers you obtain. Keep the questions in your research focused, and likely to produce unambiguous data.

Find a mentor and keep a publication plan

Neither of these are absolutely necessary to succeed in publishing, but unless you’re a robot-person who foresees all eventualities, do both of them. A good mentor will be your guide and collaborator, with valuable experience concerning the ins and outs of the process. Recruit them by building professional rapport, and negotiating a common agenda. This may mean accepting second-authorship on research that is your brainchild. Publication plans are even more helpful – they’ll allow you to arrange for the time and money you’ll need to wrangle grants, get projects approved (an additional 6-8 weeks), produce results, review those results, pay to submit your hard-won scientific truth to the peer-review process, and, above all, not miss deadlines.

Select a journal carefully and cultivate humility

Research should only be submitted to one journal at a time, there is a fee to do so, and competition can be stiff at more prestigious publications. Long response time is no excuse to submit to multiple journals at once. Doing so is the scientific equivalent of ordering two different pizzas from two different chains, and only intending to pay for the first that arrives. Be patient, and be prepared for a refusal or two before you succeed; be humble. Pre-submission review should be from someone you trust, and who is informed enough to evaluate your brand-new paper, your baby. Take their input in good faith, and be prepared to make the reasonable changes they suggest with good grace, even though your research is perfect just as it is. After this your writing should be free of grammatical errors, and as well-groomed as a southern gentleman– it should be ready for peer-review by total strangers who don’t care about your feelings. A peer-reviewer’s job is to vet your work for validity and relevance; their critiques should be taken seriously. Take their input with a grain of salt, but take it: even the comments of a hypercritical red-pen samurai can be actionable, to your benefit.

Don’t get retracted and don’t get retracted

The mark of retraction on your record will be permanent, if you allow it to happen. There are multiple reasons for a paper to get retracted; strive to avoid the accidental ones (unintended mistakes, irreproducible results), and for the love of Pete don’t commit the deliberate ones (lying, stealing credit, and other shenanigans). Make sure the research you cite hasn’t been retracted – despite being discredited, these works can linger in databases for years – it’s boring work, but background-check your references and the people behind them.

Know yourself, and know your enemy

Knowing yourself boils down to not expecting yourself to magically change into a more hardworking, more competent person as you move forward. Plan on being limited, and recruit people and resources to fill the roles you can’t. Knowing the enemy requires an understanding of the cultural dimensions of publishing: dogma, celebrity, lawyers, money, and the proverbial X-factor among others. People often don’t want to hear evidence that refutes ideas that careers have been built on. Lawyers and money can get involved when business interests or reputations are challenged by new data. Finally, research is more likely to be published if it can draw attention and hold it.

But…

If you get published, your name will be permanently attached to a small part of the body of human scientific knowledge.. At the time of this writing, there are more medical school graduates than there are national residency slots, and even now your application stands a decent chance of being evaluated by a computer before it’s even seen by a human. Over the next few years at least, this disheartening situation probably won’t be getting better. Having a publication to your name is not necessary, but it is a way to meaningfully improve your chances.

Honestly, my feelings are pretty tepid as to how badly I actually want to publish – I’m not driven to be a star in medical research, I want to graduate medical school and be just a doctor first. My heart, at the end of the day, is in clinic. And yet, I’m a nerd – I’m almost happier with questions than I am with answers; facts and processes are my playground. I’ll want to experiment and see what I can make work better (or at all), and I’ll want to share any actionable findings. So I’m planning to publish.

That’s it. Here’s to asking questions, changing the world, and seeing your name on it.

Image Credit: iStockphoto