This is part 2 of my blogs on writing and publishing systematic reviews. If you haven’t already read it, you can find part 1 here.
My supervisors and I had decided early on in my PhD that it would be a good aim to try and get my systematic review published. Having a publication before finishing my PhD would a) look good; b) be excellent practice at going through the process of preparing a manuscript for submission for a journal; and c) be advantageous if I hoped to stay in academia after finishing my PhD. As the old maxim goes ‘publish or perish’.
You can find my published article here:
Eur Heart J Acute Cardiovasc Care. 2015 Dec 4. pii: 2048872615620893. [Epub ahead of print]
The first thing to do when getting a manuscript ready to submit to a journal is to decide your target journal, and then to find their instructions for authors. This will include criteria such as what types of research the journal accepts; how to format your article; word count; referencing style etc. Conveniently (read sarcastically) all journals have slightly different criteria, so if you prepare your article for one journal and they don’t accept it, you have to go through making all of the changes for the new journal you’re going to submit to. It would be a joyous day for authors if all the academic journals decided to comply to a standardised referencing format.
In order to get the manuscript ready for submission meant condensing a (at the time) 30,000 word monstrosity of a chapter down to a tenth of this length; 3000 words. Again, getting the final draft that I was happy to submit took quite a long time; carefully redrafting and refining the paper to give its best chance of being accepted. Finally, everything was ready and I submitted my first article to a peer-reviewed journal. It felt great. I waited with a mix of apprehension and excitement for the first comments from the reviewers. This was the first time anyone outside of my supervision team would be reading my work. Although my supervisors had assured me my paper met the quality expected of an academic journal, I wasn’t sure if they were lying to me and just being nice. I’ve read horror stories on the internet of out right cruel responses from peer-reviewers (see this humorous, yet terrifying post from buzzfeed) and I was worried I was going to be on the receiving end of a good dressing down.
Thinkstock / BuzzFeed
Two months later I received the first comments from the reviewers. I read them with baited breath. I sighed with relief when I realised I wasn’t being scolded for submitting a piece of work unworthy of the reviewers precious time. In fact they seemed to like my work and think it was a valuable piece of research. I read the comments again to make sure. No, its true, they liked it, huzzah!
Though they did make one suggestion that slightly irked me. The reviewer suggested removing a section of the paper, which they didn’t believe was relevant its removal would make the paper more focussed. The reason this initially annoyed me was due to the huge amount of time I had spent meticulously extracting the data and writing this particular part of the review. It was by far the largest chapter in my thesis and had the most amount of papers relating to it in the literature search. Countless hours and thousands of words written would be seemingly wasted if I were to remove it from my review. After a few days of stewing in my own pride, I realised that the reviewer was… completely right. The paper massively benefited from the exclusion of this section and the whole review was made much more concise and succinct without it.
So, with fresh humility, I made the suggested amendments and resubmitted the article to the journal. Five months later I received the second round of comments, however this time was more about formatting rather than content. Change a table here, sort out your references there. Not so much of a problem. An easy fix and resubmitted relatively quickly.
Then, after another five months of waiting and 11 months after the initial submission I got the news. The paper had been accepted! Again, huzzah!
On hearing the news that your first publication has been accepted, the sense of relief, pride and accomplishment is great. Doing a part-time PhD is a very long and drawn out process, and getting a piece of it published almost allows you a sense of closure for that part of your work and allows you to move on confidently to the next. Getting your first publication also gives you a new renewed feeling of confidence, it’s almost like a debutante ball (without the aristocratic, 19th century young ladies), where you’ve been introduced to academic society and been accepted. That imposter feeling that haunts you for so long when you commence a PhD, while perhaps not completely gone, is at least quieted for a while.