First medical writer’s congress in the GCC gives authors the inside scoop on scientific publishing

I just attended the 1st International Congress of Medical Writers in Dubai last week. As a member of QScience.com’s editorial team, I found it both illuminating and reassuring. Illuminating, because it’s important for me as an editor to understand what researchers are facing and what they care about (or should care about). Reassuring, because while the speakers—all highly-reputed and well-published experts in the field of ethics and science publication—discuss how many journals, even big-named ones, are too strapped for resources to care consistently about their authors, we, at QScience, have not only focused on ensuring the highest possible standards in journals publishing, but have also made author care a cornerstone and constant focus. Flat rejections are not the name of the game—helping authors get published and cited is.

According to Karen Shashok, an editorial consultant at AuthorAID with a wealth of experience in author care in the Middle East, most of the researchers contributing to journals worldwide have English as a second language (ESL). This fact underscores the importance of considerate editorial process to bring important findings to light. What’s happening in the world of publishing nowadays, she said, is that many journals are unable to provide author care beyond the basics, if they can at all. In some cases, for instance, the paper might be completely sound but the peer reviewers disagree on some points and the journal’s editor mandates that those points be addressed, each one, exactly, in order to proceed with publishing, she explained.

The point here is that nobody is perfect—the reviewers might have a bad day or have other motivations, the copy editors may reject the paper because of challenges with English usage. And, again, this is regardless of whether or not the paper is perfectly sound in its science. In the MENA region, as scientific output ramps up, it’s imperative for authors to think critically about this situation so that findings—both particular to the region and critical to the advancement of science worldwide—are not passed over unjustly.

Among other things, Karen discussed techniques to make your manuscript sing and strategies that give your work a fighting chance in terms of making an impact in the scientific community. Part of what she talked about is that authors need to do more research about the journals they submit to. They need to shift modes, from finger crossing researchers waiting at the gateways of certain journals, to choosy authors with a strategic plan about where they submit so that they a) have a good chance at publishing in a quality journal, quickly and b) have a good chance of being read and cited widely.

In a publishing world where open access, altmetrics and great shifts in technology related to internet search engines are availing way more visibility, authors need to look into things like: What is the theme of the journal and how does their research fit into that it? Is the journal keen on the latest advancements, interested in the author’s success and working to make sure that the work is easy to find, use and cite? And of course, what are the standards of that journal? Are they members of accredited societies?  These realities are key to successfully matching the manuscript to the right journal.

A researcher today needs to get beyond the fact that the impact factor and size of the journal will make their paper a success in the ways they would wish it to be over the long run, because these two ideas, while nice on the surface, are laden with a lot of other considerations.

Dr. Farrokh Habibzadeh, president of the World Association of Medical Editors, editor-in-chief and founder of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and honorary editor of The Lancet, Middle East Edition, as well as director of NIOC Medical Education and Research Center discussed impact factors and implications of over-focusing on them. He talked about some well-known facts about impact factors and how they were developed. He also told me during lunch that a myriad of alternative strategies are being developed to sidestep the impact factor.

Another issue Dr. Habibzadeh brought up during the discussion on the last day revolved around publishing research that is specifically targeting problems of the place where it is conducted. Journals from the West, he explained, tend to want to cover diseases that affect people therein. But in the Middle East, many health concerns facing people in the West do not apply, and many conditions that do impact the lives of residents here do. For example, inflammatory breast cancer is a huge problem in the MENA region: genetically favored, rapidly advancing and highly-lethal, yet it is very rare in the West—studies from consortiums around this form of cancer must be brought to light, quickly and through high-quality channels.

The crux of the last day’s discussion, however, involved a focus on impact factors as imperative to career advancement and the problems this causes. The conclusion was reached that the current situation is damaging the notion that research should take place to solve local problems and impact the advancement of science in a meaningful way. The focus has shifted greatly to competition and striving for brands and impact factors and away from discovering and solving the most urgent problems facing human and planetary health and welfare.

A fruitful discussion took place around this, with audience members standing up to talk about the challenges they are facing in the world of academia and research. What became evident was a world where, if publish or perish wasn’t enough, they must strive for journal brands and publications that are largely after profits and not always so interested in issues that are particular to where they live … issues that must be brought to light, shared and used as stepping stones, regionally.

The discussion around open access was mostly informative and clear. It was also short, which told me that open access is now a given among the experts. Karen said that there is no difference in the range of quality in open access journals and paid subscription ones. In the end, Karen and Dr. Habibzadeh were vocal proponents of open access. Karen went so far as to say that there is a lot of erroneous and misleading information floating around about open access journals—when really, the quality range is the same as for-profit counterparts.

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