Several of you have asked that I donn my journal editor's hat and use this blog to provide some tips for beginning authors. Since this is an important topic and I'm always looking for new blog ideas, I'm happy to do so. This will require several "postings," so if this isn't a topic of interest, bear with me.
For now, I'll assume that you have a worthwhile project, that you have put forward a question or hypothesis and devised a study to answer it. The data have been collected and analyzed and it's time to put pen to paper. In a later blog we'll try to consider what constitutes "worthwhile."
1. Pick your preferred journal BEFORE you start writing. When considering where to send you work, think about the findings of the study and for whom these results are likely to be most valuable. Since such decisions are rarely "black and white," picking the journal ahead of time allows you to adjust your focus. It should be obvious, but in order to do this, you must know something about the journal to which you wish to submit. You should have read the journal and gotten a good feel for the quality and content of the journal and an understanding of its readership. I'm always amazed when I get letters of inquiry asking, "Does your journal publish X". I'm invariably tempted to reply, "Have you ever LOOKED at the journal?" ...but discretion gets the better of me.
2. Know the relevant literature. This is critically important. If you think you're describing an new entity, how can you be sure? Since few things are really new, it is likely that your entity has been described before under different terminology. Based on your understanding of the pathology, you should be able to make educated guesses about what your entity might have been called in the past, review the studies of these entities and see if you can find examples of your cases there. As a simple example, if you're reporting the first series of solitary fibrous tumors of the head and neck, you might readily suppose that prior to the popularization of this entity, identical cases were most likely interpreted as "hemangiopericytomas." Does review of old series, esp. figures and microscopic descriptions, support this? If you're reporting on a well-established entity, how do your findings fit with those of prior studies?
3. Point out the relative weaknesses in your study and address them forthrightly. Pointing out the weaknesses in your own work may seem ill advised, but quite to the contrary it will endear you to the reviewers, editor, and readership. The reviewers will invariably spot these anyway. Ignoring them or trying to "sweep them under the carpet" won't help, but the reviewer will gain respect for you if you forthrightly point them out and deal with them.
4. Put youself in the reviewers' place, imagine their questions and address them. This point is related to but slightly different from #3. When writing your text, ask yourself what questions or problems the reviewer is likely to raise and address them. For example, the May 2010 issue of AJSP contains an article on mammary analogue secretory carcinomas of salivary gland. On first viewing, any reader (or reviewer) glancing at the figures is likely to immediately ask, "Why aren't these just acinic cell carcinomas?" The authors anticipate this issue and quite convincingly deal with it.
5. Don't over rate or over interpret your findings. Read my blog from November 16th entitled, "Less is more." Be careful to distinguish what your data show from what they MIGHT mean. If you're studying a protein's expression by immunohistochemistry, you're NOT studying its precursor RNA or DNA.
6. The Abstract is the first and in some instances only encounter a reader may have with your study. It is the only form of your work that is readily accessable in many on-line retrieval systems. Take extra time to make it readable, yet as full of data as possible. Phrases such as, "findings will be discussed" are of no value. Keep accepted abbreviations to a minimum in the Abstract and don't introduce any new ones here.
7. Severely limit new abbreviations. PLEASE, take pity on the readers (and reviewers). Every abbreviation, but particularly the new ones coined just for your study, requires a moment of mental translation each time they are encountered, and this greatly slows the flow of your manuscript and makes it difficult, or in some cases almost impossible to read and interpret. As an editor, I would much rather take the extra space to publish the spelled out term.
8. Follow the proper journal format. (see #1 above). Be familiar with the format of articles in the journal to which you're sending your manuscript. How is the abstract structured? Are there key words? What is the reference format? Are they in alphabetical order or order of citation? When articles don't match a journal's format, reviewers and editors often assume (usually correctly) that the manuscript has been rejected by another journal and quickly resubmitted without re-formatting.
9. Submit a grammatically and stylistically perfect text. Do NOT depend on the reviewers or copy editors to point out and correct these often minor but not insignificant issues. If the text contains multiple misspellings, subject-verb disagreements, etc. the reviewer is likely to wonder if the authors were as sloppy with their study as they are in reporting its findings.
10. If you are submitting to a journal published in English and it is not your native tongue, seek help. Don't depend on the reviewers to understand what you meant or on the publisher's copy editors to correct your misusages. Seek help from someone who doesn't just speak English as their native tongue, but someone who is familiar with medical and particularly pathology jargon.
It's important to remember that a well-written, nicely illustrated study is FAR more likely to be accepted than a poorly written and poorly illustrated one, even if the topic is not as appealing. Don't expect the topic to sell itself; that's your job as author.