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Friday, October 5, 2012

Writing a Journal Article. Part 1. Consider Your Audience

When you are writing a scientific article, it helps to think about your audience. Scientific publication is, in addition to a scholarly endeavour, a social act, and the social context in which you plan to publish is important.


Think about which journal you might publish in. Yes, look at things like impact factors, etc, because they will contribute to the value of the paper for your CV. But also consider whether your particular study will fit. Does this journal like to publish things such as you are wanting to publish? Who reads the journal, and what kind of things can you expect that they already know?

Next, carefully read the instructions to authors. Read the description of what the journal would like to publish. Does your study fit? If so, make sure that that is obvious in the way that it is written, and in the covering letter you write to the editors. As in most things, there is a very rapid decision-making process (yes/no) that will happen as the incoming article is scanned. You want to clearly get into the Yes category, so at least you get a review.

Why are you publishing this study? Who do you want to influence? Who do you want to read it? Make sure that you consider that when you are writing. For example, if you want this to affect clinical care, think about what a clinician would like to know, and make sure that that information is clearly in the abstract, the first paragraph of the discussion/conclusion, and in the final conclusion.

If you want this to affect policy, find out how policy changes are made, and make sure that you have measured the appropriate things. Read up or chat with people who affect policy, and find out what they can use to effect change. Make sure you use their language. And, again, make sure it is crystal clear through language and clear statements, again, in the abstract, introduction, discussion and final conclusion. Remember that policy makers and decision makers are busy folks and will skim your article (or will only see it if a screener lets it pass) - make it easy to recognize that this article is relevant to them, and important enough to be considered.

On the other hand, this may be ordinary science, another brick in the academic wall, as it were. Still, you want to make sure that other brick-layers recognize how your findings might be used. What language do other practitioners use? What are their favourite references? Some people access the literature by scanning new journal issues - make sure your title will help them to find you. Many will use keyword searches. Make sure the keywords they might use appear somewhere in the title, abstract or keyword list. If you are a medical researcher, make sure that the standard MeSH terms will hit your article. Finally, some people will search the literature by using a scientific citation indexing process -- make sure you have cited major review articles or foundational papers, so that you are found through that route as well.

This is Part 1 of a 3 part series of articles. I wrote it because I was about to write all of this to send to a junior colleague as feedback about her article, and realized that it would be of more general interest/use. If you find this useful and wish to share it, please credit me.

(c) 2012 Christine L. Hitchcock, PhD.

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