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4 Steps for Writing Your First Academic Paper

Writing your first paper for publication can be a daunting task, particularly as you may know a lot about your topic, but little about how to get it published. Here are a few principles to get you started.


For the first time author, the big unanswered questions are appealing, but beware – these questions may require far more resources than you expect (data, time, and funding). Work with your mentor(s) to pick a modest and focused project that you can actually complete with the resources you have. Search PUBMED and Google to ensure that someone else hasn’t already done it.


If your paper is a chart review or case report/series, you likely won’t need additional help. But, if your paper is anything more involved—case control, cohort, or trial—you very likely will need the help of a good statistician and perhaps an epidemiologist. For example, if your paper involves a survey, get input from a statistician familiar with survey design. This is critical. Mistakes early in the project can doom the paper later.


After you have secured IRB approval/exemption, select at least two journals to which you would like to submit. Consider that the higher the impact factor, the more difficult the submission and the lower chance of acceptance. Also, is the journal’s focus primarily bench or clinical? Does the journal have a particular disease emphasis? How long will it take once the paper is accepted until it publishes? What are the fees associated with publication? You may be on the hook for these fees so be sure to clarify. Is the journal listed on PUBMED? Most providers won’t be able to access an article that isn’t on PUBMED.


Get ready to start writing! Long sentences chock full of data may make you look smart, but your readers prefer sentences that are easy to understand (i.e. short and clear). So, if you can say the same thing with one less word, do it! Also, use a software program to manage your references automatically. While there are many reference programs out there, EndNote is the king. In fact, your library or university may have a free or discounted rate, so make sure to ask.

And most importantly, be patient with yourself. Like any valuable skill, writing academic papers takes time.

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