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Writing for publication to change the world


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Marge Berer presentation to the 13th congress of the European Society of Contraception, Lisbon May 2014

Marge Berer presentation to the 13th congress of the European Society of Contraception, Lisbon May 2014

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  • 1. Transformative writing: ~~~~~~~~~~ writing for publication to change the world Marge Berer Editor, RHM ~~~~~~~~~~ 29 May 2014 13th ESC Congress Lisbon
  • 2. Finding time for writing  Telling others about the work we are doing to achieve sexual and reproductive health and rights is as important as the work itself. Otherwise, no one but us will know about it or understand its purpose and importance, nor will they understand how we do it.  Few NGO people or health professionals have enough work time to write about what they do.  The time for writing has to be stolen ‒ from nights, weekends, and holidays.  That's how it is.  This talk is to inspire you to do it anyway… and to do it creatively in order to share your knowledge.  I use examples throughout from Reproductive Health Matters, which is not a typical journal.
  • 3. Knowledge transfer and the role of journals  We are rich !  There has never been so much research in health as there is today nor so many institutions and people conducting research, nor so much information about health, nor so many means of disseminating and using it.  This is as true in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) research as in many other areas of health.  From a field with very few non-clinical journals 30 years ago, there is now a long list of journals addressing SRHR issues.
  • 4. Many journals: many audiences  Reprod Health Matters; Culture Health & Sexuality; Studies in FP; International Perspectives on SRH; Contraception; Pop&Dev Review; Fertility& Sterility; STDs; STIs; Repro Health; BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth; PLoS One; Birth  Int J STDs & AIDS; AIDS Care; other AIDS journals  IJOG, national obs/gyn and national FP/RH journals.  Euro J Contraception; African J Repro Health; AJPH & other public health journals  Broader health journals covering SRH a lot: Lancet; BMJ; WHO Bulletin; Global Health; Health Pol & Plan; Health Policy; SocSciMed.  Journals on law and health; health & human rights; social/medical anthropology.  New open access journals ‒ an epidemic of them.
  • 5. Choosing a journal
  • 6. What does the journal cover? Who reads it?  What kind of articles/type of research does the journal publish – medical/clinical, legal, health policy and programme analysis, service delivery issues, commentary, other?  What are the journal's editorial policy and aims as regards its contribution to the SRHR field? RHM has readers in 188 countries who work in one or more of these categories:  Half in academic/research institutions  A third in medical/health services  Half in NGOs, charities, women’s health/feminist groups  One in ten in government/ministry/UN agency  One in ten in media. (2009-2010 RHM readers’ survey data)
  • 7. Who is your priority audience?  Choosing a journal is, first, about figuring out who your audience should be, which is based on what your subject is.  Will your paper be of value for people all over the world? That is, can people from all over the world learn something from it? In other words, does it have international significance?  Or does it have most significance for your own region, e.g. Europe or South Asia, or more specifically for your own country?  Or even for specific people in your country, e.g. contraception or abortion providers?
  • 8. Who do you want to influence?  Answering this question not only affects where you seek to publish but also which language you write the paper in.  A paper in a widely read national journal will reach a national audience and have a different influence from a paper in an international journal. If you want to promote provision of vasectomy in your country’s sexual health clinics, or talk about how to get sexually active adolescents to use contraception based on a national or local study, choose a national journal.  Many authors think publication in an international journal is more prestigious, so they go for that no matter their subject, but reaching the people who can use the information and knowledge you want to share to me is the point.
  • 9. Other criteria for choosing a journal  Is the journal free or on subscription?  Or is it open access, funded through fees to authors?  Do you have a grant to pay an open access fee, or is there a graded or waived fee structure for authors without grants?  Is it published in print only, online only, or both?  What is the impact factor − does that matter to you?  Who are the editor, the authors and peer reviewers, and the members of the editorial board, have you heard of any of them?  Thanks to open access, there are many “start-up” journals that will publish anything. They may or may not have bona fide peer reviewers, and they may or may not provide copyediting and proofreading.
  • 10. Get to know the journal you submit to… first  Read the submission guidelines and follow them.  Look at back issues and see whether your paper is a good fit. E.g. if your paper is full of statistical analyses and complicated tables, don't choose RHM!  Check whether the journal you’ve chosen has published on your subject before. If so, reference it.  Find out the timetable for submissions/publication, plan accordingly. Avoid asking to be an exception!  Don't send the editor an abstract for an opinion on whether to write/submit a paper. The editor will say…  Ensure you can complete the paper (including revision after peer review/proofreading) in time for publication − before you submit.  Never say: Sorry, I don’t have time to finish it. Why?
  • 11. Will readers of the journal use what you write? RHM’s readers read RHM papers for:  professional/academic interest  increasing public awareness  research  writing reports/presentations/articles  training and teaching,  improving service delivery  designing educational materials  designing projects or programmes  advocacy work  developing policy or guidelines  for personal as well as professional and political use. (2009-2010 RHM readers’ survey data)
  • 12. Presenting and disseminating your work
  • 13. Ways to present your work  Standard articles and research reports ‒ background, methodology, participants, findings, discussion, conclusions and recommendations.  Commentary or discussion paper.  Qualitative studies based on focus group discussions, interviews, case studies, participant observation.  Narrative history of events or activities, or in diary form, e.g. about a project or a campaign or how a service is delivered or a form of surgery carried out, or how your NGO/clinic works.  Literature review, e.g. on a new or controversial topic.  Analysis of laws, policies and/or practice.  A narrative report on the making and use of a video(s) or other media.
  • 14. Newer forms of publication, but…  On the website of your organisation ‒ a huge number of excellent reports are published this way today.  A blog (people sign up to receive these). (But who reads them?? RHM has two blogs − mine and staff/authors − average readers/month 450)  No matter where/how you publish your work, it needs to be disseminated.  It's a very competitive world out there and we are swimming in information these days.
  • 15. Dissemination: RHM as an example  Distributed in print (English 5,000 copies x 2; 15,000 in seven language editions) and 263,000 article downloads from web through ScienceDirect, RHM- Elsevier, HINARI and Jstor.  Free print/web subscriptions for developing country groups and institutions.  RHM website.  CDs, Facebook, Twitter, 2 blogs.  Press releases, listserves.  Listings in 20+ indexes, e.g. PubMed, Popline.  Copies/leaflets to conferences, education & training courses.  Elsevier marketing, library magazines.  Via RHM board members and authors in their work.
  • 16. Writing skills
  • 17. Writing ‒ yes, it's very hard!!!  Very few people enjoy writing.  Editing is the largest part of the work of writing and even fewer people like editing.  I like to compare writing and editing to sculpture. You sculpt a piece of stone until your vision appears in the material itself.  Or painting ‒ you paint millions of dots and lines, you add something, you take some away, you make it bigger or darker or brighter.  Or knitting, one stitch at a time… it needs patience and thought. Edit and edit again!  With editing, you’re only done when nothing important is missing, and you can’t remove a single word more.  The end product makes it all worth it!
  • 18. Language: options  Write/edit in your own language first, and then have it translated. Getting an excellent translation is not easy + it also needs editing!  RHM editions in translation ‒ in both Chinese and Arabic the editors decided to create a glossary of translated terms. Even the translation of "reproductive health" did not exist or was too clinical, e.g. in French and Chinese.  Writing in English from the start ‒ yes but then help is needed from an editor (or someone else) who understands your English (and if possible your own language) so as to be able to edit/correct it.
  • 19. Writing for an international readership  Remember you are writing for many speakers of English as a 2nd/3rd language, and people with little knowledge of your country, its history and institutions.  So − don't use very long sentences with complex structures. Do give adequate background. Don't use lots of acronyms that are local and used only in your own country or profession.  Acronyms are like cancer − avoid them. Remember that many have more than one meaning − e.g. ART.  Don’t forget your national readership, too, who may want to see key terms or organisations’ names in your own language. And who will be looking for references in your own language, not just from northern journals.
  • 20. Using formulas: study articles to discern them  A good abstract serves as the outline of the paper, reflecting the main sections of the paper, saying what the main findings, conclusions and recommendations are. In those 200 words, you provide an outline and state everything important in the paper. Use sentences from the paper and trim them down.  Methodologies also follow formulas. Study published papers and use them as models.  Other good practice:  answer: who, what, where, when, why, how.  when you are recounting a history, present the information in historical order. Don't jump back and forth in time.  use the referencing format the journal asks for and check your references for completeness, and see that the web links work.
  • 21. From the editor’s point of view
  • 22. Choosing papers to peer review  First impressions  EASE article 2005: science journal editors take an average of 8 minutes to read and make an initial judgement on a paper.  Favourable impression: title grabs interest, abstract with key points, straightforward style of writing, but most important is the interest value of the topic.  Unfavourable: Dear Sir, no indication they’ve ever even looked at the journal, national significance only, quantatitive data only, full of tables and figures but no qualitiative content, double the maximum word length, typos, jargon, sloppy references.  Open peer review policy based on constructive criticism and detailed suggestions for improvement.
  • 23. What does a useful peer review do?  Few papers need only a little work, or cannot be improved. I want peer reviewers to tell authors what is good and not good about their papers; what is missing or inaccurate; critically assess the findings and analysis; and make concrete suggestions on how to improve every part of the paper wherever possible, so that it will end up being an excellent paper instead of a good one or a potentially good one.  The more work the author needs to do, the more I expect from the reviewer.  If the reviewer feels the paper is not publishable, to say why in a respectful and helpful manner.  I’m happiest when the reviewers each take a different perspective on what needs improving and therefore help the author in different ways − this happens a lot.
  • 24. What is a poor peer review  Peer reviewers need to respond to the paper as it is and to what it says it is about.  A poor review either praises the paper only, or says little or nothing of value to help the authors improve the paper, or asks the author to write a different paper from the one they’ve actually written.  I suspect there are as many inexperienced reviewers as there are authors, but overall RHM gets very good reviews.
  • 25. Role of the editor in a changing world  The main role of the editor is to ensure the journal’s aims and editorial policy are reflected in what it publishes.  The technical role of the editor is to consider submissions, arrange peer reviews, accept and reject submissions, and as I see it, support authors to improve their papers to the highest possible extent. That includes making her/his own editorial comments, commenting on peer reviews, copyediting and proofreading.  Copyediting ‒ I was asked to review a paper for an open access journal recently and the guidelines said that if the language was hard to follow, I should make copyediting remarks and give details of how to improve the English. The journal, they said, did not have the staff or funds to do it themselves. This is what happens when journal editors are not paid (enough) to do their job.
  • 26. Editorial policy: RHM  Authorship: “More authors from developed countries than from developing countries have access to the resources to publish in international journals, including to do research and write articles about developing countries. To help to redress this imbalance, RHM will give preference to papers about developing countries by authors from those countries or written with authors from those countries.”  As a result of this policy, RHM has a higher proportion of authors from the global South than most other international journals.  Editorial support to authors: especially young and inexperienced authors and those whose first language is not English.
  • 27. From research to social change: time and other barriers  Research –> evidence –> dissemination –> implementation of evidence-based practice –> universal access –> social change –> research… Barriers  Ideology trumps evidence.  Cost and commercial considerations override public health needs.
  • 28. Some questions to take away  Who is responsible for knowledge sharing in the SRHR field, especially given the growing number of journals and technical means of communication and dissemination of information?  Are the changes in funding of research and publishing of journals affecting sustainability of journals and their outreach?  If all journals become online-only journals, how will that affect access to knowledge?  Does open access improve access? For whom?  Are the growing number of journals competing or cooperating to produce knowledge for the field? What about researchers and other authors?  Is knowledge being produced and disseminated in the best possible way? Is access to knowledge improving, and if so, for whom?  Is the publication of an increasing number of papers succeeding in changing the world for the better?