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Scientific writing is a discipline of its own. Like so many other skills, practice makes the individual if not perfect then at least more adept. However, the individual author does not exercise sole authority over when one’s ‘practice’ manages to see the light of day by achieving the final goal of publication. Writing for publication is a challenge; the challenge is not lessened by the reality that few of us ever receive any form of appropriate training. The BSAVA remains an association for its members. The Journal of Small Animal Practice remains the official journal of the BSAVA and it is our constant endeavour to attract more submissions from colleagues in practice. In an effort to assist potential authors determined to see their magnum opus in print, this year at the 2012 BSAVA/WSAVA Congress, there was a JSAP sponsored presentation about writing for publication. The lecture was well attended and for those who were unable to be present, some of the salient points are summarised here.

Choose your journal

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

There are many journals which publish veterinary clinical work. The author must familiarise themselves with the tone and content of material published. By ensuring that their work is consistent with published material, the chances of acceptance are enhanced.

Familiarise yourself with the journal style

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

All journals produce author guidelines. It is critical that these are read and followed. Ensuring that the guidelines are followed makes reviewing easier and speeds up the progress to decision. An unstructured, poorly referenced manuscript frustrates both editors and reviewers and paints the authors and their study in a poor light. Additionally, ethical practices may preclude publication of particular experimental studies. Manuscripts that fail to meet the journal’s ethical standards will be rejected before submission for peer-review. Authors must understand the range of manuscript types accepted and ensure that their work conforms.

Clarity, precision, economy

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

These are the keys to good scientific writing. If a concept cannot be expressed clearly and concisely it is likely that the author is not sufficiently familiar with their data or the published work. For authors writing in a second language, it could make the process of publication considerably smoother to seek assistance from a native speaker at an early stage of study design.

Third person, passive voice

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

Scientific writing is conventionally performed using the third person and the passive voice. This divorces the author from the outcomes and allows the material to be presented in a more objective fashion. An example of third person, passive voice text is: specimens were incubated with antibody and heated to 90 degrees. Using first person and active voice this could read: I incubated the specimens with antibody and heated them to 90 degrees. The purpose of scientific writing is to present data in an objective fashion for critical evaluation by one’s peers. An alternative explanation for a series of observations can always be found, despite intuition to the contrary in some instances (The sun and planets revolve around the earth; Aristotle).

Importance of a good introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

The objective of writing is to produce something that is read. The title and introduction must accurately represent the subject matter and should be used as a hook with which to capture the reader’s interest. The introduction is used both to present the observation or concept that merits experimental examination and to put the study into context. This requires a comprehensive review of the published literature pertinent to the current subject. It is important to cite relevant and up to date material. The strategy for examination is introduced and the opportunity is taken to present the aims of the study being reported. A very constructive model for organising an introduction called the ‘PICO Principle’ can be applied. PICO is an acronym meaning Population/Patients, Intervention, Comparator, Outcome. The acronym reminds of points of greatest interest and importance. In approximately three or four short paragraphs the author should endeavour to describe the population to which the study question applies, the intervention or observation being reported, a reference population against which the study population can justifiably be compared and the parameter that will be assessed in order to define a potential difference between those patients receiving the intervention or bearing the observed characteristic and the comparator group.

Bias

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

The purpose of every biomedical research study is to examine a pertinent research question in the hope that the results obtained are applicable to a larger population. In every study there is an inherent assumption that the study subjects are representative of the population to which the results will be extrapolated. This is almost never the case. The word for all factors which lead to hypothetical or actual differences between the study participants and the population at large is bias. In principle, there are three broad categories of bias: selection bias, information bias and measurement error.

Selection bias refers to differences among study participants that are linked to the fact that they are chosen for study. For example, in many clinical trials for novel anti-cancer agents, patients must have terminal cancer that has failed to respond to standard therapies and must be expected to live without therapy for twelve or more weeks from study enrolment. However, many patients with terminal cancer that have failed to respond to all standard therapies have a prognosis of less than twelve weeks. Thus, a cohort of patients has been selected which differs from the population to which we would like to apply our results.

Information bias refers to the reality that the patient, carer or clinician’s ability to objectively recall pertinent data is affected by the object of study. For example, in a study of the impact of topical lawn treatments on the incidence of bladder cancer in dogs, owners of dogs with bladder tumours were more likely to recall use of lawn treatments than owners of dogs without bladder tumours.

Measurement error refers both to the possibility that important variables might be consistently measured wrongly thus influencing analysis of results, and also to the possibility that measurements are obtained which do not evaluate variables important to the study outcome. For example, measurements of tumour diameter may not correlate with patient survival while measurement of tumour diameter relative to patient size might. Without recording the relative dimension tumour size might be demonstrated statistically to be of no consequence to survival.

In all of these examples, a consequence of study design or execution has resulted in a failure to be able to apply correct conclusions about the study question to the reference population.

Material and methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

The materials and methods section explains how the study was carried out. The species studied, the experimental or sampling design including the inclusion and exclusion criteria and the method of data collection should be clearly and unambiguously described. The text should be able to be followed in a step by step manner so that the work could be repeated in the future by an independent investigator. The statistical methods are described at the end of the materials and methods section.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

The results of the study should be presented in a clear and well structured way. Positive and negative results should be reported. The results combine descriptive writing with reference to mathematical interrogation described in the statistical methods. Tables and charts can enhance the results section but must be formatted appropriately (see author guidelines), labelled clearly and enhance the description in the text; do not duplicate reporting of results by describing them in both the text and in table form needlessly.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

The purpose of a discussion is to present the data in the context of published work and expert opinion at the time. It also provides the author with the opportunity to identify sources of bias within the work which weaken extrapolations from the study population to a larger reference population. Authors are well advised to refrain from expressing opinion or presenting their data in a light that favours their intended interpretation.

In order to gain acceptance for publication, all manuscripts must undergo the process of peer-review.

Process of review

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

Upon receipt of a manuscript, a journal editor will examine the submission to ensure that the work contained adheres to journal guidelines and contains material consistent with the aims of the journal. Assuming the work is conceptually suitable, the manuscript is forwarded usually to at least two experts in the field for the process of peer-review. Typically reviewers are chosen because of their expertise and they are therefore fully conversant with the subject under investigation and the published literature in that field. As a consequence misrepresentation or omission of published data is likely to be recognised and will severely hamper publication ambition. The process of review can take two to four weeks in uncomplicated cases. Reviewers often present general, broad comments about study design and execution and minor comments about factual errors or omissions and the structure and style of particular passages.

Response to review

  1. Top of page
  2. Choose your journal
  3. Familiarise yourself with the journal style
  4. Clarity, precision, economy
  5. Third person, passive voice
  6. Importance of a good introduction
  7. Bias
  8. Material and methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. Process of review
  12. Response to review

Reviewers give freely of their time and expertise and published manuscripts are invariably significantly improved for the benefit of two independent experts’ constructive advice. Receiving reviewers’ comments is an emotionally challenging experience. It is good advice to take a little time to digest the reviewers’ comments before contemplating revision of a manuscript or replying to the editor. If all suggested modifications can be adopted, do. That is typically not the case, but any suggested modifications that cannot be made absolutely require a polite and reasoned explanation. Reviewers are people too and respond well to polite intellectual discourse. Please avoid the temptation to express your frustration in your response to review. Remember, ‘Manners maketh the manuscript’.

Gerry Polton * and Iain Grant

Gerry Polton graduated from Cambridge Veterinary School in 1997 after which he initially worked in first opinion practice. He entered specialist practice as a clinical oncologist in 2002. Gerry was awarded a Master of Sciences degree in clinical oncology by the Institute of Cancer Research at Birmingham University in 2003. He became a Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and European Veterinary Specialist in Oncology in 2010. Gerry is Clinical Director responsible for the oncology service at North Downs Specialist Referrals and is the JSAP Reviews Editor.

Iain qualified from Bristol University in 1990 and after a number of years in mixed practice moved to live in New Zealand and Australia. He worked in small animal practice, zoo practice and the media, completing a postgraduate diploma in Natural History Filmmaking. He moved to Australia to work as a nutritional advisor for a pet food company and in 2004 began a residency in small animal oncology at the University of California, Davis, completing his training in 2007 at the Ohio State University. In 2008, he took up a position as clinician teacher at the University of Liverpool in the department of oncology. He is currently employed part time as a clinician teacher at the University of Edinburgh, dedicating the rest of his time to his own business venture, Chemopet. Chemopet will provide education, specialist support and supply of chemotherapy drugs and disposables to general practitioners encouraging the highest level of chemotherapy treatment for small animal patients in practice. He is the oncology editor for JSAP and is enthusiastic to encourage manuscript submissions from colleagues in all fields of veterinary medicine.