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What does an Editor look for?

The first task of an Editor is to look for good papers. Really good papers are few and far between, so most of an Editor’s time is spent looking at papers that are not as good as they might be, and trying to make them better. Inevitably, there comes a borderline between those papers that we can consider for publication, and those that we must turn away – 80% in the case of this journal. Contrary to what most authors seem to believe, we are not looking for reasons to reject a manuscript: we are looking for reasons why we should accept it. An enormous amount of work has gone into many of the papers we receive, and is often wasted because the authors have not followed some simple rules. Here are some suggestions:

Think before you do the study

No amount of eminence or presentational skill will conceal the fact that you have not read the literature carefully, asked the right question, planned the right experiment, used the right methods, included a sufficient number of participants, analysed your results correctly, and drawn sensible conclusions.

Think before you write

Your message should contain something that is new, and something that is interesting

A paper should have a message, a message that you could write out in two or three sentences, or explain to a friend over the phone. This message should contain something that is new, and something that is interesting.

Decide who you are writing for

Always remember that you are addressing non-experts

My advice is to write for a sensible and intelligent reader who is unfamiliar with the subject area: the trick is to convey basic information without making it too obvious that you are doing so.

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Tell me a story

A paper should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning says why you did the study, the middle says what you did, and the end says what you found and why it matters.

The Abstract

The usual mistake is to write the abstract as a hasty afterthought. Write it before you start: it will then tell you what to put in the paper and what to leave out.

The Introduction

This is a key element in the story: its purpose is to orientate your readers and to make them want to read the rest of the paper. Anything else is superfluous, which is why introductions should always be short.

The Methods

The “cut and paste” facility on a word processor is the downfall of most methods sections. If the methods have been published in full elsewhere, there is no need to repeat them in any detail. Concentrate on what is new, or potentially contentious. Then ask someone from another lab to check it through. Could they repeat the study on the basis of the information you provide?

The Analysis

This is typically the bit that the senior author does not understand. At worst, an inexperienced junior researcher is let loose upon a statistics package. Plan the analysis before you undertake the study, and design the study around the analysis. Always ask for professional advice. If you are lucky enough to find a statistician who can communicate with the non-numerate you should consider a proposal of marriage. It’s that important.

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The Results

Believe it or not, many people actually read this section. Scary but true. Logic, clarity of presentation and relevance to the story are what count.

Six Authors in Search of a Message

This, with apologies to Pirandello, is what we find in many of the discussion sections we receive. Readers look at the discussion. It should contain your message. If it is aimless and rambling, what does that say about you?


  • Do not paste this section in from the junior author’s thesis
  • Make sure that the senior authors have read it
  • One point per paragraph
  • No more than 5 or 6 paragraphs
  • Structure your discussion as suggested by the British Medical Journal:
    • statement of principal findings
    • strengths and weaknesses of the study
    • strengths and weaknesses in relation to other studies, discussing important differences in results
    • meaning of the study: possible explanations and implications for clinicians and policymakers
    • unanswered questions and future research.

The Reference List

Any idiot can cite 50 papers, but the intelligent mention only those that are relevant, and may even have consulted them. This is why good manuscripts usually have short reference lists. And remember that the people you cite may referee your paper - misquote them at your peril!


A good illustration can convey the central message of a paper at a glance

The eye rules the brain, and a good illustration can convey the central message of a paper at a glance. The best diagrams get shown time and again in review lectures, while papers with no visual content tend to get forgotten. Illustrations that need half a page of explanation are no use to anyone.

Revise your paper

Strike out any phrase you consider particularly clever

Pick up a marker pen and strike out the following:

  • Adjectives
  • “Soft” qualifiers (eg. slightly more, somewhat less etc)
  • Any word that can be lost without changing the meaning of a sentence
  • Any sentence that can be lost without changing the meaning of a paragraph
  • Any statement that does not form an essential part of the story
  • Any inference that goes too far
  • Any phrase that you consider particularly clever
  • If your paper is not 25% shorter, go back and start again.

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Show the paper to a colleague

It’s no use asking for advice if you’re not going to take it

'People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.' Anyone who praises the first draft of a manuscript is either terminally polite, a fool or a liar. Or they think you are. Never mind, the important thing is that you have now seen the paper through another pair of eyes. Make all the changes they suggest; it’s no use asking for advice if you’re not going to take it.

Incubate your manuscript

Place in a desk drawer at room temperature for two weeks. Fortify yourself with a glass of wine before you take it out: it won’t be as good as you thought it was.

Hold a paper surgery

This should be routine in good groups. All papers in development are tabled each week and dissected without mercy. Follow the Belisarius principle (he was a Byzantine general), ask the most junior person present to express an opinion and then work up in order of seniority. People may be shy and inhibited to begin with, but once you have found fault with everyone else’s manuscript they will be only too eager to comment on yours.

Choose your journal

Be realistic, or you will waste everyone’s time.

Is this the sort of paper they publish? Is there some reason (other than impact factor) why it is most appropriate? Be realistic, or you will waste everyone’s time.

Read the Instructions to Authors

Surprisingly few authors bother to read the Instructions to Authors. We don’t object if you submit your paper in the wrong format. If it matters so little to you, we can assume that you will not take offence if we decide not to accept your manuscript. British authors are however advised not to submit a paper with American spelling; it’s a clear sign that your paper has just made an unsuccessful trip across the Atlantic.

Write a covering letter to the Editor

It is prudent to get the name of the journal right

We read these letters, so it is prudent to get the name of the journal right. Tell the Editor why you think his (her) readers might be interested in this manuscript. As in any flirtation, do not come on too strongly. Suggest more than you show, and avoid exaggerated claims. Editors, by the way, are unimpressed by claims of priority (“we are the first group ever to show that the effect of A upon B is inhibited by C in the presence of D in the female kangaroo”). And please, do not mention that the career of the first author absolutely depends upon acceptance of this manuscript. An Editor has no heart.

Edwin Gale, Editor 2003-2010

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