It seems like a long time ago, but it was just last year that I was giving my first steps into medical writing.
Among the many things that I did—reading, taking courses, attending EMWA conferences—one had a special way to further boost my chances to lay roots on the medical writing landscape.
The Geoff Hall scholarship
The Geoff Hall scholarship is an award created in memory of Geoff Hall, one of the European Medical Writers Association’s (EMWA) founders, who was a strong believer that the future of EMWA lies with younger members.
Among the benefits for the competition winner(s) are free membership for 2 years, free conference registration for 4 conferences, and one free Foundation Workshop at the first conference. It’s quite a financial help, making sure you reap out the advantages of being an EMWA member.
I would even add another benefit: the ability to plaster “award-winning writer” on your resume, LinkedIn, business cards…okay, maybe not on business cards. Maybe.
So, in good spirits, I wrote my entry.
Last year’s title was: “How would you go about identifying a predatory journal?”
I’d just learnt about academic publishing, discovering that some vultures were trying to exploit that market by taking advantage of the scientists’ need to regularly publish their work. I contributed to the Portuguese translation of EMWA’s Joint Position Statement on Predatory Publishing, so I thought that with a little bit of research I would have a chance to win.
After more research hours than I care to admit, tangled thoughts on how to define predatory publishing, and even the odd nightmare about unwittingly choosing a predatory journal for a client’s manuscript, I finally had my entry ready to go.
I nervously hit “send”, and… wait, what? You say you’d like to read it? Oh, my, how flattering! Here you go—I aimed for accurate, light, and somewhat quirky.
My Geoff Hall entry
How Would You Go About Identifying a Predatory Journal? — A Quacking Tale of Misguided Ethics
Open access journals came to revolutionize academic publishing. Rising with the internet, they offered faster, cheaper and more accessible publishing to academics eager to spread the word about their research—which is to say, all of them.
Soon, some publishing houses realized there was money to be made with all the researchers that were looking for publishing opportunities. Bypassing peer review, soliciting papers from anyone in academia, and having no problems with negative feedback, these were dubious academic journals at best. At worst, they were true predators, sucking out the life blood of scientific community.
But between prestigious academic journals and truly predator publishers, there is a lake with questionable waters.
What should make you pause and question if a journal is trustworthy or not?
You may have already heard the saying:
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
In the end, it doesn’t come to a single feature, it’s a conjuncture. When everything is misaligned, from aspect to content to communication, all is set for bad publishing.
The Wobbly Gait of a Suspicious Journal
Appearances matter. The way a publisher shows itself to the world reveals their positioning, and the more consistent they are, the better. While having one mishap may not invalidate the credibility of a journal, it raises a red flag that prompts you to be extra cautious.
The internet provides some useful tools to ensure the quality of the publication, among them the checklist provided by the Think Check Submit website.1 They use a combination of common sense and technical items to help you understand if you can trust a particular journal.
Some of the items that you are advised to check are:
- Do you or your colleagues know the journal?
- Can you easily contact the publisher?
- Is the journal clear about the type of peer review it uses?
The (in)famous Beall’s list of predatory journals also has some inclusion criteria worth thinking about:
- Strange editorial boards, in which the owner of the publication is an editor for all journals, there is a single editorial board for all journals, or no information is provided about the editorial board.
- The publisher launches a large number of journals at the same time, and the titles are either misleading (similar to established journals) or combine very different areas, like humanities and technology.
- The publisher website is poorly designed and maintained, displaying grammatical errors, dead links and using unauthorized copyrighted images.
While it is difficult and time-consuming to check for every individual point, the overarching theme is to look for inconsistencies and lack of transparency. In our digital world, websites are the entry door of any house. If a publishers’ website has a ghastly appearance, who knows what lurks inside?
Quack Quack Communication
Appearances aside, the way we communicate reveals our true self. The way we communicate reflects who we are and how we want to carry ourselves in the world. More important than our words and accents is our integrity.
In the publishing world, having a clear mission statement and open channels with authors is paramount. When considering a journal, try to reach out to the editors about a potential submission. What happens next determines the amount of trust that you should give them. Take the following scenarios:
- After sending an email to a generic editor, you immediately get a standard response. It has odd sentence construction and sends a link to payment of article processing fees. No information about peer-review is provided.
- The journal provides the name of an editor and their email address. Upon enquiry, the editor replies with their process of revision and directs you to the instructions to authors. They also provide you the value fees for article processing, should you decide to submit a manuscript.
The second scenario is much more trustworthy, because it communicates clearly the process and it is a one on one conversation. If something makes you feel unsettled in the emails you exchange with the publisher or the editor, that is also a red flag.
Aim for a clear understanding of what will happen to your manuscript if you publish in that journal. Will there be peer-review? Will the article be copy-proofed? What if you wish to retract? Ask before you pay.
The Duck: A Terrible Predator?
Some people have tried to create blacklists to identify predatory journals, others have created whitelists of supposedly ‘safe’ journals. But the answer isn’t clear and the problem lies in the murky waters.
You can publish your great research in a bad journal and it will still be great research, albeit it will have much trouble being accepted by the scientific community. And it can be a truly terrible piece and be published in one of the most sought-after journals. The ripples of Andrew J Wakefield paper on MMR vaccine and autism, published by the prestigious Lancet, are still making damages to this day.
Besides, not all who publish in questionable journals are helpless victims. Some are desperate academics on the brink of perishing in the rat race of ‘publish or perish’. Others are climbing the ladder of careers that demand having a publishing record and opt for the easiest route to the top. In both cases, they know where they are getting into.
In the end, not all sketchy journals are predators and not all who publish there are victims.
If we want to move science further, we must have higher standards for publishing academic research. As medical writers we have a duty to know how to spot bad publishing and to avoid feeding it.
The winners are usually announced during EMWA’s May conference, and they let you know if you won sometime in February, so that you can attend the conference and receive your award in person. This year was bound to be different due to the pandemic, of course, but by mid-February I was getting antsy.
And by antsy, I mean REALLY NERVOUS.
Suddenly, my splashes of virtual ink were gaining unwarranted importance and winning the scholarship was becoming a measure to validate my efforts in becoming a medical writer.
Surely, if I won it meant that I was on the right track and that people liked what I wrote. And if I didn’t win? Well…
You see, I think writing is one of those crafts where sometimes the product of your labour directly ties in with your notion of self-worth. Rationally, it might seem a silly thing, but since when human beings are rational?
I never got an email saying that I had won. I got one thanking me for participating but that I hadn’t been chosen.
And when the winners’ names were announced, I felt both sad and happy. Sad, because I’m an optimist and refuse to let go of hope until I’m proven wrong. Happy, because one of the winners was my friend Adriana Rocha, who I had gently nudged into participating in an endlessly-asking-have-you-submitted-your-entry-and-why-not-and-I-will-make-you-write-it kind of way. Very smooth, I know.
Why you should participate
Even not having won, I would still do it again.
My dear aspiring medical writer, here are my parting thoughts for you:
- Go for it. You have nothing to lose and a lot to win. I didn’t win, but now I have a story to tell, and nothing would make me happier than inspiring another new medical writer to submit an entry.
- After mulling on the self-worth issue, I can guarantee you: your writing is a way to express yourself, you can always improve it, and it’s a part of you, but it’s NOT a stamp of worth.
The theme for this year competition is “Do you have what it takes to be a Medical Writer? Discuss three attributes or skills that best qualify one to be a Medical Writer” and the deadline for entry submissions is 30 September 2020.
I believe you, my dear friend, already have what it takes. So, get your pen and paper or the technological equivalent, write it, and hit send.
It won’t bite, I promise.
Comment below, drop me an email, or send me a pigeon and tell me you’ve decided to participate, I’d love to know.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ahmed Nazzal, MD PhD, for proofreading and comments on a previous version of this text.
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