NEJM Insights: tips for successful publication

Last month, we were delighted to welcome Dr Bette Phimister, Deputy Editor in Chief at New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), to the WCMR at Newcastle University. During her visit, Dr Phimister led an informal question and answer session with the team, sharing details about her career and the role of an editor working at the prestigious medical journal.  This was a fantastic opportunity to gain a valuable insight into the world of scientific publishing.  Read on to find out more.

By Lyndsey Butterworth

Early Career

Dr Phimister began by talking to the team about her background, which included an Undergraduate Degree in Microbiology followed by a PhD in Cancer Research in the UK. Dr Phimister always had an interest in publishing and literature and during her first post-doctoral position in diabetes research, saw an advert for Assistant Editor at Nature Genetics. She thought this could be fun and so applied for the job.  Her application was successful, which led to her stepping out of the lab and leaving behind the world she knew in the UK to start a job in the editorial office in the US.

First Editorial Experience

A steep learning curve followed and Dr Phimister found herself having to review scientific papers from many different fields, not just her own particular area of expertise. She said at one point she felt she had ‘imposter syndrome’ but learnt very quickly how to evaluate manuscripts that covered a range of topics.  After 5 years at Nature Genetics, the last two of which saw her working as the Editor in Chief in New York, Dr Phimister joined the editorial team at the NEJM where she has worked for the last 16 years.

Role as an Editor

There are 10 editors at NEJM who all have their own area of interest, with Dr Phimister dealing with manuscripts that mainly cover genetics and genomics. Her role involves making decisions on which papers should be accepted for publication, which involves members of the team sitting down together to discuss the merits of a submission.  Another important part of her role involves looking for research areas or topics that would be of interest to their general readership. This can involve attending conferences and speaking with researchers to find areas of interest that could feature in the journal.

After chatting about her background, Dr Phimister went on to answer questions from the WCMR team about the publication process.  This included some top tips for successful publication.  Here we share some of the questions and Dr Phimister’s answers that we hope others will find useful.

How many manuscripts do you receive?

In 2018, there were 16,700 submissions to NEJM! Around 40% of these will be sent out for review.

What kind of manuscripts do you receive?

NEJM is not traditionally known for publishing basic scientific papers but there is a shift to increase publication of manuscripts in this area. It is recognised that this could lead to better therapeutics and benefits for patients in the long term.  Data sharing is also important for clinical practice and improving health outcomes.

What catches your eye?

To begin with, it is not the entire manuscript but the abstract and figures that will stand out to an editor.  The title is not often something that will grab an editor’s attention, but it is important that the title and the contents of the manuscript actually match (as this is not always the case!)  Editors shouldn’t have any bias and it is important to look at every submission with fresh eyes.

Is the cover letter important?

An editor will tend to look at the manuscript first and then read the cover letter. The cover letter is important as it is ‘the pitch’ for the paper. The letter should include why the paper is relevant or of interest to the reader, and why the work is important. It is good to try and relate this to work that is of interest to NEJM.  The cover letter can recommend reviewers for the manuscript, or alternatively those who you would prefer not to review the manuscript, but it is important to say why.  The information can also include a suggested date for publication if there is a reason why the publication needs to be fast-tracked, e.g. before presentation at a conference.

What about pre-submission enquiries?

These are strongly recommended and can have value to both the author and the editor. In some instances, the editor will personally reply to such an enquiry. If this is a positive response, the editor can start thinking about who will review the manuscript. This makes for a more efficient process, as it means the paper will go out to review more quickly.

What if your manuscript is rejected for publication?

Author appeals following rejection of a manuscript can be used if you feel the reviewer(s) or the editor has missed something. The appeals process, which allows the author to request the editor to reconsider his/her decision, is an important mechanism that may help to diminish the effect of potential bias.

Do the editorial team work with the authors?

Yes, the editor will work with authors once a paper has been accepted for publication to ensure the manuscript is accessible to a broad audience. This involves thinking about the detail in the manuscript versus the generalised readership of the journal. This can take a bit of time to make sure the content is appropriate, but it is important that the overall message of the paper is delivered in an accessible way. There is a full team at NEJM who will help with the content of the paper, including statistical experts, manuscript editors, illustrators, proofreaders, and production staff, who strive to ensure that every paper meets exacting standards.

Are the articles you publish freely available?

NEJM is a subscription journal and supports open access.  As such, all research papers are made freely available after 6 months.  However, if there are manuscripts with important implications for public health measures, these are made freely available upon publication.

Following Dr Phimister’s informal chat with the WCMR team, she went on to meet individual team members to discuss the different research themes within the Centre.  She was also a speaker at the 2nd FMS Post-doc Symposium hosted by Newcastle University.

We would like to offer our sincere thanks Dr Phimister for taking the time to visit us and providing a fascinating and extremely useful insight into publishing. She has since written to us, expressing thanks for the “extraordinarily stimulating and helpful visit” and appreciation of “the innovative, pioneering research being carried out at the Centre.”