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Reflections on my experiences of having my dissertation manuscript published in a peer reviewed Journal

A student reflection blog post by Ludoviko Zirimenya a graduate of The University of Edinburgh.

In August this year, following publication of my dissertation in PLOS NTD, I was invited to share my experiences surrounding my dissertation and the publication that resulted from it.

I enrolled for MPH online learning at University of Edinburgh in 2016. I decided on Edinburgh as I had successfully completed an MSc (Internal Medicine) at the same university in 2014. At the time of my enrolment, I was working full time in palliative care organisation as the clinical director. In my last year of study, I changed jobs to a full time research position. I'm a research scientist working at Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Uganda Research Unit. I obtained my bachelors of medicine from Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Science, Tanzania (Former medical school of university if Dar-es-salaam).

The decision to undertake a systematic review as my dissertation project arose from the interest I had following the attendance of the systematic review module in year two. This module was a five-week course unit that provided me with an opportunity to develop my critical understanding of why, when and how to carry out systematic reviews in public health contexts. As I had now joined the research field fulltime, I felt that this experience would help me in my research career as systematic reviews are the highest level of evidence.

After tremendous support from my dissertation supervisor, I decided to focus on the association between urogenital schistosomiasis and HIV infection.

In Uganda where am from, there are 2 common types of schistosomiasis infections, one due to Schistosoma Mansoni and the other due to Schistosoma Haematobium. Most papers I encountered were focusing on schistosoma mansoni but from a naïve point of view, surprisingly my interest was on schistosomiasis Haematobium the main causative agent of urogenital Schistosomiasis. I concluded on focusing on schistosoma haematobium infection as the literature I encountered pointed to a public health impact as it was being suggested that of its associated with HIV/AIDS infection.

My approach

When I finally submitted in my dissertation project, it was a very big weight off my shoulder following the long periods of intensive work. So when it happened, I was both excited and exhausted from the whole process.

The journey to publication

The decision to consider publishing was not an easy one to make. I had just started a new job with many expectations to achieve and I was honestly exhausted. I felt I had had enough stress to complete the course so to repeat it, no, I thought to myself. I lacked confidence as I lacked experience publishing in a peer reviewed medical journal. Furthermore, I was being told that I should expect failure as there was no guarantee to have a publication acceptance as refusals are common.

Fortunately, as I work in an academic unit, one of my work outcomes are publications and my work colleagues had experience in publications. In a way, this expectation and sharing with my work  colleagues made me wake up to seriously consider submitting my manuscript for publication. Where to start is where I did not know. Fortunately, at my work place, we have a training department that regularly shares training opportunities that staff can undertake. On one fateful day, a training opportunity in research writing was shared that came with a scholarship for some participants. This online course was run by INASP targeting scientists from LMICs.

Once I enrolled and undertook the course, I was able to improve my knowledge and skills in scientific writing that made me confident to proceed with preparing my manuscript for publication. When I was equipped with these skills, the journey to have my manuscript published started. I engaged my dissertation supervisors who offered to support me through the whole process. They requested that I propose a list of at least three journals to consider as rejections are unfortunately high which may require me to consider other journals in case it is rejected in the first journal.

Based on my work experience and the journal, my work colleagues were publishing in, on top of my list was PLOS NTD. From the research writing course, one guidance recommended was to always consider journals you colleagues publish in. Hence this drove my decision to consider PLOS –NTD.

Next was to familiarize myself with the author guidelines as mastering these are important if one is to have his or her manuscript published. Adhering to these guidelines provides one more chances of receiving an acceptance. So I embarked on the familiarizing myself with the guidelines alongside aligning my manuscript to it. This in a way was like writing again the manuscript as It contained a lot of information that was not required by the Journal.

The other tip I obtained from the course was to familiarise myself with articles of the journal. In my case as I had done a systematic review, I searched out for all the systematic review articles that had been published. Once I identified them, I read them a couple of times and referred to them routinely to improve my manuscript. This helped me a lot as it gave my ideas of how to structure my manuscript so that it is accepted.

During this process of realigning my manuscript, as some time had passed since completing my dissertation, I had to do things like it was the first time. This was frustrating and increased my nerves. For example, Journals don’t require a section on literature review but yet in a dissertation, this was included. So what I had to do was to identify information to select out and what to remove. But still ensure that what am writing makes sense and makes a good case for my manuscript. The meta-analysis was the other part of the manuscript that created nerves. The software I used for my dissertation was R programme though it is the one we were taught; I was still having difficulties using it. Despite the various attempts to refresh my knowledge, I was reaching nowhere. So I contacted my supervisor who throw me an olive branch. He advised that I use another software – MetaXL. This I found simpler to use, as I was able to develop and manage the analysis codes myself. I was finally able to refine my meta-analysis and include other analyses that had not been included in the dissertation to strengthen my paper. During all this time I had to refer back to authors’ guidelines to ensure that I don’t deviate from it.

Once I was finished with revising the manuscript, I had to share it with my supervisors for reviewing and commenting on. The feedback helped to improve my work and tailor it to the accepted standards of scientific writing.

When I received the go ahead from my supervisors, next was to finally submit it. I logged onto the journal’s website, created my account and proceeded to submit it in. Once completed, the next was to cross my fingers and wait for the decision from the editor. This took a couple of weeks but finally I received the decision. These included comments from the editor and the reviewers. Overall, the comments were positive, as they requested me to address them and submit my responses within four weeks. With support from my supervisors, I was finally able to draft all responses to the comments and editing the manuscript accordingly. During this process of responding to the comments, I did understand how important to always consider reviewers’ comments. It is advisable as reviewers are experts in the field and their role is to support you to improve your manuscript to the standards of the journal. The next set of comments I received from the editor was to proof read the manuscript before it is published online. Once I completed the proof reading, it was finally published.

What went well

Reflecting back now on this experience, some of the things that went well included being able to identify the appropriate journal that was not a predatory journal. These are out there to trick unaware researchers.

I benefited a lot from the experience and skills of my supervisors. Though I was done with my university studies, their willingness to walk with me in this final stage was very helpful. At times when I felt like giving up, their encouragement and constant communication kept me going. I benefited a lot from my work colleagues experience and skills, discussing with them and seeing them publish papers encouraged me to keep going. Though decision to change work places in my final year was a difficult one, it introduced me to many possibilities that helped me unleash my potential. It created in me a lot of anxiety and uncertainty which has made me learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

Advice for those starting out

Start early

Due to the amount of work required to revise my manuscript, not working on it immediately on completing my studies increased the amount of effort I needed to standardize my manuscript in order to have it published.

Maintain your university network

I found it very helpful having my supervisors available as I was preparing my manuscript. Their advice came in very handy and definitely ensured that the manuscript was accepted by the first journal we considered.

Never stop learning

Honestly self-reflect to identify your weak points. Once identified, set out plans on how best to address them. I had no experience in publishing in a peer reviewed journal so basically did not know what to do. The research writing course helped me a lot to understand the process required for a publication to be done and what to avoid.

Be patient, having a manuscript published takes times and has its ups and down.

Initially I thought that it is something one can do in one go. I have appreciated how drafting and revising the draft not once or twice but many times produces better results.

Be open minded

Sometimes the comments you receive from the senior authors in my case supervisors or journal reviewers will require you to be open minded. Such comments will require you be flexible to look at issues in a different way.

It is good to think of life after the dissertation and most times if well thought out your dissertation project can be stepping stone to greater things. What I'm looking at is to undertake a PhD and I hope to build on this achievement to achieve this goal.