From Masters dissertation to publication
In this post, Grace Lewis, an Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research PhD student at the University of Leeds, shares her experience of writing a journal article from her MPH dissertation completed with the Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh.
Having completed the MPH online programme in 2019, I was invited to write a blog post about the experience of writing a journal article from my masters dissertation. I hope to share a few tips based on my learning from this experience. My background is as an Orthoptist in the NHS (many people look puzzled at the Orthoptist title - you can find out more here).
I had been fortunate early in my career to be seconded as a research assistant working on a crosssectional study and so I had some experience as a co-author in amongst a list of much more experienced authors. In this blog, I’ll tell you a little about my experience of a first author role.
I had been keen to take the dissertation route right from the start of the MPH to help with my goal of returning to research. Whilst studying MPH modules I developed an interest in tobacco-related health research. Like many ‘topics’ in public health, tobacco can be linked to numerous diseases and poses continuing challenges globally. With multiple complex factors involved in tobacco control, such as the publics’ choices and the psychology around smoking, the addiction factor, the policies for smoking reduction and legislation, and politico-legal will (only to name a few!) - this mix fascinated me and made me reflect on my childhood, pre-indoor non-smoking legislation, when public smoking was common-place indoors.
I had a challenging time with choosing a dissertation or study type. I was living overseas with limited local language skills and no real local network to develop a primary study from scratch. I had decided a systematic review or policy brief were not my first choices. On discussion with the dissertation leader and my eventual supervisor our interests in tobacco research and smoke free home promotion were aligned. I was invited to analyse newly emerging qualitative data from a smoke-free home study in Edinburgh and take my analysis in whichever direction I saw fit (with discussion), based upon the data. I was nervous to embark on this remotely whilst also being new to qualitative research. However, the connection to a live smoke-free home promotion project seemed like the perfect fit for me. In short, the dissertation explored parents’ experiences of stigma when using nicotine replacement therapy during a feasibility study to enable smoke-free homes for their families.
The journey to publication
With my dissertation almost done and dusted, Neneh asked if I might consider writing for publication. This was a little scary, as I’ve always struggled with writing concisely- how was I going to get all of the important points across from my dissertation, in a shortened version and still have it to a standard acceptable to reviewers and editors? Of course, the answer was lots of drafts and editing.
So, what was my writing process?/how did I get started?
I decided I should write a first draft in a generic journal-like format and see how it turned out. I knew it would be too long to begin with, but it gave me a starting point and stopped me from procrastinating! It is worth having an abstract that you and your co-authors are really happy with early on, in case you are asked for this prior to a full draft.
I had fortunately hoarded my dissertation notes, such as reflective diaries and memos, which helped me to remember my train of thought from months earlier.
Write a draft or choose a journal first?
It could be argued best to decide on the journal you’d like to submit to first. You’ll probably have an idea of some journals that might be a good fit, based on your MPH reading. Your supervisor will be able to suggest some and may have experience of the process involved for each journal, their likely turn-around time and such.
I did not want to rush my choice of journal to submit to first, as choosing what might turn out to be a bad fit would likely mean having to re-draft for submission to another journal. This meant I had a draft written before choosing a journal. There isn’t a right or wrong way (as far as I know, but I’m still learning), just things to consider.
Some points to think about
Having been out on a career break before starting the MPH, I was not too familiar with journal impact factors, and whilst not all journals publish an impact factor, some authors consider these important and you may wish to look at this when choosing a journal to submit to.
Most open access journals will add a publication fee known as an article processing charge (APC). For students especially, these are not cheap. If you had funding for your masters, there may be some funds available to you for an APC. It was suggested to me to write to the editors and ask if they might waive the APC as I was still a student and had moved onto a different university. This is where having your abstract ready will be useful.
Instructions for manuscripts
Most journals have instructions available online. It’s worth prereading these to be sure you are happy to write in their prescribed way, as some are more prescriptive than others.
You will become a mini project manager as first author. You will write the first draft and ask for co-author comments and edits, arrange meetings, if needed, to discuss drafts and write re-drafts until you are all agreed on a final pre-submission draft. You will be dealing with all admin associated with your submission process and liaising with your co-authors, sometimes under journal timelines. This will include things like writing cover letters to editors, writing responses to reviewers and re-drafting, if needed, for re-review. Followed by re-drafting again for other journals should you need to move on from your first choice, if the article is not accepted.
Time management is something you may be thinking about if considering writing for publication (I certainly had questions about this a year or so ago)- So, how long does the whole process take? Each writing experience will be different, but I fitted mine in around a full-time job followed by a fulltime PhD, by writing mostly on Saturday mornings whilst my kids were at sports clubs. The article was published about one year after I had submitted my dissertation.
The right-journal-fit for your article should make life easier
I really agonised over which journal to submit to first. In searching and re-searching I found a special issue calling for papers that fitted my dissertation project perfectly and I was very glad that I had not rushed into submitting it elsewhere prior to that (another point worth remembering is that many journals will not accept a manuscript that is under consideration elsewhere).
Remember your co-authors will likely have been through the writing and submission process many times as first and co-authors. Ask the questions that seem “silly” to put your mind at ease and allow you to focus rather than spend time unduly worrying about any doubts you may have. Co-author comments, feedback, and discussions with you about the article will be vital and will help build your confidence for the final submission.
Is it worth it?
You will need to invest time and potentially money if you cannot secure funds for the APC. As MPH students or graduates you will know that research waste is, well, potentially wasteful on many levels and that there is an ever-increasing focus on sharing findings (and data, where appropriate) to maximise impact. Being a first author and/or co-author is great for your CV and applications- one of my PhD interview questions was along the lines of “are you planning to publish anything from your masters dissertation?” If you plan to stay in research or start a career in research it is a great starting point. Even if you aren’t staying in research, having a publication shows dedication and commitment to seeing a project through to another level and it can give a great sense of achievement.
Every experience is different, so it is worth speaking to contacts and colleagues for advice too, at least to be aware of potential pitfalls. My experience was positive and although it is easy to get swayed by hearing others’ negative experiences with journal reviews and rejections, there are positive stories out there too and a lot to be learned during the process.
If you decide this is for you, try to stay positive, and be willing to learn as you go. Good luck!
About Grace Lewis
"I am the current Student Representative on the Advocacy Committee at the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research. I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a BMedSci (Hons) in Orthoptics and have seven years’ experience as a clinical Orthoptist in the NHS. I have some experience in quantitative and qualitative research methodology, and an interest in improving health-related quality of life. I completed a Master’s in Public Health (distinction) at the University of Edinburgh. During my master’s dissertation I developed an interest in novel familial interventions to improve child and family health, particularly respiratory health."