Tidbits for MBBS undergraduates

Top Tips to Kick-Start Your Very First Scientific Publication — part I

What types of articles should undergrads write?

Believe it or not, you’re staring at the screenshot of my laptop. Edited via Snapseed.

There is a wide variety of articles in the market nowadays, making it very confusing to undergrads who are just starting out and hoping to get a publication before graduation.

Sounds familiar? 👀

In this post, I will be addressing the main types of journal articles and mention those that are worth writing based on my personal experience.

To offer you some context, I was a third year MBBS student when I first participated in primary research. Prior to that, I had some experience in proof-reading and editing manuscripts, which unexpectedly, lead to my very first publication / authorship.

Types of journal articles… 📖

Like many undergraduates, I had a misconception that the only way for me to publish in a scientific journal is through designing and conducting my own research — i.e., a primary research. In reality, there are numerous types of scientific articles that undergrads can write. They are broadly categorized into: Primary literature and Secondary literature.

A primary literature is an original research that involves collecting and analyzing data be it in the form of wet labs or dry labs — some examples include: research articles, case reports and case series.

In contrast, a secondary literature is an article that interprets, summarizes and synthesizes preexisting primary literature — such as: literature reviews, systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

…& which ones are the best for undergrads to write? 💭

Contrary to popular belief that you have to be an expert in the field, I highly recommend undergrads to write literature reviews instead of research articles.

Writing a literature review does not involve any lab work (nor does it require a mentor, and frankly speaking, is very doable when you’re stuck in a pandemic), but it requires extensive reading and a thorough understanding of existing literature as well as their recent developments. You are expected to critically analyze, compare and contrast the results of different studies. This leads to identifying underlying issues and proposing potential solutions, prompting the need for novel research, bringing significance to your article.

Needless to say, secondary literature are invaluable gold mines of resources that substantially contribute to the scientific world as a ton of information from multiple studies are carefully condensed into a single article. If written well, fellow researchers will be constantly referring to your article to support and facilitate their studies.

Posing with the Department of Medical Microbiology & Parasitology plaque.

When I was a third year MBBS undergrad, I joined the university’s Medical Microbiology and Parasitology lab to learn some lab techniques and participate in the journal club, as I had an interest in Parasitology. On one fine day as my lab partner (who was a dear friend and classmate of mine) and I were watching students playing with stray cats, we had a eureka moment. We pitched the research idea to our mentors. Soon, they signed us up to compete for two of the university’s undergraduate research grant programs, where we proceeded to burn the midnight oil drafting up proposals, planning out methodologies and filling up paperwork. We had a very unique university experience, as research was not a mandatory requirement in our program. We also learned a lot of lab skills (ranging from designing primers to running gel electrophoresis and performing plasmid recombination).

However, due to the tedious wet labs and grant reports, while juggling our duties as diligent medical students, we were unable to publish the research during our undergrad years despite completion.
Update: It was recently published. Feel free to take a peek!

The journal’s Twitter post.

Honestly, if I were in a parallel universe with an entirely different set of variables — such as unsupportive mentors or hostile lab conditions — I wouldn’t have pursued primary research. Not only would it be a poor investment of time, I also wouldn’t have gotten a publication out of it. If you happen to be in that scenario, I highly recommend writing a literature review instead, as it is non-dependent on lab results (and mentors) — meaning you’ll be able to finish writing the article quicker and have it published during your undergrad years!

Alternatively, if you insist on publishing a primary literature, you may consider writing a case report. Based on a recent experience (yes, I’ve been doing a lot of writing during the pandemic), I am hesitant to recommend this option, due to the sole fact that the acceptance rate highly depends on the novelty of the case itself. However, when you do happen to find a case that stands out from its niche (which is usually identified by an experienced doctor in the clinical setting, since they encounter patients on a regular basis), it is definitely worth adding those findings to the medical and scientific community.

As cliché as it might sound, at the end of the day, it’s the experience that counts.

On that note, I shall end here.

Feel free to read the next post about choosing mentors and journals, or jump straight to my personal tips and tricks on getting a publication.

See you in the next post! 😄

Love, Alice

A Fudan University med grad sharing her journey in Shanghai and beyond. Since you’ve read all that, you might as well read on ;) Let’s connect on IG @alicehalim