Tidbits for MBBS undergraduates

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

How to choose mentors and journals?

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Welcome to the second post on tips to kick-start your very first publication! If you missed the first post on what types of articles are suitable for undergrads to write, feel free to give that a quick gander before proceeding.

With that said, today I’ll be sharing with you a list of criteria I use when choosing mentors and journals.

How to choose a mentor?

A mentor (who goes by many names: PI, short for Principal Investigator, supervisor, boss, etc.,) can literally make or break your research (and your fighting spirit), especially if you’re doing an original primary research. Without the appropriate support and guidance, you might as well kiss that publication goodbye.

I’ve heard stories from multiple colleagues about their mentors — ranging from pure indifference to downright nasty. Although I don’t have a fool-proof method to spot poor mentors, I’ll gladly share the tips I’ve used when choosing my mentors (one of whom I worked with in my 3rd year of MBBS is a total angel️) and potential red-flags to avoid:

1. Express interest face-to-face and/or via email ✉️

Most of the lecturers in my medical school are doctors and researchers. I’ve noticed that lecturers who share about their research are usually very keen in taking undergrads under their wings.

Put in the effort to speak with them during lecture breaks about the work they do and ask for their contact details. Make sure you do your due diligence by reading up about them and their publications online to get a general overview on whether their work aligns with your interest. Once you’ve decided on a mentor, send them an email asking to visit their lab. If you do not receive a reply within a week, assume they’re not interested in scouting students, and that you’re better off finding another mentor who genuinely appreciates having you in their lab.

2. Take the initiative to visit their labs 😏

Take a good look around and speak with other researchers to understand the laboratory conditions as well as gain an insight on the mentoring they’ve received. If you do not feel welcomed, choose another mentor. Being an undergrad, you’ll have a lot to learn in the lab; oftentimes your mentor won’t be around to guide you — instead, postgrad researchers and other teachers will be the ones showing you the ropes.

Ensure both the place and people meet your expectations. Trust me, the last thing you need is a perpetual nightmare of contamination and animosity.

3. Ask around students who have worked with these mentors 💬

This is a no-brainer — stay away from mentors with negative reviews — chances are, they’re not pleasant to work with. Ideally, mentors (and their team) should be able to offer you guidance throughout your research and provide feedback during the writing of your manuscript.

This is the issue with writing primary research articles: you will be heavily dependent on your mentor for lab work. Imagine if they do not provide you with the reagents you need, or a certain cell line — you wouldn’t be able to generate the necessary data for your research. In this scenario, writing a literature review is more favorable.

How to choose journals for publications?

Usually your mentor will recommend potential journals for publication as they are experts in the field. However, should you be choosing a journal on your own, bear in mind the following:

1. The journal’s Impact Factor (IF) 📚

Ideally, undergrads should consider publishing in journals with an IF between 1.5 to 2.0. An IF essentially measures the average frequency of an article that has been cited annually — i.e., an IF of 2.0 in 2019 means that on average, an article has been cited twice in 2019. The IF of journals fluctuate and may increase over time. Note that the higher the journal’s IF, the more difficult it is to publish in it, as an IF is used to gauge the relative importance of a journal within its field. Hence, the editorial review may be highly stringent, risking your manuscript being rejected.

Alternatively, you may consider checking the journal’s output frequency — the higher the number of articles published, the more likely your article will be accepted for publication too. Consider journals with an output of at least 150 articles per year.

2. Is the journal peer reviewed? 🔍

When a journal is peer-reviewed, you know it’s legit.

During the peer review process, your manuscript will be subjected to the scrutiny of experts from that particular field. This process ensures that only high quality research is being published. Additionally, peer reviewers also provide suggestions to improve the quality of your manuscript as well as identify errors that should be corrected prior to publication.

An article published in a peer-reviewed journal is most likely scientifically valid and reliable.

On a side note, journals without a peer review process may potentially be predatory journals that charge authors large sums of money in exchange for publishing their manuscripts.

3. Is the journal PubMed indexed & does it offer you a DOI? 📑

Every author hopes their publication reaches a broad audience — in order for that to happen, selecting a renowned online database access, ahem PubMed, is essential. Regardless of being a novice or an expert in research, PubMed is indisputably every researchers’ go-to when searching for literature. When a journal is PubMed indexed, the articles within it become easily accessible once similar topics are looked up via PubMed’s search engine.

Also, make sure that the journal offers your publication a DOI (Digital Object Identifier) — it is a series of letters and numbers that uniquely belongs to your article on the internet. With a DOI, it increases the ease for your readers to find your article, as a URL may subject to change overtime, but a DOI remains permanent.

4. Publication fee — budgets and grants 💸

Journals generally do not publish your content free-of-charge, unless you’re being invited to publish with them. Even then, they will still charge you a small fee. Freebies are rare. Prior to drafting your manuscript for the journal, ensure you’ve inquired about their publication cost and decide whether it’s within your or your mentor’s budget.

In the event that you don’t have a mentor to sponsor you, email the journal regarding your circumstances (being a young, dumb and broke college kid has it perks) and request for a discount. You might get lucky.

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. 😜

Well, there you have it! My guide to choosing mentors and journals.

On that matter, the concluding post of this “Top Tips to Kick-Start Your Very First Scientific Publication series” will be published next week. There, I’ll be sharing the things I wish I’d known earlier that would make my research journey (and hopefully, yours) a whole lot smoother.

I’ll catch you on the flip side! ❤️

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