Letter from an Editor

The following emails are real correspondence between myself and an Associate Editor at a prestigious scientific journal, which I have called “Journal X” here, after I published an article in a journal with a very similar title, which I am calling “Journal Y”. I have removed the journal and editor names for privacy.

letter from an editor
Photo by Scott Kidder

Dear Dr. Adamson,

Congratulations on your recent excellent paper. May I ask if you specifically targeted your paper for the “Journal Y” (a relatively new “look-alike” entry to the field in 2013)?  I’m an Associate Editor for the more established “Journal X.” I was curious to what extent authors may be submitting to other “look-alike” journals to intentionally vs. not.

Thx,

Dr. Editor

Associate Editor

“Journal X”


 

Dear Dr. Editor,

Thank you for contacting me about this recently published paper. I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why I chose to submit to the open access “Journal Y” instead of the well-respected “Journal X” and I would like to hear your thoughts. I am cautious about predatory journals, and I consciously wrestled with the pros and cons in journal selection.

I originally prepared this manuscript for submission for “Journal X,” where I thought it would fit nicely in one of the online-only sections. When the manuscript was finalized, I received an invitation to contribute to a special issue of “Journal Y” that included a publication fee waiver.

Having never heard of this look-alike journal before, I read and considered these elements: credibility, cost, ethics, and time to the wide-spread dissemination of the findings.

First, I checked the credibility of “Journal Y” by reading past issues. The quality was good, and they had published a review paper in 2014 by my research heroes Drs. A and B. I thought, “if this journal is good enough for A and B, it is certainly good enough for me.”

I noticed the “Journal Y” had very low or no publication fees for being Open Access, and this signaled a difference from predatory journals with low standards and high profits. Since my current trainee funding does not cover publication fees, the paid Open Access option through your journal was not an option unless I used personal savings.

The University of Washington Biomedical Research Integrity Series lectures on the ethics of responsible publishing changed my opinions about Open Access vs subscription journals. I take seriously my moral responsibility as an HIV researcher to communicate findings in a format accessible to scientists and patients in communities disproportionately affected by this disease. Many of my brilliant economist and mathematician colleagues are based at small institutions and companies with limited funding to purchase articles.

At the end, I am pleased to have chosen “Journal Y” over “Journal X” for several reasons:

  • Less than 8 weeks passed from my submission to publication (including two rounds of revisions)
  • I received rigorous and helpful peer-review comments
  • No cost for Open Access (with invitation to the special issue, or low cost otherwise)
  • Within the first month, the full text has been downloaded more than 200 times in six continents.
  • Last year I submitted a different and very good, in my opinion, paper to your journal. After more than two months, I received a rejection from with peer-review comments that were so mean and personal it was borderline unprofessional. While this look-alike journal does not have the prestige or impact factor of X, I see my younger generation progressively placing more value on the quality of content, free accessibility, dialogues, and citations of individual papers rather than on the sum of journal impact factors on a CV.

Because of these reasons, I am committed to Open Access publishing when I have the opportunity and sufficient funds to do so. I admit there is quite a lot for me to still learn about scientific publications, and so I would greatly appreciate your expert feedback on these considerations.

Thank you for taking the time to read my paper and reach out to me personally with questions.

Sincerely,

Blythe Adamson


 

Dear Dr. Adamson,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply.  I’m glad to hear that this was an intentional (vs. accidental) decision. Please also accept my apologies for the “borderline unprofessional” peer review comments you received when submitting to “Journal X”; definitely discouraging to authors.

I will pass on your comments to the other Associate Editors of “Journal X” on our quarterly conference call for discussion on how we can improve and hopefully attract your future papers.

Best regards,

Dr. Editor

Associate Editor

“Journal X”

Statements of purpose: a view from the admissions committee

I recently had the opportunity to serve on a graduate program admissions committee and had a few reflections on the application process that I wanted to share. In particular, I wanted to give some advice to applicants on what makes a good statement of purpose and how you can use that document to put your best foot forward in the application process.

Graduate programs in health economics and outcomes research (HEOR) recruit from a number of undergraduate and master’s-level fields. This intersection of disciplines, in addition to the lack of undergraduate programs specific to HEOR, creates a unique set of considerations that applicants need to keep in mind when writing their statements of purpose. Here are a few brief tips on writing a successful statement of purpose in your application to HEOR programs:

Tip 1. Establish your connection to the field

First, it needs to be abundantly clear to the reader that the applicant understands what HEOR is. While some students – such as those with a previous master’s degree – may have been able to engage directly with the field, others have to demonstrate their familiarity more explicitly. This advice is especially applicable to clinicians, who bring an invaluable perspective to HEOR studies but are rarely able to participate in research during their clinical training.

Writers can demonstrate an understanding of HEOR in their statements of purpose by talking about specific classes they have taken or mentors who have talked to them about the field. It’s also vital for applicants to demonstrate an understanding of current issues in the field. Keeping up with HEOR blogs and journals is a great way to gain this understanding! The Academic Health Economists’ Blog and Healthcare Economist are among my favorites.

Tip 2. Clarify your goals

Next, the admissions committee will be curious of what your goals are and how a graduate degree in HEOR might help get you there. This means writing about what you plan to do after graduate school. Nobody is going to hold you accountable to what you say in your statement of purpose, but discussing goals demonstrates to the admissions committee that you have reflected on your future and that you can be somewhat self-directed should you enter the program. Graduate school should not be a way of postponing your entry into the “real world.”

Tip 3. Demonstrate your knowledge of the specific program

It’s important to demonstrate abundantly that you have researched your target programs thoroughly. Especially for smaller programs, it’s helpful to know how you heard about the program. If a mentor suggested you apply, mention this! With the HEOR community being relatively small, there’s a good chance that someone on the admissions committee will know your mentor, which is likely to work in your favor.

Tip 4. Polish your writing

Graduate training is a massive investment for both the school and the student. When making decisions about who to admit, the admissions committee uses the statement of purpose to assess your writing skills, the rationale for your decision to apply to their program, and your suitability for a career in HEOR. A well-written statement can pique the interest of everyone on the committee, while a poorly written one can make a candidate seem less interesting, even when every other part of their application looks ideal. Polish your statement into a masterpiece that showcases your enthusiasm for the field and you’ll be a step ahead in the admissions process.

Book Review

Difficult Choices Between What is Best for Science or Best for Our Career

rigor_mortis1

RIGOR MORTISHow Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions
By Richard Harris
288 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price $28

In “Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy ScienceCreates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions,” Richard Harris provides compelling evidence through a series of stories and statistics that medical research is plagued by unnecessary errors despite our technology, effort, money, and passion to make a positive impact. This review takes the perspective of a graduate student in health sciences with the aim of assessing the value of Rigor Mortis for the next generation of scientists.  While the book focuses more on sloppy biological science, his concerns are equally valid in the areas of data science and disease modeling.

Richard Harris, a journalist at NPR who writes about science, has started an important conversation about the broad impact of our current scientific culture: we are publishing too many scientific studies which may have false or unreproducible results. Graduate students in health science research or related fields should not be surprised by Harris’s premise. The pressure to produce a large quantity of publications, instead of fewer and higher quality papers, weighs on every grad student in the world.

In 2017, the CHOICE Institute asked its members to read Rigor Mortis and discuss its implications for our field. One emerging theme was that trainees need to be able to report unethical behaviors without fearing adverse consequences. While required annual courses from the University of Washington Biomedical Research Integrity Series challenge students to reconsider their own personal conflicts of interest in publishing research, this remains a difficult ideal to implement in the face of other pressures. Around the lunch table in our grad student lounge, the book sparked an uncomfortable conversation about multiple testing during regression model fitting, and the long stretch of grey area between a dusty, pre-specified analysis plan and our shiny, new hypothesis-generating exploratory findings.

Harris’s storytelling reminded me of a book I love by David Quammen called “Spillover.” Both Rigor Mortis and Spillover are written by distinguished journalists about very complicated and technical problems. Using New York Times reader-friendly language,  both authors include conversations with scientists from around the world to share their stories so that the layperson can understand.

Both books highlight a common dilemma in academia: Should I do what is best for science or what is best for my career? Further, is this an incentives problem or a system problem? The current structure and business of research guide us to make choices that will enhance our career, while science is still often perceived as an altruistic pursuit for the greater good. The book offers a challenge to academic researchers: who among us can claim “no conflict of interest”?

rigor_mortis2
“Attending the panel that rejected his paper proposal, the grad student inwardly trashes each presenter’s research.” — Lego Grad Student

Applying the book’s messages to health economics and outcomes research

I experienced this dilemma when deciding whether to share my HIV disease model. Scientific knowledge and methodology should be completely transparent, yet software coding to implement these techniques is intellectual property that we should not necessarily give away for free. My dilemma isn’t unique. Disease modelers everywhere struggle with this question: should we post our Excel spreadsheet or R code online for others to review and validate and risk having our discovery poached?

This is just one example of tension Harris highlights in his book, and why it is so complex to change our current scientific culture. Scientific advancement is ideally a collective good, but individuals will always need personal incentives to innovate.

Key book takeaways for young scientists

  1. Use valid ingredients
  2. Show your work
  3. No HARKing (Hypothesizing After the Results of the study are Known)
  4. Don’t jump to conclusions (and discourage others from doing this with your results)
  5. Be tough. People may try to discredit you if your hypothesis goes against their life’s work, or for any number of reasons.
  6. Be confident in your science.
  7. Recognize the tension between your own achievement and communal scientific advancement

Further discussions for fixing a broken system

  1. If money is being wasted in biomedical science and research, how do we fix the system to save money without sacrificing incentives to produce valuable innovations? One of our CHOICE Institute graduates, Carrie Bennette, asked this very question in cancer research and you can read about her findings here.
  2. Incentives need to be changed. Academic promotions should not be dependent on the number of our publications but the quality and impact of our contributions. Can we change the culture obsessed with impact factor and promote alternatives such as the H-index or Google Scholar metrics?
  3. Academic tenure systems are antiquated. How do we balance the trade-offs between hiring a post-doc or hiring a permanent staff scientist? Post-doc positions train the next generation and are cheap, however they result in workflow discontinuity from frequent turnover. Permanent staff scientists are trained to stay for a longer period of time, but would disrupt an engrained academic pipeline.

Conclusion

I think all students in any science-related field would benefit from reading this book. Cultural and systematic change will happen faster when we have uncomfortable conversations at the table with our colleagues and mentors. Additionally, we need to take the baton Richard Harris has passed us and start running with our generation of colleagues toward finding and implementing solutions. As our influence in our respective fields grows, so too does our responsibility.

Rigor Mortis is available in hardcover on Amazon for $18.65 and Audible for $19.95.

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