An Alternative Way to Get Published - Letter to the Editor

I had a letter to the editor published recently and thought I should share the process for those that may be interested in doing the same. While I was writing my article, I found that most of the advice on research tends to be tailored to publishing original research. So this blog post is going to break down some tips specifically for a letter to the editor.




Before getting into the details of writing a letter to the editor, here are some reasons people try to get published in medical school.

  • To explore interests in a particular topic or specialty

  • You may be interested in a career in academia

  • Publications can be used to strengthen job applications.However you shouldn’t do this just to tick a box on your application. Requirements can evolve over time. For example, we’ve seen that additional degrees and publications will no longer count towards foundation training applications from next year. (despite this, publications can still be useful if you’re looking to apply to the Specialised (previously Academic) Foundation Programme

  • For your personal development

Trying to publish can be very time consuming, so it’s important to know why you’re trying to pursue this before getting started.


What is a letter to the editor?

This is a critique of original research that has already been published. This can be a more accessible and less time-consuming way to get a publication. If you do get published, it will be in the same journal that the original paper was published in. This saves you the hassle of trying to work out the best journal for you to submit your research to.


Pros

  • They are much quicker to write than original research

  • They are easier to write solo if you are struggling to find a supervisor


Cons

  • The short word count can be very limiting if you feel you have a more detailed opinion to share

  • They are less impactful and have a less significant contribution to scientific literature compared to original research

Before you start writing

To maximise your chances of getting published, you need to do thorough research and preparation before you start writing anything.


The first thing you need to do is find an interesting piece of research that you’d like to base your letter on. When choosing a research paper, make sure you have something interesting to say in your letter. For example, you could discuss important points the article has missed, critique the study design or methodology, or you can refer to similar papers that have reached a different conclusion.


Make sure that the original research you are writing about has been published recently. One of the main challenges of writing a letter to the editor is the tight deadline for submission. For example, I had to ensure my letter was submitted within 3 weeks of the print issue date of the original article.


As you need to write your letter fairly quickly, there are some things you need to do to make the process easier. Check the formatting regulations for the journal you are submitting to. This includes things such as word count (this is typically no more than 500 words), referencing style and any information that they may expect you to include on the cover letter or title page. You should also read some past examples of letters that the journal has already published to understand the style and format of letters that they typically accept.


Final tips before writing:

  1. Check whether your letter will result in a PubMed ID (PMID) as this is usually required for your publication to count in job applications. If you are trying to get published to strengthen your applications, it may be a waste of time if you put effort into getting published in a journal that is not indexed on PubMed.

  2. Check if it is free!!! Some journals have a very expensive publishing cost, especially if it’s an open access paper. However, some universities often cover these fees so be sure to do your research.

Writing the letter

The great thing about a letter to the editor is that it can be written in a day if you dedicate a block of time to it. Compared to other projects that can take months or even years to complete, this is a much easier process.


In terms of structure, it needs an introduction, a main body highlighting your key arguments, and a conclusion suggesting what should be done in the future. Make sure your letter is not too subjective, and not too negative either. If you have a point to criticise, make sure it’s backed up with a strong reference. Generally, you are expected to have 3-4 references in a letter to the editor, including the original research paper itself. You can use systematic reviews to help you choose your sources. For each reference you use, you should quote actual figures from the paper and include extra details such as the p-value. Link back each point to the original research paper you’re critiquing and make sure your points are actually relevant.


Getting published

Spend a good amount of time proofreading. If you happen to have a supervisor or co-author, get them to proofread your letter too.


Due to the fast cycle of publishing a letter to the editor, you may not have a lot of time to make revisions after submitting. It is better to spend more time before submitting to ensure you meet all the requirements of the journal. Check thoroughly for spelling and grammar and ensure your letter is concise - you do not want to get rejected due to unclear writing.


To give you an idea of how quick the process can be, here’s my personal experience. I submitted in mid-December, got accepted less than a week later with no revisions to be made, received a proof of my article two weeks later and was given 48 hours to make any final corrections before being sent for publication. Finally, the letter was published at the end of February. From this you can see that you don’t get a lot of time to redraft your letter, and often if you are rejected you may have to write a completely new letter and start the whole process from the beginning.


I’ve linked my letter here so you can have an idea of the style and format to follow.


Here are some additional resources to help:


Hopefully this helps anyone looking to write and publish a letter to the editor!


Finally, although this blog post focused specifically on letters to the editor, there are some more ways to get published during medical school.

  • Completing summer research projects at your university

  • Submitting articles to platforms such as Student BMJ

  • Enter essay competitions that include publication as a prize

  • If you intercalated, you could try publishing your final research project/dissertation

Written by: Honey Ajisefini (Co-Founder of The Black & Forth Platform)


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