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Simplicity and clarity are the keys to success

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Dr. Steven Eckert is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Implants. We learnt from his experience, what makes a compelling research article.

Where do you have to start from to write a scientific article?

Dr. Eckert: You need to begin with a research project that you believe in. First you have to ask yourself: "What topic really interests me?" If you lack enthusiasm in the project, this will be obvious to the reader. Unfortunately, many people are in a position where they must publish, even though they are not enthusiastic about the topic. Such a situation may appear with the common justification: "My mentor told me to do it." And in the end, they do it just to please the mentor, without having any investments in the project.

What is a research question and how should it be formulated?

Dr. Eckert: Postulating the research question is one of the first methodological steps the investigator has to take when undertaking research. The question needs to be clear, focused and concise. You should be able to explain your research in one or two straightforward sentences. Your audience needs to understand easily and quickly what you investigated and why this was important.

Once you are ready to write the scientific article, what parts should be included?

Dr. Eckert: Although there may be some differences among the scientific journals, the main parts are the abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion and conclusions. A suggestion that I would like to give is to request the submission guidelines from the journal that you want to publish in and follow them closely. Writing a scientific article is a highly regimented process. Don't deviate from the guidelines and don't fight them...simply comply (laugh).

How should the researcher deal with his/her research?

Dr. Eckert: You do the research because you want to confirm your thoughts or answer a scientific question. If you knew the answers in advance, there would be no reason to conduct research. You don't want to do research where the average reader already knows the results. You want to research something for which you have the feeling of being the only one who has found the answer.

It's a pretty exciting feeling that you have answers that others do not have. On the other hand, you always have to put yourself in a non-biased position and be able to evaluate your research objectively in a detached way so as to understand when you should rethink your clinical question.

What are the current percentages of publication?

Dr. Eckert: Approximately 65% of articles submitted to most scientific journals are rejected prior to content review. Submitted articles may be rejected because the content may not be appropriate for that particular journal, or because the writing style is not acceptable or because the guidelines are not followed.

Plagiarism could be another reason to see the article rejected...

Dr. Eckert: In the last few years we have seen the development of several software tools that can identify similarity between current journal submissions and previously published journal submissions. Almost every journal has a level of similarity that they consider unacceptable because there is, indeed, a risk of plagiarism.

How does the review process progress for the 35% of submissions that clear the initial hurdle?

Dr. Eckert: After the initial sorting of articles, the ones that meet criteria may be sent for content review which is generally performed by a peer, usually more than one, from the scientific community. Of the 35% that go through the peer review process, another third to half are declined. After all is said and done, the number of articles that are eventually published will represent a small portion of the originally submitted articles. Although the numbers sound somewhat discouraging, scientific publications probably do better at being accepted for publication than submissions to the lay press. Ultimately, it is important to realize again that you need to identify a research project that truly interests you, one that answers scientific questions, beyond the need for a publication. After all, if your research gives you information that you did not have previously, even if you don't publish it, the research itself will be of benefit to you and your clinical practice.

Do you think there are ways to optimize the review process? Sometimes the reviewers are not found or available, sometimes it takes too long…

Dr. Eckert: I would love to optimize the process. I have been told that for some medical journals the reviews must returned within a very short period. Reviewers are expected to accept or to reject the opportunity to review within days of having received the request. At that point, the reviewer advises the editor of their ability to review and then the expectation is that the review is conducted quickly. If the reviewer is not available, then of course they look for someone else immediately.

Unfortunately, the process is not as straightforward as this in dentistry. We have some reviewers who delay a review for six or eight weeks without even informing the editor whether they will do a review or not. This is a real problem. Obviously, if we can identify these folks we won't ask them to review in the future but there are times when a trusted reviewer simply falls off the map for a period of time. I would truly appreciate it if reviewers were to take their task seriously and, at the very least, notify us if they prefer to review less or perhaps not at all.

What do you think is best, a single paper in a high impact factor journal or two or three minor papers in a scientific journal with a lower impact factor?

Dr. Eckert: Traditionally, articles in the dental field are rarely published in high impact factor journals like Nature. In dentistry, readers are usually more interested in sequential increases in knowledge. These are situations where the greatest impact comes from stepwise gains in understanding rather than experiencing one huge, life changing, scientific event. The answer to this question becomes rather practical, the distribution of scientific dental journals covers a range of impact factors that are somewhere between one and seven.

I know that in other fields of research, investigators prefer not to publish until they have a more complete answer. However, you can spend your entire career working on a path that is just a short parallel distance from the path of "knowledge nirvana" without ever actually reaching it. With big projects, this is even more difficult...well if you do hit you can really hit big, but if you don’t, you might risk having missed throughout your career.

Publish or perish is a phrase coined to describe the pressure in academia to rapidly and continually publish academic work to sustain or further one's career. Could you comment on this?

Dr. Eckert: Perhaps the first thing to state is that not all of the authors who submit to the IJOMI (International Journal of Oral & Maxillofacial Implants) are involved in university-based practices. Many of our authors are private practitioners who have an interest and a desire to publish scientific articles. These individuals do not fall under the publish or perish banner. In several countries, the achievement of an academic rank or the qualification of professor often coincides with a rather dramatic reduction in scientific productivity. Indeed, full professors often have their names associated with scientific submissions, but then, when you talk to them about their submissions, it's not unusual to discover that they had little knowledge of the topic.

Once authors have reached a specific level in their academic careers, they may still provide ideas to junior faculty but their burning desire to continue to be at the forefront of the future research may diminish. Paradoxically, it seems that when you become a professor in other countries, you may publish even more because your record of scientific publications may be so strong that the demand for your participation in research might be overwhelming.

But don't you have to prove your track record of publications to get access to research grants for example?

Dr. Eckert: It depends a lot on the academic institution you're in. Some universities are totally committed to research while others are dedicated to clinical practice and general dental education. Of course, not everyone follows this path, there are certainly many who are very active in research and education throughout their careers. It would be rare to see individuals who refuse to work with others, but some gravitate towards other areas of interest.

To obtain funding for research it is often necessary to accomplish a number of different things. Not only do you have to be able to produce cogent research topics, but you have to be able to organize the implementation of that research in such a way that it eventually achieves publication. How many times have we seen individuals who were asked to participate in a certain research project only to find that their ability to finish the project is insufficient. Hence, the study may be done, but unless and until it is published, it remains in obscurity.

So, what are the keys to success in the end?

Dr. Eckert: The key is to understand that with scientific writing you don't write for the masses, you don't write to entertain. Please don't get me wrong, our goal is not to be tedious, but we also have to be honest in reporting that many treatment protocols are somewhat repetitive. This makes sense especially when we consider that many studies are replication studies or are testing only minor variations, which however, lead to improvements in care delivery.

When it comes to writing a scientific article, the style needs to be more journalistic and less artistic. In journalism, for example, you have to follow the Five Ws rule—who, what, when, where and why—so it's pretty easy to see if you have provided a comprehensive analysis of the topic.

More and more often I see scientific articles in which introductions or discussions start from the beginning of time relative to the specific subject. Authors need to know how to focus on to their specific topic. We do need to know where we are today, to do that all we need is a calendar and a roadmap. There is a frequent trend of authors to write the world’s great novel. But that's not the way in science. We need to see material presented in a simple, clear way and avoid creating mazes! Likewise, there are no awards granted for the longest article of the year. If we can be direct, I think that this provides a true benefit to the reader. After all the reader is our consumer and, at the end of the day, what they read needs to be understandable while still provoking thought.

Dr. Steven Eckert attended the Ohio State University College of Dentistry and completed a General Practice Residency at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago. He entered graduate training at the Mayo Clinic in the specialty of prosthodontics. He completed this program along with a Master of Science degree and remained on staff at the Mayo Clinic where he served as Graduate Program Director for Prosthodontics for more than a decade. He remains Professor Emeritus in Dentistry at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

His professional career has allowed him the opportunity to be involved in many organizations within dentistry. He is Past President of the Academy of Osseointegration, American Academy of Maxillofacial Prosthetics, Academy of Prosthodontics and the American Board of Prosthodontics.

Dr. Eckert has written extensively about implant dentistry. He is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Implants.

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