Research 101: Part 4

Getting published

In this series, Research 101, we are taking you behind the scenes of a research project at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), from start to finish.

We met the lead researcher, IWH Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, who told us about his study comparing trends in lost-time versus no-lost-time workers’ compensation claims in Ontario (Part 1). We learned how the research team overcame roadblocks during data collection (Part 2) and about the importance of getting feedback on early results (Part 3). Now, Smith is eyeing the critical step of getting his results published.

Early data ready to be reported

It’s the spring of 2009, and the first part of Smith’s study is essentially complete. Although he will still undertake a more detailed analysis of the type of injuries submitted as no-lost-time claims based on the coding work of Linda Kacur (see Part 2), he has analyzed the data already available, drawn some conclusions and confirmed these with his peers.

Now, he has enough information to document what factors, in general, are driving the relatively large drop in lost-time claims compared to no-lost-time claims in Ontario over the past 14 years. The question now is where to document them. That is, what scientific journals should Smith consider for publishing his findings based on claims data routinely collected by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board?

The decision is not as cut-and-dry as you might think. A number of factors determine which journals researchers approach when it comes time to publishing study results.

Choosing a journal

A number of factors are thrown into the mix when a scientist determines which journal to approach with an article, says Smith. They include the following:

  • Subject area or discipline of the journal

    Obviously, a journal must address the subject matter of the paper to even be considered. That doesn’t mean that Smith is limited to journals focusing on workplace safety and health. For example, if the impact of age on changing claim rates jumps out most in the research results, then I might write the paper with an emphasis on this area and approach a journal on aging, he says.

    A journal must also be peer-reviewed to even be in the running. A peer-reviewed journal means each article submitted for publication is judged by one or more independent experts and recommended for publication (usually with required revisions) before being accepted for publication.

  • The journal’s “impact factor”

    One of the most important considerations for any scientist is the publication’s “impact factor.” The impact factor is essentially a journal-rating system (published by Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports). It indicates how often the journal is cited in the scientific literature. Said to be a marker of a journal’s quality or importance to its field, the impact factor is based on a formula that looks like this:

    journal’s current-year impact factor =

    number of citations of articles published in journal during previous 2 years
    number of articles published during the previous 2 years

    The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has one of the highest impact factors among peer-reviewed clinical journals. Its 2007 rating (the most recent available) is 52.6, based on 32,132 citations to 611 papers published in 2005 and 2006.

    The journals serving researchers in the occupational health field tend to have considerably lower impact factors, most being below 3.0. For example, Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports an impact factor of 2.8, while the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation reports an impact factor of 2.1.

    Smith, like most scientists, will be most interested in publishing in the subject-related journal with the highest impact factor. There’s prestige associated with getting published in such a journal.

  • Previous experience with the journal

    A scientist will take into account previous experiences with a particular journal, or the experiences of peers. Was the experience positive? Negative? Why? says Smith. You want the publishing experience, including the quality and timeliness of reviews, to be a positive one.

  • Articles previously published in the journal

    If articles have been published on the same theme as the researcher’s findings, the journal may be more interested in adding depth to the thread of that “conversation,” so to speak. For example, Smith submitted the results of another study on compensation after injury to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine because it had published two articles on that subject in the previous year.

    In my submission letter to the editors, I mentioned these articles, suggesting that readers would be interested in what I have to say further to those findings, explains Smith. So I would choose a journal on that basis, even if its impact rating was not high.

  • Degree to which journal adds breadth to the scientist’s publication portfolio

    When research funding bodies appraise grant applications, they most certainly take a hard look at what the researcher has published and where. It’s not ideal if all of a researcher’s articles have only been published in one journal, says Smith.

  • Best chance of getting published

    A scientist knows when his or her work is excellent and when it is “merely good,” says Smith. If it’s a great, original study, a researcher will aim first at journals with higher impact ratings.

  • Opportunity to publish “open access” articles

    More and more, Smith, like many scientists, wants to publish in journals that offer “open access” to their articles. In other words, they allow free access to their papers online. Open access is not something journals necessarily offer for free, however. A researcher whose paper is accepted for publication usually has to pay — in the neighbourhood of US$1,500 in the occupational health field —to have the paper made freely available online.

    For example, if you see an “unlocked” article on the website of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, it means the author has paid to make it available to all, Smith says. Otherwise, readers would have to pay about US$20 to receive the full article.

    We’re beginning to incorporate funding requests into our grant applications to help pay for the open-access charge upon publication of research results, says Smith. I think it’s worth it. For a relatively small amount of money, more people can get access to your findings. Paying for open access, for example, would allow IWH to provide a direct link to the journal paper from its website.

Smith aims for two papers

In the end, Smith says he hopes to publish two studies based on his research comparing trends in lost-time claims and no-lost-time claims in Ontario. One would focus on trends in administrative data, using that information to help explain what is driving changing claim rates . The other more detailed paper will incorporate the results from Kacur’s coding to explore if the types of injuries submitted as no-lost-time claims have changed, and if these changes are different across industry groups and workplace size.

Publishing is essential to a research scientist’s career. It has an impact on promotions, awards and grants. For example, in April 2008, Smith received a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In assessing candidates, CIHR weighted published papers at 35 per cent of the total “mark,” so to speak — the most weight put on any area of assessment.

Scientists at my point in their career are expected to author or co-author about 10 papers a year, Smith says. So getting published is a big thing. And, like most endeavours, it’s a skill. You have to know what projects are likely to lead to publishable results. And you have to know your journals, and how to get your papers into those journals in a timely fashion.

In Part 5: Will the papers the research team writes be published?

Source: At Work, Issue 57, Summer 2009: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto