Renovating Your Manuscript Tile by Tile

By: Mary Douglass Smith, PharmD and Spencer E. Harpe, PharmD, PhD, MPH, FAPhA

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry. A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient, it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions.


We’ve all seen bathroom renovations fit for Architectural Digest and those that are…epic fails. The process can be immensely rewarding or the source of much frustration. Educational scholarship is no different. Alignment of all the steps in the process is a key to success. 

What are the consequences of an inconsistent message? Scathing reviewer comments. Rejected manuscripts. If the manuscript is published, readers may not be able to see the value in your findings. The paper gets lost to obscurity! In the worst case, inconsistent messages within the article may mislead or confuse readers. Time, effort, and even author credibility are at risk without employing strategies to provide a clear, streamlined contribution to the literature. The overall vision (objective), materials (methods), and processes (analysis) must be carefully aligned to arrive at a desirable and useful end product (conclusions). Let’s take each in turn.

Before running to the home improvement store, consider the main goal of the renovation. Are you creating a spa-like oasis? Updating a second bathroom for guests? Understanding the intended use and final vision is crucial since it guides all subsequent steps. In educational scholarship, the overall objective and intended contribution must be clear prior to collecting data. Maintaining a keen focus on how your project connects to the existing literature is important and requires staying abreast of literature in the area. Reference managers and other resources can help facilitate this. Think of these as the scholarly equivalent of Pinterest boards containing your design ideas and inspiration. 

With a clear vision, you can purchase supplies (or collect data in the case of scholarship). The supplies must align with the vision. Buying cheap tiles for a grand, spa-like master bathroom may not align with your vision. In scholarship, “budget” extends beyond financial considerations to include resources like time and effort. Focusing on your question or objective should guide the methods you chose, the type(s) of data you need, and the data collection procedures. 

With supplies in hand the renovation can start. Prep the floor. Align the tile joints. Make sure the pattern continues correctly as you lay the tile. Having to remove a tile you recently laid costs time (and perhaps money). Testing on a small scale is helpful. Lay a tile with no mortar to check the spacing. Similar concepts apply with data analysis. Before jumping into the primary analysis, familiarize yourself with your data by examining descriptive statistics for quantitative data or reading (and re-reading) qualitative data. In scholarship, the analysis must align with the collected data and answer your original question. Lack of alignment is a common problem seen in manuscript pre-review. 

Be realistic in your efforts and know you will need to polish and refine. For tiles accidently placed sideways, be ready to remove and reposition them. For a poorly selected statistical test, tangential or ill-fitting references, or weak interpretations, take corrective action. You may encounter a problem that is beyond your skill level. Seeking help is an important step to success, not an indication of failure.

Wrapping up your home renovation means cleaning up and adding final touches. For scholarship, this might include developing final conclusions and preparing a manuscript. The conclusions must align with the analyses you performed and should answer the original question. 

Ensuring alignment and consistency is important, but doesn’t have to be complicated. Following are relatively simple strategies to facilitate alignment and consistency.

StrategyTips for success
Create a clear, concise research question Creating strong research questions is a first step. Write your question down. Refer to it regularly. 
Stay on courseDuring data collection, refer to your guiding question and confirm you are still on course. When addressing challenges, contemplate whether solutions pull the objective from the original intent. 
Keep an idea parking lotOther questions or scholarship paths will arise. Create a document to capture these ideas for future work.
Keep all co-authors in syncEach author may have a different interpretation of the major highlights from the analysis. Achieving consensus and having a clear plan can avoid misalignment. Schedule regular check-ins. 
Coordinate manuscript writing Consider “non-linear” writing. Writing the results during analysis can be distracting (too many “what if?” questions) and slow progress. Write the introduction and discussion simultaneously to emphasize how the background, objective, and implications are aligned.
Emphasize coherence in your writing and get feedbackStorytelling is critical when preparing your manuscript.1,2 Coherence helps the reader.3  Consider what type of critical friend you need to get optimal feedback. 
Craft titles deliberatelyGood titles highlight your message, pique interest, show value, and attract readers.4

After the time, effort, and resources put into your renovation or manuscript, you want to make sure it’s gleaming! If you have a wobbly, crumbling paper, what strategies will you use to polish and align it? 

References:

  1. Dahlstrom MF. Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111 Suppl 4(Suppl 4):13614-13620. doi:10.1073/pnas.1320645111 
  2. Corless V. The role of narrative in science. Advanced Science News. https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/the-role-of-narrative-in-science/. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  3. Lingard L, Watling C. Chapter 18: Coherence: keeping the reader on track. In: Lingard L, Watling C, eds. Story, Not Study: 30 Brief Lessons to Inspire Health Researchers as Writers. Springer; 2021:119-125.
  4. Lingard L. Bonfire red titles. Perspect Med Educ. 2016;5(3):179-181. doi: 10.1007/s40037-016-0267-3

Author Bio(s):

Mary Douglass Smith is the Director of Experiential Education and Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy in Clinton, SC. Her research interests include burnout, well-being and personality assessments. She enjoys sitting on the beach with a good book and playing Scattergories with her three daughters. 

Spencer E. Harpe is Professor of Pharmacy Administration at Midwestern University College of Pharmacy (Downers Grove, IL Campus). He teaches topics related to healthcare quality, program development and evaluation, quality improvement methods, statistics, and epidemiology. His educational scholarship interests include methods to improve statistics and research education, engagement in research and evaluation activities, and the reporting and uptake of evidence-based practices in education. In his free time, Spencer enjoys travel, photography, and building with LEGO.


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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