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4 Steps to Publishing Pilot Studies in Peer Reviewed Journals

Aug 10, 2022

The biggest focus of graduate students or researchers is publishing. However, researchers often fear that their study won’t give them the results they want. 

What if you pursue a project and you won’t be able to publish it later? 

This article will walk you through how to publish studies that are traditionally difficult to publish: pilot studies and negative results. 

Step 1: Find Your Story 

The very first step is to find the story in your results or your research.  

If you're struggling with creating a story, I suggest you download my scientific research paper checklist. It will help you start developing that story by starting with your data first.  

But when you have a pilot study, I want you to think about is what is the main thing you want someone to know from this data! 

Even if it's a pilot study, you could have learned a very important piece of information that will inform future studies. It is important to be able to share that lesson which makes it publishable. So, what I challenge you to do is start with the main thing they need to know. 

For example, in one of my pilot research papers, we created a method that allowed us to analyze corticosterone and lipids together. But we didn't have the time or the resources to be able to go through all the validation steps. We still thought what we did was really important for the field that might want to be able to do that later on. 

So, I published a paper on this and started with creating the main conclusion: 

I was able to take a very small volume of serum and perform a qualitative analysis on lipids and a quantitative analysis on corticosterone.  

Now, what's my story? First, I start with the method development process. Then, I need to show that steroids and lipids were analyzed in a single run. Finally, show that we could analyze lipids qualitatively and corticosterone quantitatively. 

If you can create a story, even if it's with negative results or a small number of samples, that's going to be the number one thing that results in whether you're actually going to get accepted and published. 

Step 2: How does the study contribute to your field? 

How are you contributing to your field?  

What is the significance?  

Why should this be published?  

This is the next thing that you need to really need to write, because you're going to include it in the cover letter for your paper, to the editor of the journal you're submitting it to, so you want to make sure that you know exactly why this deserves to be published. 

Why does everyone in your field need to know about this work that you're doing here? 

In the earlier example, the contribution is that there was a different way to analyze steroids and lipids. It may not be a validated method, but you can shorten your run and shorten your prep by analyzing your steroids with your lipids, instead of doing specific steroid analysis and specific lipid analysis.  

Once you have that statement down, write it down and have it ready to go. You're going to put it in your introduction. You're going to put it in your conclusion and you're going to put it in your cover letter for your paper. 

Step 3: Choose Your Medium 

The third thing that I want you to think about is the type of article that you are going to publish. A lot of people know how to publish regular research articles. However, whenever you have a pilot study or a study with a lot of negative results, it can be a lot more difficult to publish a regular research article. 

A different form that's really meant for your pilot studies is communications. Not every journal is going to have communications but look at the journal’s author's guidelines to see if they have communications or short articles as an option.  

In my example, communications allowed me to not have to do all the additional validation work because it was novel.  

Step 4: Appropriately Communicate Impact and Limitations 

My final tip is to appropriately communicate your results, the impact of the results, and the limitations of the results. I see a lot of people fail at whenever they are doing a study is they want to over-exaggerate. 

“This is the best thing in the world.” 

“There are no limitations here. Don't look too closely at what we're doing.” 

“This is true in the entire population even though we have an n =3.” 

Outlandish claims will always get you rejected from journals. However, presenting the novelty and limitations of your study is the best route to acceptance. 

One of the biggest reviews I had early on was you need to address these five limitations to accept this paper. Write in your paper the limitations of your study! 

If you are looking to write your first paper, make sure that you download my free scientific research paper checklist. It's a checklist that walks you step by step through how to write every single section of your paper and submit it and everything. You can download that it's completely free. 

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