Features

The Added Value of Technical Communication to Medical Research Publications

By Deborah Hemstreet | STC Senior Member

When I first began working at Rambam Health Care Campus in 2011, I was inundated with the question, “What’s it like to no longer work in technical communication?”

On the surface, many people think working for a hospital does not involve technical communication. However, the definition of technical communication relates to far more than the world of high tech. In fact, since medicine is overflowing with specialties and sub-specialties with very specific terminology, the principles of technical communication are critically needed for medical and healthcare texts and media. This is particularly the case in today’s “publish or perish” world, where the number of medical and research publications is increasing with each passing year.

Technical Communication and Manuscripts for Publication

Technical communicators (TCs) have several core skills that are exactly what doctors and researchers need to produce high-quality research publications. Understanding the importance of these skills can open doors when representing our profession to medical/scientific publishers, hospitals, academic institutions, or individual doctors and researchers. It can also expand the fields to which we can add value and the contributions we can make to organizations.

Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks is helping to prepare a health or medical research manuscript for publication. As TCs, we have learned that the devil is in the details. This is often key in how the manuscript is written—clarity of message is essential. It is also central in the handling of references and ensuring the manuscript meets all the requirements of the journal to which it will be submitted.

The Horrors of Journal Instructions and More

Every publication has its own set of instructions, and these often involve a variety of minutiae including font and page size, margins, pagination, figuring out if headers or footers are allowed, determining the language standard (UK vs. U.S. English, etc.), and the exact format to be used for references. It is here that TCs can begin to apply their skills. Who else would have the patience and ability to take the author’s references, formatted in the Vancouver style, and meticulously change them to the legal citation style?

The knowledge TCs bring to this process is but one example of the value brought to a wide range of medical professionals. The surgeon authoring an article may know how to save a patient—but they often don’t know how to format a reference or document. The TC who helps the surgeon publish their research reveals how technical communication can facilitate sharing cutting-edge (pun intended) ideas.

Referencing

There is more to the insertion of academic references than their formatting. Today, many authors rely on programs such as EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley to locate citations and insert the reference into their paper. However, many authors forget that if there is an error in the source data, the output will also be wrong. Technical communicators can help ensure manuscript accuracy by using their attention to detail to verify each reference and ensure no citation errors are present. I have rarely worked on a manuscript that used EndNote or Medeley that was error-free.

It is also important to check how the references are used in the manuscript. For example, is an author referring to a quotation? If so, has the text been appropriately marked (quotation marks, etc.), and did the author provide a source for the exact quote, including the page on which it appeared (where relevant)?

These small factors can be central to the success of a research manuscript in terms of its publication and how the content is perceived by readers. In using their skills to address such factors, TCs can play a key—and highly appreciated—role in the sharing of important medical research across different fields.

Overcoming Self-Plagiarism

Another area where TC skills are invaluable relates to the issue of self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism occurs when researchers copy text, a figure, or a table of a prior paper that they wrote into a new paper for publication. Some authors erroneously believe that they own the copyright for the previously published content; others plan to revise into new, non-plagiarized content but forget to do so. Whatever the rationale, if the author does not rewrite the content, or get permission for its reuse and properly cite it, he or she could be charged with plagiarism—a serious offense in research circles.

Here, again, TCs can provide a valuable service by explaining the problem to the author and helping them overcome it. This is where writing and research skills are critical for choosing and implementing the best approach to the problem. One approach is for the TC to help the author summarize the original text in ways that are original and convey essential information without involving plagiarism.

In other cases, when the content is deemed critical for the new publication, a little research can reveal how to get permission to reproduce the content and to correctly cite it. In some cases, a fee paid to the copyright owner may be involved. A more challenging alternative is to know when it is possible to minimally refer to the essence of the copied text, and then refer the reader to the original publication. Clearly, this can become a learning opportunity for the author, helping them to avoid the problem in the future, and further proving the added value that you, the TC, brought to their publication.

Making the Manuscript Readable

Technical communicators usually have an eye for picking up the small nuances of issues such as capitalization and proper punctuation. But they also have a focus on simplicity. While the trend in the past was for research manuscripts to be written in as complex and convoluted a manner as possible, there is a new trend to focus on the readability of a manuscript.

Just because a sentence is “good” does not mean that it cannot be “better.” Eliminating excess verbiage is an essential skill, increasingly expected when publishing medical research. I have often challenged authors of manuscripts with this question, “Which is more important to you, keeping your text as is (no work), or making sure that reviewers enjoy reading your paper, and once published, readers easily understand it?” I’ve never had an author say “yes” to the first option.

Even if the manuscript is on a medical/scientific topic with which you are unfamiliar, if you finish reading the entire thing and still only have a vague idea of what the author is trying to say, dig in with all of your skills, starting with researching the topic on the Internet, and find out how other publications (in PubMed) have presented the topic. You can also ask the author questions to help clarify information for you.

The goal of this process is to make the author’s message organized, clear, unambiguous, and easy to access. In helping authors make their data and research more accessible, the added value of TCs translates into a strong return on investment. This is a critical selling point when offering technical communication skills to a hospital, institute, publisher, or individual author.

The Reward

Helping doctors and scientists develop their research manuscripts is no small task. It requires the utmost of all your TC skills, from research to fact checking to hardcore writing to document design. However, there is nothing more rewarding than when an author brings you his or her published paper and shows you that it was accepted in a world class publication like The Lancet.

DEBORAH HEMSTREET (D_Hemstreet@rambam.health.gov.il) received her MA in Technical Authorship from Sheffield Hallam University. She has worked in academia, high-tech, as an independent contractor, and most recently, is the Editorial Assistant for Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal and the English communications coordinator for the hospital administration. An active STC member, she has served as Vice President and President of the STC Israel Chapter (2005–2007). Her mantra is “communication is everything.” Connect with Deborah on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/deborahshemstreet/) or via her website (tech-challenged.com).

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