By Maureen Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN editor-in-chief
When we get a manuscript submission, I always read the cover letter first to learn about the author and why the article was written. Often, the first sentence goes something like this: “I am a student and I’m submitting my capstone paper as required by my professor.” Or the letter may say, “My professor encouraged me to submit this paper, my capstone work.”
The paper is usually the very paper the student wrote and submitted to the professor. And that almost always means it’s not suitable for a professional journal.
The problem is not that we won’t consider manuscripts written by students—we sometimes welcome them, especially papers written by nurses who are experienced clinicians and working toward a graduate degree. The problem with the submissions I’m talking about here is inherent in the purpose of the papers themselves. Student papers are written primarily to demonstrate what the student knows about a subject; these papers tend to be expansive, cover the topic in a superficial way, and include a long list of references of books, articles, and Web sites (or, conversely, they may only have a few references, mostly Web sites, plus perhaps one much-cited textbook—thankfully, few are citing Wikipedia).
Student papers that describe themselves as “literature reviews” often have no information about the search strategy—and little synthesis. Instead, they contain a long list of various studies related to the topic, with no real discussion of key findings or filtering of the information for relevance. Student papers tend to cover what most nurses in practice already know. Writing them may help a student get a good overview of what’s known about a specific clinical topic or issue, but this doesn’t mean the papers should necessarily be published.
Articles written for professional journals have a different purpose. These articles, properly done, should be written with the reader in mind, presenting new information the reader needs to know or that provokes the reader to think about something in a different way. The reader should come away with new knowledge or a new perspective.
There are many good reasons that faculty should encourage students to write. For one, we need nurses at all levels to write about their work, and not enough of them do so. And the responsibility for nursing’s scholarly work cannot rest solely with academics and researchers; clinicians have the firsthand knowledge about care processes and outcomes, and they need to document their work. They need to communicate to the public about what it is that they do so that nurses’ work becomes more visible; they need to communicate to colleagues about what works and what doesn’t so that we can replicate successful quality improvement initiatives.
But in encouraging students to write, faculty members need to give the correct messages.
Here’s what faculty might tell students:
- Go to the journal’s Web site and review several articles similar to what you want to write. Note the tone, level of detail, sourcing. Search the journal to see if it recently published articles on a topic similar to what you want to write. Send a query letter to determine whether your topic is of interest.
- Review the submission guidelines. Pay special attention to the instructions for authors and to how to format the paper and the references. This isn’t just an academic exercise, but is necessary so that references appear correctly and are verifiable in online databases. Also keep in mind that many journals run software to detect plagiarism, and the results can be inaccurate if the software reads the references as part of the body of the manuscript because they are improperly formatted.
- Write the manuscript using the information you learned when preparing your capstone paper or thesis as a starting point. All information is not equal. Be selective. Perhaps include a case study, and focus on what’s new or important for nurses to know. In addition, write to the audience that makes up the readership of the journal. Use active voice; avoid jargon. If there’s a word limit, honor it.
- Be sure to use primary sources when providing citations to support facts. Ask the librarian to help you find the correct sources.
- Spell-check your article before you send it. Read it aloud. Ask a colleague to read it.
We often suggest that new authors invite a colleague or faculty member who has published in a peer-reviewed journal to be a coauthor. And perhaps faculty should rethink requiring all students to submit papers and instead only encourage those students whose papers go beyond competence and add to our knowledge or understanding of a topic. We want students to want to write, and their first experience with publishing shouldn’t be one in which they have little chance of success.