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An Introduction to Publishing as a Medical Student: Letters to the Editor

‘Letters to the editor’ are a great way to practice critically analysing research, providing your own perspective and writing a response. Picking up a journal in medical education is a great place to start, but any journal in the fields you are interested in will be suitable. Read the articles and write a medical-student perspective in reply to one you find interesting. Just make sure you follow the journal’s rules regarding the correct form and content of your letter. The editors want to know what medical students have to say, and so do their readers. It counts as a publication when you apply for the AFP, and it allows you to start contributing straight away.

What types of articles can you submit as a student?

The simplest and quickest way to publish is to write a letter to reply to articles from any journal on any topic of your choice. Some letters are a direct reply to an article that has already been published in the journal, while others could be about a new topic that you are passionate about. Journals want the opinion of medical students, especially when it comes to medical education.

Beyond writing a simple letter to the editor, you could instead aim for a full text publication. These take far longer to write, but are more valuable to you later on in your career as you apply for registrar positions.

BMJ Student

Taking the British Medical Journal as an example, we will explain the different types of articles you can submit. BMJ Student requires you to fill in a “Student pitch form”. The form is assessed by the BMJ team and if they like your idea, you will be invited to submit a first draft for your article. Your article may then progress to get published, although this is not guaranteed. The key to getting published is to ensure that the information you are presenting is new and currently relevant to medical students. It should aim to change the way fellow students think after reading your excerpt.

Article categories:

  1. Life articles: Exploring difficult topics in studying or practicing medicine, how to best succeed in a clinical placement

  2. Opinion: Well-argued topics that are based on facts

  3. Careers: Tips on how to improve your portfolio, application for jobs

  4. Editorial: Editorials talk about larger healthcare issues. These could be about a specific drug, overall research problems, new research findings, government and healthcare and the list goes on.

More specifications on BMJ Student can be found on the website.

While you can write these full text articles, you can also use a letter to reply to already published articles from any of these categories. Your reply would include discussion on additional evidence that agrees or opposes the content of the article.

How to Write a Letter to the Editor

Step 1: Open the letter with a simple salutation

A simple “To the Editor:” is sufficient!

Step 2: Grab the reader’s attention

To grab the attention of your reader, you have to make your opening sentence a strong, bold, creative and maybe even add a tinge of humour! Tell readers what the letter is about and compel them to continue reading.

Step 3: Start with explaining what the letter is about

Tell the reader why you are writing this letter, what is it all about? We don’t need a long-winded story, highlight the main points and facts from the very beginning.

Step 4: Why is this issue is important?

Next, explain to the reader why what you’re talking about is so important! Make the reader appreciate the importance of the topic even though it may not have been something they were interested in or realise the significance of before reading your letter! Explain this in lay man terms for all readers to comprehend.

Step 5: Give evidence for any praise or criticism

If you are writing a letter discussing a past or pending action, be clear in showing why this will have good or bad results in the given context. What changes should be made to current actions? What are the consequences of past action? Who will these actions affect?

Step 6: State your opinion about what should be done

You can write a letter just to ”vent,” or to support or criticize a certain position, but you may also have suggestions about what could be done to improve the situation. What suggestions do you have to improve the current situations and how can this be achieved?

How to get published?

Shorter letters have a better chance of being published. Can anything in your letter be cut or condensed? If you have you have a lot to say, you may want to check with the editor to see if you could write a longer opinion feature or guest column.

Journals publish letters that are well-written and articulate, and that either represent specific points of view on an issue, or that thoughtfully analyse complex issues and events. Stay away from ranting about your personal thoughts. Address issues in a calm and rational way!

Sign the letter

Be sure to write your full name (and title, if relevant) and to include your address, phone number, and e-mail address.

Examples of Medical Journals

Medical Education Journals

  1. Academic Medicine

  2. Medical Education

  3. Advances in Health Sciences Education

  4. Medical Teacher: An International Journal of Education in the Health Sciences

  5. Teaching and Learning in Medicine

  6. Journal of Medical Ethics

  7. Medical Education Online

  8. BMC Medical Education

  9. MedEdPORTAL: The Journal of Teaching and Learning Resources

  10. Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development

  11. British Medical Journal (BMJ)

  12. The New England Journal of Medicine

  13. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association

  14. The Lancet

  15. PLOS Medicine

Author: Sherie George

Sherie George is a 4th year medical student at the University of Dundee. She’s an international student from Singapore and has a First Class Honours degree in Biomedical Science. Her personal interests are medical education, rheumatology, oncology, haematology and Obstetrics.

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