A Few Simple Tips to Getting Your Medical Education Research Project Published

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If you’re reading this post, it means that you’re interested in medical education research and are looking for guidance on how to get started. My focus here is on the early steps that should be considered carefully, and if adequately addressed, will increase the chance of getting your medical education research published.


1. What is your research question?

As one embarks on a medical education research project, drilling down on the specific question that’s being asked is critical. The research project usually relates to an educational or clinical problem that your research team is trying to address. A team member should conduct a literature review, ideally with the support of a librarian to ensure a proper search. After reading the related literature, the team should be well-informed to build the conceptual framework for the unique, specific and answerable question to be studied. PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) is the most common structured framework for developing clinical research questions and can be used for medical education research.

For example, if you are studying how effective a course on airway management in the ICU is for incoming Critical Care fellows, a simple PICO framework would be:

Population: First-year critical care fellows
Intervention: Airway management course
Comparison: Baseline airway management performance prior to the course
Outcome: Standardized checklist score on simulated patient with respiratory failure requiring rapid sequence intubation


2. How are you going to answer this question?

Once the question is well-developed, the next step is to determine the approach to answering that question. What is a validated assessment tool to answer the question? If the best approach is a survey, one needs to adhere to best practices for survey development. What statistical approaches will be used to determine if there are differences in assessment scores or which survey questions show a meaningful response? If possible, a quick consult from a statistician early in the process is helpful. They can provide feedback on the proposed methodology and suggestions for the best statistical tests to assess the results. It may save you from developing a fatally flawed study that has no hope for publication.


3. Engage Your IRB Early.

If you’re going to submit your research for consideration of publication, most medical journals will not consider publishing research papers without some sort of local Institutional Review Board (IRB) evaluation. While many medical education research papers are considered exempt by IRBs, each local IRB varies in practice and must review the submission. It will save you considerable time and headache to reach out to the IRB early since IRBs and journals are much less enthusiastic if you do this after the fact.


4. What is your target journal and type of submission?

If you have made it this far into the project, having gone through the time and effort to develop a research question, figure out the assessment tool(s) and statistical methods to answer it and engage the IRB, you’re clearly serious about publishing your results. A critically important decision in the process is determining which journal to submit to for publication. Would this journal be interested in publishing the paper?  There are a few ways to figure this out. Review recent publications in journals of interest. Do they publish the type of work being pursued? If not sure, reach out to the journal editor with a presubmission inquiry. This is just a fancy way of saying send an email to the editor explaining your project and asking whether it would be a fit for the journal. Ideally, you would include an abstract or outline to explain the project more clearly.

I frequently receive these types of inquiries and often guide authors as to whether their proposal is a fit or if there are ways to modify it to be a fit. It is also important to look at the types of submissions the journal publishes. The work may not meet the bar for an Original Research publication due to limitations of the study but may be acceptable in another category of submission that has a lower bar for publication. This is another opportunity to check with the journal editor to ask for an opinion if this is unclear to you.


Conducting medical education research is rewarding and receiving the academic credit for publishing this work sets you apart as a medical educator. Paying careful attention to these early steps should increase your chances of getting your work published.


Nitin Seam, MD, ATSF is the Associate Chief, Senior Research Physician and Fellowship Director of the NIH Critical Care Medicine Department. He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at George Washington University as well as Uniformed Services University. Dr. Seam's academic interests include mechanical ventilation and ARDS as well as the effective use of technology in medical education, such as web-based learning and high-fidelity simulation. He is the Editor-in-Chief of ATS Scholar, a health professions education journal. In the past, he served as digital media editor of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (AJRCCM) and as a member of the AJRCCM editorial board. He is also the past chair of the Critical Care Section of the Society for Simulation in HealthCare and past chair of the Web Editorial Committee for the American Thoracic Society.