My unconventional pre-PhD publications

As of today, in the second semester of my PhD, I have three publications to my name.

One of them is on Hepatitis B virus infection epidemiology, one on climate change and health, and the last one on the environmental reservoirs of Vibrio cholerae. All of them are reviews. For someone like me, just starting out in science, this is just extraordinarily weird for multiple reasons.

First of all, people at my stage don’t usually write reviews- they publish their original work, however modest those findings may be. Reviews are usually for after you’ve spent a lot of time in a field, gained considerable experience, and know the important literature in your line of study closely enough to, you know, review it.

Secondly, just look at the subjects of my reviews- climate change, public health, microbiology. That’s an extremely confusing patchwork of topics.

All of this can be explained rather simply, in fact. Since I wasn’t able to do as much science as I would’ve liked (see rant here), there wasn’t much prospect of me publishing on the basis of my original research. In addition, public health research of the sort I was involved in often takes years to complete (especially longitudinal studies), and so it takes quite a while to get enough data to justify a manuscript. Finally, since I was so busy with my administrative duties, I could rarely manage time to sit down for data analysis and manuscript writing within office hours.

So the policy I kind of adopted was- take advantage of whatever you can.

None of these papers were planned ahead, and all of them are the results of chance happenings. The first two of these papers had nothing to do with the ‘science’ I did at my research institute, and were essentially side-hustles. All of them were submitted in response to paper invitations other people received, and fortuitously chose to involve me in the writing.

The Hepatitis B virus paper, for example, was in response to a paper invitation my Master’s thesis supervisor received. She’s a virologist, and supervised both me and my wife.

The topic of the paper was general- something to do with the Hepatitis B virus. Neither my wife nor I had published back then, so we thought we should take this opportunity to pump something out. We chose to focus on the status of the disease in Bangladesh, something we thought we could write somewhat comfortably about. I had previously done a course on systematic review in a public health university, and was itching to try the techniques I had learned. So we decided on databases, set up inclusion/exclusion criteria, made a search keyword- as you’d do in the case of a systematic review. My partner-in-crime scoured both online and offline databases to squeeze out every single published paper on Hepatitis B virus infection epidemiology in Bangladesh. We made excel tables to deal with the volume of information, agreed on key results, and submitted.

If you do get around to reading the paper– it’s open access too- you’ll note the structure is reminiscent more of a systematic than a narrative review. There’s a methodology section, for starters, and that is something you normally never see in a run-on-the-mill narrative reviews. I’m also quite proud of the first figure (not least because Microsoft Excel took notice!).

The climate change paper is even weirder, seeing it’s a field where I’ve only ever been tangentially involved with. This too was nothing more than a coincidence. The institute I worked in, the icddr,b, had a climate change department- and someone I knew from that section managed to secure a paper invitation. He knew of my English writing skills and chose to involve me in this project, and it fell on me to write and structure important parts of the paper before the first submission (and deal with reviewers’ comments, when they came. The review suggestions were quite extensive, revising almost amounted to re-writing the whole thing). Other than writing and structuring, the only important scientific input I had in the paper is on the effect of climate change on infectious diseases.

Speaking of infectious diseases…

The Vibrio cholerae paper was the last one I worked on. My then-supervisor was an emeritus scientist, and due to his status he received plenty of paper requests (the vast majority of which he had to ignore). This one time, a paper request came on the topic of the environmental reservoirs of V. cholerae, which was essentially his wheelhouse. However, the deadline for submission was ridiculously close- a little over a week later. And we had a lot of other office responsibilities to deal with. I didn’t want to let this opportunity go, and with the guidance from another higher-up in our laboratory, put together some stuff and submitted. This was before I had any experience with writing scientific articles (the only piece of scientific literature I’d written up to that point was my Master’s thesis, and God knows how horrible that was), I needed to be taught how to include references, and I had to familiarize myself with the literature as best as I could in a week’s time.

The first reviews came some 18 months after we submitted. By that time, I had worked in multiple projects that considerably deepened my knowledge of the subject matter. For example, I was involved with a project in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame on remote-sensing assisted prediction of cholera outbreaks, which was the topic of the penultimate section of the paper. On another occasion, I had to put together a conceptual note on a clinical trial of a hygiene intervention to combat cholera, so I had to learn about cholera transmission in the community. Most importantly, by the time this review came along, I had the opportunity to cut my teeth on the two aforementioned manuscripts. I took advantage of this review opportunity to press all of my relevant newly gained knowledge and writing skills to duty, and- despite some protests from my supervisor about the deadline- re-wrote the entire manuscript, and submitted. For some sections of the paper, I scrapped everything I wrote and started afresh. I think the paper, as it stands now, looks much better than the steaming pile of hot garbage I initially drafted.

Each paper was thus a desperate clutching-of-straws, and that explains this incoherence.

As an aspiring PhD student not being able to do that much science in his day job, I grasped at whatever flew by my nose to put in my CV. And this wasn’t only in the case of publications- I took every training course I could get my hands on, which incidentally included two different courses on grant proposal writing. There was even that one time I accepted the request to review a paper on an altogether niche topic- a review of the organizational capacity of an epidemiological institute in some Nigeria (but couldn’t really follow through)- just so I could add one more item of substance to my resume.

I don’t know how to end articles.

Husband, biologist, philosophy enthusiast, nothing else much besides. In pursuit of happiness and understanding.