Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Feb 2017

How to use the Harvard referencing style

There are different ways to present your sources in medical writing, so they meet house style and accepted academic standards.

If you haven’t already seen it, please do have a look at my earlier post on using the Vancouver style for references, which kicked off this mini-series.

Now we are moving on to Harvard, which is another common choice. This is my own favourite because you don’t have to number the references within the article – always a headache when you come to second drafts and beyond. There is also something nice and traditional about it.

A citation for a journal article with more than two authors would look like this:

McAlpine, L. et al. 2014. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clinical Medicine. 14(5), pp. 500-505.

Within the text, you would cite the reference like this. (McAlpine et al, 2014)

Simple! You’ll need more details if you are working on a live manuscript. I think the University of Leeds has a great resource. You can also bookmark this page and come back to it the next time you are referencing up your own healthcare writing project.

How to use the Vancouver referencing style

If you're an experienced medical writer, you'll already know that documenting your sources is a crucial part of the job. There are different formats for presenting your citations. Sometimes, this is set out in house style guidelines. Other times, the choice is up to you.

The Vancouver style of referencing is favoured by many medical journals. The references are numbered throughout the text, and the citations are listed in this numbered order at the end of your piece.

As an example, a journal article would look like this:

McAlpine L, Selamaj E, Shannon C, Chis L, Dacre J, Elder A. UK postgraduate medicine examinations: opportunities for international candidates. Clin Med. 2014;14(5):500-5.

So in general that's:

First six authors (surname, first initial) followed by 'et al' if there are more authors. Title of paper. Title of journal with approved abbreviation. Year; volume (issue number): page numbers.

You can bookmark this page and come back to it any time you need a reminder. This is only a very general guide and you will need more details for your medical writing project. For further information, and rules on citing other types of source material, see the guidelines from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

Searching the evidence

A literature search has always been a part of good medical writing, but tighter regulations and schemes like the Department of Health’s Information Standard mean this process is increasingly formalised.
When you're up against a deadline, it's tempting to leap right in and Google everything on your topic. But starting with a plan is ultimately faster and it helps you remain objective.

The main steps are:

• Write a clear research question.
• Set limits for your question, such as a time period.
• Brainstorm a list of key words for your question.
• At this point you are ready to search. If you don't get enough results - or if you get too many - you can try with another question.

Our brains don't always follow these rules, though. One fascinating study found that strict searching protocols are not the only effective method. (Greenhalgh et al 2005) Researchers also got good results by asking their contacts, using their own knowledge, and tracking down references cited in other papers.

Great interviews

A good interview can lift any piece of writing. It’s essential to add human interest and even when you are researching a really dry piece, if you ask the right questions you may end up following a new and exciting path.

In advance
An interview is a brief opportunity so good preparation means you can make the most of it:

• Before the interview, agree how the quotes and information will be used.
• Send the questions in advance. People will be more open and have more facts.
• Do your homework. Learn about your topic and identify any potential sensitivities.

Ask the right questions
Ask closed questions (that could be answered with a “yes” or “no”) when you want to confirm facts. If you are fishing for something more interesting, ask open questions that will require a lengthier answer. Opinions are just as important as facts because they can reveal issues you were unaware of. Finish off by asking whether there is anything else they’d like to mention. Allow some time for this as it’s often the best part of the interview.

And of course, always remember to follow up with your thanks.

Good grammar - sentences

Many people are nervous about grammar. However, if you leave out the terrifying jargon it's easy to avoid common mistakes. Sentence structure is one of the most frequent offenders.

A proper sentence
A sentence fits a complete thought into a perfect package. Three main parts should always appear: a verb, a subject and a closing bit of punctuation such as a full stop or a question mark.

Fragments masquerade as sentences all the time, especially in marketing. A fragment is an incomplete sentence that's missing at least one of the three main elements. Like this sentence. (It is missing a verb).

The comma splice is another culprit. You can marry two ideas in one sentence but they need the right link. A comma is the wrong tool for this job. It should never be left on its own to join up two independent phrases, though it is often forced to do so. This is an example of a comma splice, it is two sentences posing as one.

Instead, use a conjunction like 'and' or 'but'. You can also use a semi-colon or a colon. For questions of punctuation, the Oxford Dictionaries Online is a very handy resource.