Once Upon a Time…
When I wrote my first manuscript 23 years ago, I had to do all the formatting manually. Many of you probably still remember that feeling of sand under the eyelids after manual imputation and formatting of a long reference list, and cursing badly if, at the end of the day, the text contained 33 citations while the reference list included 35 positions…Having Technology at Hand
Time flies, technology moves forward, and even we, researchers and medical writers, can benefit from new inventions. So, with the emergence of PubMed and reference management software, insertion of citations became a pleasure rather than torture. Spell- and grammar-checking tools are no longer limited to the MS Word function, which not infrequently may convert “public health” into… “pubic health”.
The Pain of Quality Check
Even with all these new technologies at hand, still there was the issue of manuscript quality check, which consumed a good portion of my work time. Many of us, if not all, want (have to) be perfectionists, including when it comes to the formatting of manuscripts in line with target journals’ guidelines. Bold should be bold, numbers from one to eleven should be written in full, abbreviations should be defined at the first use and then consistently used throughout the text; some journals also expect an abbreviation list.
Striving for Perfection
Although we are perfectionists, none of us is perfect. You probably very well know this pain when, after opening your manuscript file in the morning, you realize something that looked perfect the night before still has some evident formatting flaws. You correct it, check once again, proudly forward to your colleague for quality check, and… he or she still finds some inconsistencies! Grr!
In addition, what if you’re not a standalone medical writer but work on the same manuscript file together with your colleagues? What if your customer has added something to the draft, completely ignoring the rules of formatting and courtesy of the track changes mode? The formatting inconsistencies are back again, which means further rounds of quality check, more sleepless nights, and more cursing. Grr!
Artificial Intelligence in Quality Check
I’ve always been skeptical about artificial intelligence (AI) in medical writing. Call me a grump, but I still can find some drawbacks in my reference management software although it is already version 9.0. While I don’t fully trust AI, I’m eager to use it whenever it can help me and not risk ruining my work.
I started using AI-based quality-check software to perfect my writing about five years ago, when I came upon a proofreading tool purchase offer in the list of benefits for AMWA members. With the member discount, the license cost was virtually nothing, so I gave it a try. I’ve been using the software ever since!
What Can AI-Based Quality-Check Software Do for Medical Writers?
In essence, it’s like having a colleague to whom you send your work for formatting quality check. But in this case, your colleague is an AI (which is actually the sign of times…).
Here are some elements of formatting, which are vital from a medical writer’s perspective, that this software can check and perfect:
- Hyphenation (“-“ vs. “–“)
- Numbers in sentences (“8” vs. “eight”)
- Use of italics (“E. coli” vs. “ coli”)
- Abbreviations (defined more than once, not defined at all, or inconsistent, eg, “AspAT” vs. “ASPAT”)
- Compound words (“left handed” vs. “left-handed”)
- Phrases in capitals (“Heart Rate” vs. “heart rate”)
- Open brackets and quotes
- Order of tables and figures
- Spacing (double spaces, spaces before punctuation, spaces at the end of a paragraph)
Of course, the list above is not exhaustive. This software can improve many other elements of the file. Furthermore, it can be customized to follow your in-house style.
How Does the Software Work?
AI-based quality-check software is typically a plugin to your text editor, and can work on both PC and MAC platforms. Importantly, some programs, like PerfectIt, don’t slow down your computer too much, although they do to some degree. But if you weigh time lost due to slower functioning of your computer against the time gained by more effective formatting, you’re still a winner. When you’re working on a manuscript and reach the point when you believe your formatting job is perfect, launch the software and perfect your work! While every program works differently, I prefer a step-by-step process during which my software points out each formatting inconsistency and asks which version should be used throughout the text.
Nobody’s Perfect, Not Even Document-Perfecting Software!
Did I mention I’m skeptical about AI in medical writing? I still am! AI-based quality-check software isn’t flawless, although developers seem to improve the functioning with each new product or version. One thing that bothers me is the quality check of the abstract and main body of a manuscript prepared as a single file, as most journals require. For example, if you use an expanded abbreviation in the abstract and then expand it again at first use in the main text, the software I use will suggest you define it only once, in the abstract. Furthermore, some AI-based tools will attempt to "improve" titles of the articles in the reference list. Hence, my recommendation is to be like a person driving a car—share the road with others and use caution. Nobody’s perfect, not even AI software!
There’s Always More to Learn
AI-based quality-check software programs are powerful, and I’m often discovering new things they can do. So I’m thrilled that sessions on AI-based tools, PerfectIt, and other time-saving technologies will be presented at the AMWA 2019 Medical Writing & Communication Conference in San Diego this November. Perhaps I’ll finally learn about all the benefits these programs offer! (As a typical alpha male, I’ve never studied any manual, although I believe every software program must have one).