It’s time for a mini-revolution in scientific publishing: a truly universal manuscript format

There’s a problem with academic publishing. This could be (but isn’t) a post about the lottery of peer review, the scandalous mountain of largely unpaid reviewing and editorial work that journals benefit from, the urgent need to adopt open access, or the interesting dynamics introduced by pre-print servers. Instead, this post is about a big problem with an easy solution: hours and hours of expert scientific time (and with that, grant money) currently being wasted reformatting manuscript for the initial submission to various journals. The solution: create and implement a truly universal manuscript format for the initial submission.

I sent an exasperated tweet last week after spending 90 mins reformatting a paper for the initial submission to a journal (which was rejected without review by the way – so I’m procrastinating by writing this instead of reformatting it for the next journal). The tweet seems to have stuck a cord with many scientists and academics out there from a wide range of disciplines:

So far as I can see, there’s no good reason why each journal should have their own idiosyncratic style. For example, what is the rationale for insisting on Harvard rather than Vancouver reference styles at the initial submission stage? Or the need to have the acknowledgements on the title page vs. before the references? Or tables included after their first reference in the text vs. at the end of the manuscript? Or silly mid-line decimal points rather than the normal ones?

I am aware that some journals have implemented a “Your Paper Your Way” option for the initial submission. This is where you can choose to send the initial submission in any format. Whilst I applaud this in principle, the key question here is whether this reduces the chances of your paper being published by the journal. I can’t help thinking that this introduces a risk of bias for the editorial team and reviewers. I’d love to see some data showing that the publication rate isn’t affected for “Your Paper Your Way” submissions!

I think an initial submission to a journal only needs a few key elements (and I’m thinking here of biomedical journals mainly, which is my expertise, but this probably applies to most if not all):

  • A title page, with standardised data.
  • An abstract, in a sensible format. (And, before anybody picks up on this, the difference between a structured abstract and an unstructured one is some sub-headings!)
  • The main paper, in a standard format (introduction, methods, results, discussion).
  • An acknowledgements / funding / authors contributions / conflicts of interest section. The ICJME form would work well for biomedical journals in terms of conflicts of interest.
  • Pick a style any style, but make it universal.

Once a journal has agreed to accept a paper for publication, then I’d be happy – I’ll rephrase that – willing to do some reformatting work on the manuscript. But there’s really nothing worse than spending hours reformatting only to be rejected without review!

I am sure many will agree that a truly universal manuscript format for submission to any journal makes sense. But who is going to make this happen? It’s not in the interests of the individual journals to drive this change – most already get more submissions than they can handle. I am sure academic editors and their teams would be supportive of this change in principle (since almost all also work on the other side of the fence as authors). But they’re already flat out, spending hours of their own time keeping on top of their editorial queues. So it’s left to us, the authors, to drive this change through.

Who’s with me?

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2 thoughts on “It’s time for a mini-revolution in scientific publishing: a truly universal manuscript format

  1. For this particular reason, the sci and eng community has long been using Latex. Given the template file of the publisher, it is literally 5-8 sec to convert from one format to the other. Nevertheless, I fully agree: formatting should only be considered AFTER peer review. (We do this with our journals.)

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  2. I’m with you, but the problem lies – at least for a large part – with us, the authors. Apparently we are so eager to publish in journal X that we are willing to waste all that time without any guarantee that the editor of journal X will send our manuscript out for review. If we would pick our journals based on the ease of submission, rather than its impact factor, the problem would be solved soon.

    So, the first thing to do is to make that list: the Ease-of-Submission-Factors (ESF, like the European Science Foundation), and the we all send our papers to journals with highest ranking (those that already have or just adopted the Jon Otter Format, JOF).

    As our deans all agree that the current Impact Factor madness must stop, they can only embrace this initiative. So, they are with us too!

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