Formatting scientific papers: a waste of time, money, and grey matter!

Those of you who have published a scientific paper or two will recognise the following process:

Format.

Submit.

Reject.

Reformat.

Submit.

Reject.

Reformat.

Submit.

Accept.

By the end of this process, not only have you lost the will to live (or ever reformat a scientific paper ever again), you’ve also wasted time = money. And chances are, the money has been entrusted to you to perform research, not reformat documents! A recently study counts the cost of this process, concluding that the average scientist spends 52 hours per person per year on formatting / reformatting scientific papers, with a cost of around $500 USD per manuscript or ~$2k per year.

The study team performed a web-based self-reporting survey, and managed to enroll 372 participants from 41 countries (although 60% were Canadian, where the study team were based). The authors then averaged the time and cost (with cost being adjusted for individual wage) for the hours and hours spent formatting and reformatting papers.

The irritating part of this is that the endless reformatting of scientific papers is largely unnecessary. Surely a group of editors and publishers could get together and agree what are the core components of a paper (with perhaps a bit of variation by discipline), and only insist on these for an initial publication. This would avoid the ridiculous rules that I have had to adhere to in the past (mentioning no journals by name):

  • Needing to use a structured discussion.
  • Not being allowed a structured discussion.
  • Using a very specific (and non-standard) decimal point.
  • Making sure that reference numbers are placed before punctuation.
  • Making sure that reference numbers are never placed before punctuation.
  • And the usual lists of thousands and thousands of reference formats.

I’m encouraged to see more and more journals adopt a “Your Paper Your Way” approach to the first submission. Although I still have a niggling doubt that this may prejudice editorial teams when making a final decision, particularly in marginal cases.

I’d love to hear more about journals and groups of journals that are making moves to fix this annoying, time consuming, and costly quirk of the scientific publishing world.

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