Formatting = Wasted Effort?

Updated: Apr 30

Think back to the last paper, or last several papers, you published. Each time you submitted a paper, you were careful to follow the formatting guidelines of your target journal. But was each of your papers accepted by the first journal you tried?

If you found yourself submitting the same paper to a different journal, how much time did you spend revising your manuscript to match the new formatting requirements?

A recent time-cost analysis of formatting in scientific publishing came out just a few days ago. Leblanc et al. published Scientific sinkhole: The pernicious price of formatting (PLOS ONE 2019).

Yikes.

The researchers collected survey data from scientists who submitted at least one peer-reviewed manuscript during 2017. Survey respondents were from 41 countries, although primarily from Canada (n=372; 60% from Canada).

The time spent and cost in wages for people to complete the necessary formatting for journal manuscript submissions were assessed. The results are SHOCKING.

There was a median of four manuscripts formatted per person, per year and a median of two submissions per paper before being accepted for publication. Scientists spent 14 hours per manuscript, or a median of 52 hours per person each year on formatting.

All of this time spent formatting comes at a median cost of $477 USD per manuscript (or $1908 per person per year)—JUST FOR FORMATTING!

Rigid manuscript preparation requirements, particularly in formatting, that vary widely from journal to journal appear to be a significant waste of time and financial resources in the scientific community. And you probably agree that it is seriously frustrating as well.

Does it really matter to anyone whether the subheadings are boldfaced, or italicized, or both? Who cares if the page numbers in your references show the full number for the end range, or just the last one or two digits (132-137 vs. 132-7; 1439-1444 vs. 1439-44)? Really. Who cares?

It is the science that is important, right? Of course, a manuscript must be concise (i.e., word count limits make sense) and readable, and I don’t see the standard structure (Abstract, Intro, Methods, Results, Discussion) changing anytime soon, but why not allow more generic manuscript formatting until the scientific content has been assessed and the paper is accepted for publication?

And then format it ONCE to journal specs—or better yet, leave the formatting to the journal’s editorial staff who are tuned in to the journal’s style and can quickly get an accepted manuscript up to formatting specs prior to publication.

What do you think?

Join the discussion in our Facebook group, WriteScience Select. See you there!

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