Revealed: the millions of dollars in time wasted making papers fit journal guidelines

Revealed: the millions of dollars in time wasted making papers fit journal guidelines

Journals have widely differing manuscript-formatting requirements, greatly inconveniencing researchers.Credit: Tatomm/Getty

For scientists submitting their papers to journals, there’s an all-too-familiar drill: spend hours formatting the paper to meet the journal’s guidelines; if the paper is rejected, sink more time into reformatting it for another journal; repeat.

Now an analysis has put a price tag on all that busy work: US$230 million worth of time was wasted by scientists worldwide reformatting papers sent to biomedical journals in 2021 alone1. Appalled by that exorbitant cost, the authors of the analysis, which was published in BMC Medicine on 10 May, propose that journals should allow free-format submissions so researchers can spend their time and money on research instead.

“I cannot imagine why anyone would care what an article looks like the first time a journal sees it,” says David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, who was not involved with the study. “I don’t think it’s a productive use of my time.”

Picky, picky

It’s mainly the inconsistencies between journals’ guidelines that force researchers to reformat and sometimes rewrite their manuscripts, says Laura Hilton, a cancer genomicist at BC Cancer, a care centre in Vancouver, Canada. For example, some journals require graphical abstracts whereas others don’t; some combine the results and discussion sections but others keep them separate. Journals set wildly differing limits on the number of characters in a paper’s title, the abstract’s word count, the length of the reference list and more.

Not all journals reject submissions that don’t conform to their specifications, but there’s an implicit pressure to follow them, says Tibor Varga, an epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the analysis. Researchers who spoke to Nature say that they don’t mind formatting their articles to conform to a journal’s style, as long as they’re doing that work after their study has been accepted.

This time burden disproportionately affects early-career researchers, says Michelle Starr, a paediatric nephrologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “When people are more established, they might have a whole team who can help with this piece.” Out of five of Starr’s manuscripts that journals are considering, four of them came back to her within days so she could correct formatting errors the journal staff had found.

To get an idea of the cost of reformatting, Varga and his colleagues estimated average hourly academic salaries in the United States and the European Union, the time spent reformatting per manuscript (four hours) and the annual number of resubmissions. They calculated that, if current journal practices don’t change, reformatting could cost about $2.5 billion in researchers’ time between 2022 and 2030. Many journals have transitioned to publishing research online only, meaning that many of these formatting guidelines are “historical artefacts” of print layouts, Varga says.

Golden-middle proposal

Other researchers have proposed that all journals should have the same set of guidelines or allow completely free-format submissions. But on the basis of a review of more than 300 journals’ guidelines and interviews with scientists and journal editors, the authors recommend a “golden-middle” solution that would allow researchers to submit manuscripts without following specific formatting demands, but instead abiding by minimal structural requirements such as total word count.

Varga and his colleagues are planning to launch an “aggressive” outreach campaign to journals, publishers, universities, funders and organizations such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) to implement their recommendations. They have already launched an online petition that more than 100 people have signed.

Co-author Amy Clotworthy, an ethnologist at the University of Copenhagen, says that the authors focused mainly on biomedical journals because these tend to have a specific format that’s different from, for example, that of social-sciences publications. But she says that the authors’ recommendations for free-format submissions apply to other disciplines as well.

Unsustainable system

Christine Laine, editor-in-chief of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is the secretariat for the ICMJE, says that, given that there are thousands of journals with different “audiences and ‘personalities’”, it’s “often appropriate” for journals to have different requirements for word count and other aspects of a paper. She adds that editors at Annals review submitted manuscripts that do not adhere to its formatting guidance.

Nature offers a lengthy list of formatting guidelines for manuscripts. But Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, based in London, says that the initial format of a submission to the journal “does not influence consideration of the manuscript” and that the journal will “carefully consider” the suggestions put forward by the analysis. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its journals team.)

Varga acknowledges that some journals have become more lenient about manuscript formatting at submission. But there’s a growing sentiment that researchers will not put up with practices that “greatly inconvenience them”, he says. “The current system is not sustainable.”

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