Monday 25 April 2016

The things you hate most about submitting manuscripts

A few days ago I asked the twittersphere what rubs people the wrong way when it comes to submitting manuscripts to peer reviewed academic journals. Oh let us count the ways. From the irritation of having to reformat references to fit some journal’s arbitrary style, to consigning figures and captions to the end of a submission as though it really is still 1988, to the pointlessness of cover letters where all you want to say is “Dear Editor, here is our paper” but feel the need to throw in some gumpf about how amazing your results are. (Hint: aside from when the cover letter has a specific purpose, such as summarising a response to reviewers or conveying vital information about a key issue, I can tell you that a lot of editors -- maybe most -- ignore this piece of puffery).

The tweet proved a lot more popular than I expected and for a good two days you could see a steam of delicious rage rising from my timeline. 

I had an ulterior motive in seeking out this information from your good selves. As most of you will know, one of my aims is to help improve the transparency and reproducibility of published research, and one of the journals I edit for is working through its (future) adoption of the new Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines. The TOP guidelines are a self-certification scheme in which journals voluntarily report their level of policy compliance with a series of transparency standards, such as data sharing, pre-registration, and so forth. TOP is currently endorsed by over 500 journals and promises to make the degree of transparency adopted by journals itself more transparent. I guess you could call this "meta-transparency".

Now, in putting together our TOP policy at this journal at which I serve, we realised that it involves the addition of some new submission bureaucracy for authors. There will be a page of TOP guidelines to read beforehand and a 5-minute checklist to complete when actually submitting. We realise extra forms and guidelines are annoying for authors, so at the same time as introducing TOP we are going to strive to cut as much of the other (far less important) shit as possible. 

Here are the things you hated the most, and your most popular recommendations. For fun, I calculated an extremely silly and invalid score of every interaction to this tweet, adding up RTs, favourites and the number of independent mentions of specific points:

1. Abolish trivial house style requirements, including stipulations on figure dimensions & image file types, especially for the initial submission, as well as arbitrary house referencing and in-text citations styles. This is by far the most popular response. (score 112)

2. Allow in-text figures and tables according to their natural position until the very final stage of submission. (score 61)

3. Abolish all unnecessary duplication of information about the manuscript (e.g. word count, keywords), main author details and (most especially) co-author contact details that is otherwise mentioned on the title page or could be calculated automatically; abolish any requirement to include postal addresses of co-authors at least until the final stage (affiliation and email address should be sufficient, and should be readable from title page without requiring additional form completion); eliminate fax numbers altogether because, seriously, WTF are those fossils doing there anyway. (score 50)

4. Abolish requirement for submissions to be in MS Word format only. (score 36)

5. Abolish endnotes and either replace with footnotes or cut both. (score 33)

6. Allow submission of LaTeX files. (score 29)

7. Allow submission of single integrated PDF until the final stage of acceptance. (score 27)

8. Abolish cover letters for initial submissions. (score 21)

9. Abolish the Highlights section altogether because 
* Highlights are Stupid 
* Everyone knows Highlights are Stupid
* I can't think of anything else to say here, so I'll just repeat the conclusion that Highlights are Stupid (score 18) 

10. Remove maximum limits on the number of cited references. (score 7) 

11. Abolish the requirement for authors to recommend reviewers. (score 7) 

12. Increase speed of user interface. (score 6)

Not all of these apply to our journal, but we’ll try and improve on the things that do, and which we can change. 

Oh, and lucky number 13, which actually scored the same as abolishing cover letters, goes to Sanjay Srivastava: "Getting rejected, can you do away with that?” Alas that is beyond my current lowly powers, although...cough....I am getting there.* 


* Shameless plug alert: At one journal I edit for (Cortex), submitting a pre-registered article called a Registered Report greatly increases your chances of being published.  The rejection rate for standard (unregistered) research reports? Just over 90%.  The rejection rate for the 50% of Registered Reports that pass editorial triage and proceed to in-depth Stage 1 peer review? About 10%.  

The reason the rejection rate is so low for Registered Reports isn’t because our standards are any less (if anything they are higher, in my opinion) but because this format attracts  particularly good submissions and also gives authors the opportunity to address reviewer criticisms of their experimental design before they do their research – a point made by Dorothy Bishop who recently published an excellent Registered Report with Hannah Hobson.


  1. WRT 1 and 2: For the last several year now, I've always just done 7 regardless of "author information" and never got any flack for it. In the last decade, I've learned that much of what publishers say or write is either stupid, or hot air, or both. That's when I started to ignore much of what they say or write.

  2. I would not consider for a second to convert my beautiful latex manuscript to anything else, especially ms word. A self-respecting scientific journal would never ask for that, and if it happens to, well, there are other fish in the sea.

    Additionally, a smartly crafted style specification does all the reorganization/reformatting tricks that may be required at different stages.

  3. Brembs pops up with another useful, polite and helpful comment.

  4. Note that PeerJ has no reference-formatting requirements. Just one of the many reasons it's by far my favourite journal.

  5. You actually get several of those wishes fulfilled today when you submit to an Elsevier journal. It's almost as if there is some degree of actual competition between publishers.

    I wonder why point 8 says "Abolish cover letters *for initial submissions*". Is there any reason at all to have a cover letter later in the process? Generally the cover letter is where you pitch the article to the editor; if this is removed, I can see abstracts being even more hype-filled than they are already.

  6. Dear God, I wholeheartedly agree with every single of these points. Get rid of them! Especially highlights - they really are stupid. And the user interfaces are always painfully slow and cumbersome...

  7. Happy to report that >700 Elsevier journals offer authors "Your Paper Your Way" which eliminates requirements 1,2,4,5,6,7,9&10 for new submissions. Not only do authors love it, editors & reviewers find it creates no more effort or even less effort e.g. they prefer having the figs & tables within the text. We're busy with more improvements e.g. #3 to be piloted with the first journal soon. Catriona Fennell, Director Publishing Services, Elsevier