A completely pointless mini-rant on journal guidelines

June 15, 2012

I am finalising an article for submission to Palaeontologia Electronica. Regarding the acknowledgements, the Contributor Instructions say: “Initials are used rather than given names.”

WHY?! What on earth is gained by forcing authors to thank R. Cifelli instead of Rich Cifelli for access to specimens?

And of course this is the tiniest tip of the pointless-reformatting iceberg. Do not get me started on citations and reference, tables, figure captions, headings and all the rest.

The utter, utter pointlessness of such rules is irking me more with each submission I make. It’s indicative of the long-entrenched power-balance that we’ve all internalised, where authors are supplicants to journals, of whom we crave the boon of publication.

This. Is. Stupid.

We take highly trained scientists and put them to work doing tedious, time-consuming, error-prone clerical work which has the net result of reducing the utility of the paper.

Bring on the revolution.

 

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13 Responses to “A completely pointless mini-rant on journal guidelines”

  1. MRR Says:

    Yes.
    I think part is a survivance of a time where we read a journal, and an homogeneous style helped find information. But now I have more chance of reading several papers by the same author in a row, than several papers from the same journal.

  2. tmkeesey Says:

    That does make sense for print journals (where it can save on space), but Palaeontologia Electronica?


  3. well, I do understand that journals want things to look orderly and neat, so all papers should be formatted the same way.

    And when you complain about abbreviations, whine about PLoS ONE first, who needlessly use the stupid number citation system! That’s really annoying, as I can’t even know what I cited in my own manuscript I am preparing without looking it up!

    Abbreviated first names or not – who cares? Yes it is annoying that each journal want a different format, but there really are worse things!

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Heinrich wrote:

    Well, I do understand that journals want things to look orderly and neat, so all papers should be formatted the same way.

    I am progressively losing patience with this. It is nothing to do with science, a complete waste of scientists’ time, and done only for the benefit of journal which are supposed to exist for the sake of science. From my perspective as a scientist it makes literally no difference at all if one PE paper uses full names while another uses only initials. So this consistency hobgoblin is not for my benefit. Then whose? I am coming to the conclusion that if journals want it for themselves, then they should be the party that spends its precious time on formatting.

    And when you complain about abbreviations, whine about PLoS ONE first, who needlessly use the stupid number citation system! That’s really annoying, as I can’t even know what I cited in my own manuscript I am preparing without looking it up!

    Are you forgetting your SV-POW! history?

    Abbreviated first names or not – who cares? Yes it is annoying that each journal want a different format, but there really are worse things!

    Things that are hard to do because of intrinsic compexity — phylogenetic analysis, for example — those, I am fine with. Inventing busy-work? No. That’s how not-very-good primary-school teachers burn the time of ten-year-olds who need to be kept out of trouble.


  5. It’s the bureaucrats’ solution: control everything – no matter how insignificant – defer actual execution to someone else and then play the injured party when it’s not done as you envisioned it. In my view, you have to have pretty persuasive reasons to justify not adhering to an common standard such as Harvard, Chicago, APA, MLA, etc. And if the Chicago Manual doesn’t worry about something – maybe that’s an indication you shouldn’t as well.


  6. Yep, the reason is to give the journal coherency. There is more to publishing a good paper than just the “science”, the paper must also be readable, intelligible, and to fit within the scope and style of the other papers published in the journal. Surprisingly often the ability of an author to follow style guidelines is indicative of their ability to do careful, interesting work. And the ability of the author to adhere to the style guidelines is one of the main determinants of the time it takes their paper to be published. While we do publish in a wide range of paleontological subdisciplines, Palaeontologia Electronica maintains high standards for science and for style. Authors who wish to publish in PE must rise to the challenge.

    P. David Polly
    Executive Editor
    Palaeontologia Electronica

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for commenting, David. I appreciate your response, but I have to admit I am not convinced by it.

    There is more to publishing a good paper than just the “science”, the paper must also be readable, intelligible, and to fit within the scope and style of the other papers published in the journal.

    Yes, it needs to be readable and intelligent; I don’t see that either of those criteria require that full first names are not used in the acknowledgements. As for “fitting within the style of other papers published in the journal” — I refer you to MRR’s point in an earlier comment that we are more likely to consecutively read several papers by the same author than several papers from the same journal. I just fail to see how anyone’s aesthetic appreciation of a paper, even — let along the value of its scientific content — is remotely affected by these things.

    Surprisingly often the ability of an author to follow style guidelines is indicative of their ability to do careful, interesting work.

    As we all know, correlation is not causation. No doubt both the ability to follow style guidelines and the ability to do good science are indicative of the same meticulous approach. It certainly doesn’t follow that the ability to follow style guidelines implies the ability to do good work. A randomly chosen copy-editor with no scientific training at all, or indeed a reasonably conscientious high-school student, would be able to follow the style guide.

    And the ability of the author to adhere to the style guidelines is one of the main determinants of the time it takes their paper to be published.

    Yes; but only because the journal insists on adherance to that guide. If that cart were not put before the scientific horse, the issue wouldn’t arise.

    While we do publish in a wide range of paleontological subdisciplines, Palaeontologia Electronica maintains high standards for science and for style. Authors who wish to publish in PE must rise to the challenge.

    Of course PE is respected journal with high standards and a good reputation — if it wasn’t, I would be about to submit to it. But surely you want your journal to be respected for its substance, not for the consistency of its use of initials?

    All that said …

    As I recognised and admitted up front, this mini-rant is completely pointless. We both know that after this moaning and complaining I will then go right ahead do what authors always do — pour away a day of my precious time reformatting references, and trying as I do so to introduce only the barest minimum of errors, rather than doing science. (It’s particularly galling as right now I am in New York, about to spend several days in the AMNH collections, and I am desperate to get this long-overdue manuscript off my plate before we start work on Monday, which means I’ll be spending my weekend in NYC on this PWOT.)

  8. Maija Karala Says:

    Agreed.

    The sheer amount of pointless formatting and reformatting, bureaucracy and other nitpicking is one of the main reasons I’m not becoming a scientist after all. I’m writing my Master’s thesis at the moment and the style rules are driving me crazy already. Looking for abbreviations of journal names and formatting figures by hand with Photoshop because the right kind of lines and right size captions just can’t be done with statistical sotfwares. Awesome.

    As a journalist, other people will format my text AND I will be actually paid for writing it. What could be better?

  9. Bill Parker Says:

    I format as I write, rather than write generically. I agree there is nothing more tedius than going back right before submission and reformatting everything. I feel it is a huge waste of time to do everything twice. Instead of going back through the manuscript and removing the comma in every citation, why just not do it correctly the first time? This implies of course that I know ahead of time where I am going to submit, but is that really a problem? I just wish I could always get my co-authors to do this…..

    Every journal is going to have their own unique style to be concise and more importantly for identity. I developed the style used the last few Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletins. I wanted something attractive, clean, and distinctive. You can often tell the journal or bulletin series a paper is in by the way it is is formatted and even whether it is European or North America (e.g., vs. e.g.).

    BTW…I believe JVP also requires the author initial thing but if you flip through the journal you will see that this usage is inconsistent.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    I format as I write, rather than write generically. I agree there is nothing more tedius than going back right before submission and reformatting everything.

    Yes, Bill — I, too, tend to format for a specific journal as I write. But it’s not unusual that I end up submitting somewhere different in the end; or, in this case, an earlier versions is rejected from a different journal which (of course) had completely different guidelines.

    Every journal is going to have their own unique style to be concise and more importantly for identity. I developed the style used the last few Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletins. I wanted something attractive, clean, and distinctive. You can often tell the journal or bulletin series a paper is in by the way it is is formatted and even whether it is European or North America (e.g., vs. e.g.).

    I can’t imagine who you think is benefitted by this.

  11. Bill Parker Says:

    I don’t think there really is any true benefit, unless you’re into style. I find it sort of interesting in a geeky kind of way.

  12. Kerry Says:

    What if (and not saying this is the case) the requirements existed to support journal interoperability / API compatibility / reference tracking? Would they make more sense / be more palatable in that case?

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    That would a lot more palatable — something that serves a scientific purpose.


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