The single greatest thing that’s ever been said in author instructions

November 27, 2012

Today, PeerJ announced that it will open for submissions on December 3rd — next Monday. That’s great news for anyone who cares about the future of academic publishing: it’s out to make dramatic changes to the publishing workflow, including an integrated preprint server so that people can read your work while it’s in review. And it has every chance of succeeding because it’s run by people with an astonishing track record who know more about how to make open-access publishing successful than anyone in the world, and it has a stellar editorial board.

Oh, and it’s free to publish in forever once you’ve paid a one-off membership fee.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because today they also released the instructions for authors, and they contain the following glorious passage:

Formatting tip!

We want authors spending their time doing science, not formatting.

We include reference formatting as a guide to make it easier for editors, reviewers, and PrePrint readers, but will not strictly enforce the specific formatting rules as long as the full citation is clear.

Styles will be normalized by us if your manuscript is accepted.

Having previously ranted extensively about the submission-time reference-formatting burden of every other journal, I can hardly overstate how happy this makes me. I am a scientist, not a secretary. And in 2012, PeerJ is the first journal to acknowledge that.


Update 1 (an hour later)

Ian Mulvaney pointed out that eLife also does not require a specific style at submission.

And an anonymous commenter pointed me to Free Radical Biology & Medicine‘s “Your Paper, Your Way” approach, which apparently is being piloted before expansion to other Elsevier journals.

So my apologies to both earlier examples that I missed, and kudos to both eLife and Elsevier. What I’d love to see now is the PLOS journals, and others, following the fine examples of these pioneers.

29 Responses to “The single greatest thing that’s ever been said in author instructions”

  1. Anon1 Says:

    Currently in pilot, to be expanded to other Elsevier journals:

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Anon1, that’s great news!

  3. Christoph Says:

    Well, nice idea and I strongly appreciate this. To be honest, formatting references takes me not more than 2% of paper writing time, and getting the money for publishing costs takes me far longer, so the advantage is kind of limited…

  4. This sentence is telling:

    “Newman pointed out that this will not cost more because Elsevier already has a contract with its suppliers to do this conversion — a service that has gone unused until this pilot.”

    You mean Elsevier had contracts for things that subscribers (presumably) are paying for, and they weren’t using them? What else are page charges and figure charges and whatnot for? (not that mathematicians bother with that malarkey)

  5. Mark Robinson Says:

    Mike, I’m not an academic but I’m still kinda excited to read that PeerJ is about to start accepting submissions. The preprint server is a great idea and it’s excellent news that they will accept submissions from all and not just those who will be publishing with PeerJ. Finally, you won’t have to sneak bio papers onto arXiv any more.

    It’s just a shame that it’s taken so long for a life-sciences equivalent to be established, given that arXiv has been going for over 20 years. It might have prevented, or at least mitigated against, scenarios such as Aetogate.

    And the willingness to accept papers with clear citations rather than ones that adhere to strict, idiosyncratic, and sometimes arcane formatting rules is a win for common sense over rigidly inefficient bureaucracy if ever I saw one. It’s like the future has almost arrived. I expect that personal jet-packs and flying cars are just around the corner.

  6. Or you could just submit your manuscript to now and format it however you want. The new Cite links on Google Scholar are the easiest way to format references these days I find. Choose whatever style you like best.

  7. Erm, don’t you guys use EndNote? With MS Word integration, changing reference styles between journals is simply a matter of changing the value in a drop-down menu #itsreallysimple #thatswhypeopleusewindows

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Christoph, you may be right that formatting references is not THAT big a part of getting a manuscript ready for submission. But (A) it’s soul-killing work; and (B) it’s a much bigger proportion of the work of resubmission if a manuscript is rejected. I don’t know if other people have the same experience, but I have had perfectly good manuscripts of mine lie around for months or even more than a year before resubmitting, essentially because I couldn’t face reformatting 100+ references.

    David, yes, that statement is bizarre. Have the been paying a subcontractor to do the reference-formatting, then forcing authors to do it anyway?

    Mark, I actually really enjoyed putting the neck-anatomy paper on arXiv, but now feel slightly bad that when I submit it to PeerJ I won’t be making it available through PeerJ Preprints. (I think having two essentially-identical preprint versions on two different servers really would be a recipe for confusion.) Part of me wants to return to arXiv with my next completed manuscript, but you’re probably right that PeerJ Preprints will be a more natural home for it.

    It hadn’t occurred to me, though now it seems obvious, that had Bill been able to reposit a preprint of his Heliocanthus manuscript, that might have prevented the Lucas group from scooping him, or at least forced the SVP Ethics Committee to recognise what had been done. That said, Bill’s work was already well known to everyone involved, in the form of his dissertation, and that didn’t prevent the scooping. And the sequence of events is very simple and clearly documented, and it wasn’t enough for the invertebrate ethics committee to make a clear statement. So the moral seems to be that there is nothing that Bill could have done differently other that rush his paper out in a low-rent journal instead of waiting for the slow wheels of peer-review to turn at the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. That is the lesson that the SVP Ethics Committee teaches us.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Mick, the problem with EndNote and other reference-management systems is that they only work if all the authors on a manuscript use the same system. Palaeontology bears a resemblance to cat-herding at the best of times. As it happens, I am making an effort to use Zotero in my current manuscript (and trying to get Matt, who’ll be co-authoring, to use it too). I don’t yet know how that’s going to work: I’ve not been very impressed with Zotero, which seems to lack ways to do very simple things like sharing the reference library with my co-author, or including a reference in the form “Bakker (1972)” instead of the usual “(Bakker 1972)”.

  10. I think the easiest way would be to just use LaTeX and BibTeX. That way the journal only needs to provide a template and authors only have to enter text and bibliographic information and mark it up semantically, and neither them nor the journals have to care about formatting, since it’s done automatically.
    Why do people still go through the trouble of formatting things manually using Word?

    I usually use Zotero for references. I find this much more convenient than the Google Scholar references because it automatically formats everything and sorts the literature list correctly whenever I add/remove/change a reference. Mendeley or other reference managers work just as well, of course.

  11. Oh, I forgot to mention: Of course PeerJs move is still to be applauded, of course! How come that Open Access journals are the ones who actually do add the value which subscription journals claim to add?

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thomas, I do agree that the LaTeX/BibTeX combination that seems to be ubiquitous in maths and computer science is technically far superior to the various Word-like botch-jobs that we use over here in palaeo. I would happy switch overnight if it was just down to me. Unfortunately, there are two very strong reasons why it can’t be done: first, most co-authors wouldn’t be able to willing to make the switch; and second, many palaeo journals don’t accept LaTeX submissions. It’s a simple (but deadly) matter of a feedback loop: we submit Word because journals want it, and they want it because we submit it. We’ve become trapped on a local maximum.

    Have you found a way to share a reference library with Zotero?

  13. I share zotero libs easily by login in to the forum and opening a project-specific group, to which the co-authors are invited.

  14. Sam Indra Says:

    Formatting should be a task for the editor and not the writer.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m not sure I agree that formatting is properly a job for editors, who bring specialist academic expertise. What I do agree on is that if authors are either giving their work away to publishers or paying significant money for the privilege of being published, then it’s the publisher’s job. (Free and very cheap open-access publishers might reasonably require authors to handle this.)

  16. […] open-access journals PeerJ and eLife have stated that they will not insist on citations being in a particular format, as long as they are […]

  17. PLOS ONE checks that a reference section is present, but we don’t worry about the formatting until the production stage, after acceptance.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Wow, Matt, I did NOT know that. (If I had, I would have submitted to PLOS ONE some time ago.) You should definitely make it more widely known!

  19. Is that an official policy Matt? It does not state that in the author guidelines (which say that “proper formatting of the references is crucial”: and it is not something that I, as a member of the editorial board, was aware of. I typically ask authors to sort out the formatting of their references (and I know other editors do as well)

    Given that a PLOS ONE acceptance email specifically says the following, won’t any errors in the reference formatting at acceptance simply appear in the published manuscript, or are these actually checked by production?

    “THERE IS NO AUTHOR PROOFING. You should therefore consider the corrected files you upload now as equivalent to a production proof. The text you supply at this point will be faithfully represented in your published manuscript exactly as you supply it. This is your last opportunity to correct any errors that are present in your manuscript files.”

  20. The production process formats the references, but editors can ask the authors to make changes earlier if there are particular problems with the references, e.g. duplicates. I’m talking to my colleague Rachel Bernstein about updating the wording in the author guidelines.

  21. Andy Farke Says:

    I did not know that either (being volunteer section editor for paleontology at PLOS ONE). . .I will say that this makes me a little nervous, particularly because authors do not see proofs. The more formatting/correcting done by editorial staff, the greater the need there is for authors to have a crack at things prior to final publication.

  22. […] answer of course is “there is no good reason”. Which is why several journals, including PeerJ, eLife, PLOS ONE and certain Elsevier journals have abandoned the requirement completely. (At the […]

  23. Hi Mike,
    yes I know about the deadlock scientific publishing in many disciplines is currently in (it’s not the case in all disciplines, though, especially in computer science – and I assume physics or mathematics as well – LaTeX is quite common as a publication format).
    That’s why I’d love to see journals breaking the lock and starting to at least accept LaTeX submissions as alternative to Word (some publications already do that, in fact).

    I use Zotero groups for sharing reference libraries. It works pretty well in general, but I haven’t tried how well it behaves if multiple members of a group work on a Word doc together.

  24. […] membership so he’d never have to think about it again. Three months on and we were enjoying the reference-formatting instructions (yes, really!) A few days after that — on 3rd December, the day it opened to submissions […]

  25. […] Formatierung kostet mich nicht einmal 2% der Zeit, die ich für das Schreiben benötige.” ( Ein ordentlich formatierter Artikel ist für die Redakteure und Peer Reviewer einfacher zu lesen […]

  26. […] No bom sentido da coisa, a formatação de um documento não leva muito tempo. Há até mesmo programas como, por exemplo, o Zotero que pode fazer isso. Como um autor já havia comentado: “a formatação das referências não leva não mais que 2% do tempo gasto para se escrever um artigo …” ( […]

  27. […] 研究全体において、論文のフォーマットを整える時間はそれほど長くありません。Zoteroのようなソフトウェアもある。ある著者によれば「参考文献のフォーマットには論文作成時間の2%しかかからない」といいます。 […]

  28. […] In the scheme of things, formatting a paper does not take that much time. There is even software like Zotero that can do this. As one author commented, “formatting references takes me not more than 2% of paper writing time…” ( […]

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