Does your journal have a tendency to get manuscripts with pesky technical errors you wish authors would have avoided by simply following your submission instructions? While it’s inevitable that authors will sometimes miss clearly spelled out guidelines in their rush to submit, if your journal is getting a high volume of submissions with technical errors it may be time to take a step back and reassess your instructions for authors. No matter how clear your team believes your journal’s author instructions to be, there’s always the possibility that they’re not as obvious as you think. Thankfully, often all it takes is some quick rephrasing or reformatting to clarify your author instructions. This will prevent future confusion and reduce the amount of time your team has to spend on technical edits, which is always a good thing!
To give you some guidance on the most common places where journals can improve their author instructions and how to go about making updates, we reached out to Kurt Spurlock, quality manager at Research Square, and Erika Kessler, academic formatting specialist at American Journal Experts (AJE). In the post below Kurt and Erika jointly share their insights.
Further Reading: For more tips on how to improve authors’ submission and peer review experience at the journals you work with, check out the Guide to Managing Authors: Journal Editor Training Course co-produced by Scholastica, American Journal Experts, and Research Square.
Of all of the aspects of author guidelines, the two most important are having a ‘How to Submit’ section and a ‘How to Prepare your Manuscript’ section with concise instructions. In addition, it is helpful to have clear directions on what, if any, blinding of the manuscript the author might have to complete, the nature and placement of declarations, the manuscript layout, and the reference style. It is also helpful to include a sample article that adheres to the current formatting style preferred for submission. Many authors check a published article for guidance without understanding that the final version of a manuscript looks different from what a journal prefers at submission. Finally, making it abundantly clear which article types are accepted and which are not (e.g., original research, reviews, case studies) is a very important feature of author guidelines.
The most common opportunity for improvement we see in author guidelines is to create clearer reference examples and styles. Across all the major reference styles (e.g. Vancouver, APA, Harvard), many journals provide only a few examples of publication types and often omit commonly cited materials like conference proceedings, reports, and websites. It’s helpful when journals explicitly state how they like references to be formatted, instead of referring authors to a style manual, recent sample, or publisher’s general guidelines. That can be extra work for authors, who may or may not have access to the preferred source. Plus, style manuals often cover much more material than is needed for submission, so authors will have to figure out, or guess, what is required and what isn’t.
Citation style is also important. Numerical citation guidelines work best with explicit details on how to format the numbers in the text (i.e., superscript, brackets, parentheses). Author/year examples should cover how to cite multiple sources in a group (chronologically or alphabetically) and how many author names should be included before using ‘et al.’
Another area for improvement we see in author guidelines is to include more information on the placement of key elements (e.g., figures, figure legends, tables, conflicts of interest, funding, and ethics statements). Journal guidelines don’t always specify if these elements are to be embedded in the text, clustered at the end of the manuscript, or submitted as separate documents, and as the guidelines grow and change over time, the information can become internally inconsistent.
Contradictory guidelines are common when journal-specific requirements are added to a larger guideline template from a publisher but the incorrect formatting information isn’t removed. For example, guidelines might specify in the beginning that line numbering should be continuous, but farther down, there’s a stock sentence stating that line numbering should begin anew on each page.
Additionally, many journals bury or leave out guidelines for basic formatting authors may not be sure of such as: text order, font type and size, line spacing, and document format. Including this information in the journal guidelines would help authors meet editors’ requirements and prevent desk rejection on the basis of manuscript formatting.
Clarity and organization of guidelines are essential, especially for researchers whose first language isn’t English. Using tables instead of paragraphs of text to describe required elements and word count, reference, and figure limits is a simple and effective way to organize information into digestible phrases and explicit directives. The best tables contain concise, simple directions about what is required, what is prohibited, and what is optional in the manuscript.
Checklists are another effective way to indicate which elements are required in the manuscript. They also help authors scan the necessary elements and quickly determine which requirements have been fulfilled or are outstanding.
Another nice touch is when the guidelines are one click from the main journal site, instead of multiple clicks. Fewer clicks help authors to spend less time searching for the correct path to the guidelines or even abandoning the search altogether out of frustration. Moreover, giving the page an intuitive title, like ‘Author Guidelines’ or ‘Author Instructions,’ along with using the same exact phrasing when creating links to the page is helpful.
It is also important for journal guidelines to be internally consistent and up-to-date with editors’ requirements, so that editors can spend more time on reviewing the content and scientific contribution of the manuscript and less on manuscript layout and formatting.
One way to help with internal consistency is to avoid presenting the same information in more than one place (e.g., stating the word count twice in two different sections of the guidelines). Even if the content is consistent, it makes guidelines unnecessarily long and increases the chance of contradictory information later when they’re updated.
Well-organized guidelines typically follow one of two patterns:
Information shared between the various types of articles is grouped at the beginning, with links out or with separate sections for areas where guidelines vary based on article type.
All information about a given section of a manuscript is grouped together, with lists of the different requirements for each article type within those sections.
One example of consistent, thorough, and informative guidelines from a publisher’s website comes from Taylor & Francis. While each T&F journal has its own formatting specifications, in general, we can always find what we need from their guidelines. T&F uses several styles repeatedly, for which they provide hyperlinks to PDFs that contain complete instructions and detailed examples of how to format cited materials. In addition, T&F’s journals specify the exact layout of the paper and order of its key elements (i.e., title page, abstract, text, acknowledgments, references, figure legends, tables). Most importantly, while T&F’s guidelines are succinct, they still communicate their main points clearly.
We certainly think so. The people we’ve talked with at journals, especially the journal managers we know through the ISMTE, point out that basic compliance with guidelines can ease a paper’s path through the rest of the process. Smaller details like font type may not always impede a paper if a journal is willing to overlook them, but a paper that doesn’t satisfy the core elements—length, section order, figure counts, citation and reference style—can force a journal to reject a paper before it gets a full look. And in many cases, journals end up rejecting articles that are just not the kind of piece the journal ever publishes. Increasing compliance on that issue, like when a journal receives case study after case study even though it doesn’t publish case studies, would be a big win for that journal and for authors.
None of that is to say that there is a perfect match of style and content that will produce 100% author compliance, but the ideas we’ve focused on stand to make a complicated process a little easier for both authors and journal staff and to improve everyone’s experience with the submission process. At our talk at the ISMTE’s 2016 North American conference, we closed with an offer to review a journal’s guidelines and offer any advice, and we’re happy to extend that offer here as well. Feel free to contact Erika.Kessler@aje.com if you have any questions.
A big thanks to Kurt and Erika for taking the time to contribute this blog post!