Inefficient Journal Submission Policies

by on August 18, 2009 at 6:35 am in Economics | Permalink

In their instructions to authors just about all of the economics journals require that papers be submitted with a certain format for the references, bibliography, figures and so forth.  Except no one I know actually does this until after a journal has accepted the paper; thus no wasted effort.

One day my wife, a microbiologist, was complaining about all the work that it took to reformat a paper for submission.  I told her that only newbies did this.  Shocked, she claimed that if she didn't reformat, the paper would instantly be rejected.  "Ridiculous!" I said, "No journal system could be that stupid."  Sigh.  Of course, my ever-wise wife was correct. In microbiology, you have to submit with the required format or run the risk of instant rejection.  Why is microbiology stuck in the inefficient equilibrium?

Perhaps an author who deviates signals incompetence and thus no one deviates.  But it's surprising that counter-signals aren't stronger.  Couldn't a Nobel prize winner say "enough with this nonsense" and submit without reformatting?  Wouldn't a journal that allowed a more lax initial submission receive more submissions?  Why is it in the interest of a journal to reject a good paper without review simply because the references were in an alternative format?

The official journal policies in economics point to an inefficient past so how did economics evolve to the efficient equilibrium?  Are other disciplines evolving in this manner or is economics unique in choosing the efficient journal policy?  (Readers may have information on this point.)

All else equal, I would expect initial submission standards regarding formatting and so forth to be weaker in the harder sciences.  After all, in science isn't it easier to demonstrate competence with the contents of the paper rather than with the formatting?  The evidence so far, however, does not support my hypothesis. 

Journal submission policy is a small, albeit annoying matter.  But the fact that the clearly inefficient equilibrium is common and apparently robust is humbling and frustrating even to those of us who advocate small steps toward a better world let alone to those of us who would remake the world along more efficient lines.

Gorgasal August 18, 2009 at 6:51 am

AFAIK, following the format guidelines is also non-optional in psychology.

I believe that this is a signaling problem. “Demonstrating competence with the contents of tha paper” sounds good at first, but requires that the editor or referees invest a certain amount of time. Submissions that did not even spend the effort to follow the formatting guidelines may not have spent the time to find the journal they are best suited for, so throwing them out may actually be optimal.

Your entire argument could be applied to job application letters with orthographical errors or disordered CVs – of course the HR person could read the application and discover the brilliant mind applying for the job, but more often, this is used as a quick first triage to weed out nonserious applicant.

Andrew August 18, 2009 at 7:21 am

One of my tribulations in life is that I go through life looking for ways to accept. It took me a long time to figure out that most people go through life looking for ways to reject. Also, being an engineer, I chose a path where this characteristic is amplified. I would like there to be a segment of engineering for open-minded people, but it just isn’t so, that I’ve found. Econ may be somewhere between engineering and liberal arts on this linear scale. They may be accepting, but they still tolerate stupid rules that aren’t enforced, the worst kind.

Minos August 18, 2009 at 7:25 am

In chemistry, you are absolutely right; poor formatting is a signal of incompetence or sloppy work, and will lead either to instant rejection or very negative reviewer comments of the “I found the following problems with the manuscript, but both given and due to the lack of attention to detail in the presentation and formatting, I suspect that many flaws went unnoticed” variety. Needless to say, you want more glowing responses than that if you want to publish in J. Really Cool Chem.

I think one reason for the difference is that chemists contain within their numbers a lot more people who correct your use of semicolons incessantly; they aren’t much fun at parties, either. The other, and probably more relevant reason, is that American chemical journals are *the* place to publish your work, regardless of what country you work in, if you want noteriety, and they are thus flooded by many low-quality sumbissions.

When you’re deluged with raving nonsense, sometimes the first step is to throw out all the raving nonsense that isn’t even formatted or spellchecked. Most top journals in chemistry aren’t trying to increase the number of submissions; they’re trying to do a better job of screening for quality from an already oversized pool.

Minos August 18, 2009 at 7:27 am


Apologies for the double post.

Sol August 18, 2009 at 7:35 am

My thought reading this is why the heck don’t you have a computer program to handle the reformatting quickly and automatically, making the “before submission or after?” question fairly irrelevant? A quick google turned up this page, with a huge list of (La)TeX styles for the different biology journals:

babar August 18, 2009 at 7:51 am

i can relate.
just last year i had an article rejected from “The Journal of Meticulously Formatted Manuscripts”.

Bo August 18, 2009 at 8:22 am

What if the signaling runs the other way? That is, the signal is “We are choosy and you will bend to our will whether or not this makes sense. You will jump through these hoops and not complain if we reject/request modifications of your paper.”

Bill August 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

As Minos points out above, the OP is having a forest-trees moment. The big problem in academic publishing is too many submissions, and this problem cries out for large submission fees. It’s like the (economics anyway) job market this way. For reasons I don’t understand, actually charging money fees for journal submissions or for reading job market packets is uncommon and perceived as evil by many. Given that constraint, anything which increases costs is probably good, depending on relevant elasticities as always.

Do you feel like you get too few requests to referee? Every submission consumes valuable editor time. Many submissions consume valuable referee time. The expected cost of a submission to a top journal in economics is what, maybe a thousand dollars, depending on how you value editor and referee time and how long you think editors and referees take to do their jobs.

Roger Sweeny August 18, 2009 at 9:25 am

I once had an engineering report that the prof’s biggest complaint were comma splice errors. Yes, engineering + comma splice errors. I still don’t know what they are, maybe I just made one.

Yes, you did :) Since the two clauses in the last sentence can stand on their own, there should be a semi-colon, not a comma between them.

Now I know what they are; I will no longer make them.

T J Sawyer August 18, 2009 at 9:39 am

Of course, a good editor will immediately delete a semicolon and replace it with a period.

Now I know what they are. I will no longer make them.

Brian J August 18, 2009 at 9:41 am

I never understood why some teachers or professors would be nuts about the formatting of citations, or rather, why the system itself was that way. I more than understand the need for proper attribution, but does that change in any way if a period or comma is off? Not really. It seems like the format for citations could be simplified in the way that people used to fill out an address book without any loss to content.

I don’t seem to remember it happening too much to me, but among siblings and peers, some instructors resembled dictators over this stuff. Amusing, in a sense, but still annoying.

JEF August 18, 2009 at 10:20 am

In law journals, half of the time, the author doesn’t fix the formatting even after the article has been accepted for publication. They just leave it as is and let the army of over-achieving law students clean it up.

MW Keller August 18, 2009 at 10:37 am

I have to agree with some of the above posters, “hard” sciences are already overloaded in terms of submissions. There are not enough reviewers and so editors look for ways to reduce the workload. It’s similar to the grant making agency’s policies that will return proposals without review that don’t fit the formatting requirements.

In reference to latex, it’s a great system for writing large, single author documents in (i.e. dissertations, etc.) but absolutely horrible for collaborative efforts, which most papers are in engineering and science. There are a couple of people that have suggested that the traditional word processor program is dead and wiki-style document creation is the wave of the future.

Zamfir August 18, 2009 at 10:44 am

RE: Latex. Couldn’t this work the other way round: microbiology journals assume you are using latex and therefore putting text in the right format shouldn’t be too time-consuming?

Another observation of mine that might be completely wrong:

Many economics papers appear to be individual efforts, where the actual writing of the paper was a significant part of the work. Microbiology papers appear more often to be the condensed results of larger group researches, making writing and editing a smaller part of the total amount of work involved.

Anon August 18, 2009 at 11:27 am

In reference to latex, it’s a great system for writing large, single author documents in (i.e. dissertations, etc.) but absolutely horrible for collaborative efforts, which most papers are in engineering and science.

I’m not sure how other disciplines use LaTeX, but in Computer Science, it actually works quite well collaboratively for us. We keep the source under a revision control system such as CVS or SVN, so that everyone can edit at the same time. Also, it is very easy to put notes and comments in the source to each other. Another thing I like about LaTeX is that it is easy to “hide” text, just by commenting it out.

Of course, a more WYSWYG editor also has great advantages, and LaTeX has a lot of complexity also. So there is also a lot to dislike about it.

Wiki-style editing also might work well, but the tools are not there yet to produce professional publications.

Heath White August 18, 2009 at 11:42 am

A hypothesis: the less able one is to reject on the basis of content, the more finicky a field will be on the basis of formatting. In philosophy, nobody worries about format til after acceptance. This is because you are very likely to get rejected on the basis of content. I’ll bet that in math, where a submission is almost guaranteed to be a valid proof, they are monsters about formatting.

Andrew August 18, 2009 at 11:54 am

“Why is microbiology stuck in the inefficient equilibrium?”

Haha. My department head just “borrowed” my dehumidifier because their new office is humid. My work uses a biosurfaces clean room. Humidity is kind of a big deal. I have mold on the walls, battle ant infestations every Summer, the A/C doesn’t work half the time, have to tolerate undergrads (while not getting the pay), etc. Oh, they got a new office because our building has been cut in half for the last two years. Mopping the floor of your clean room isn’t the ideal solution if the problem is a building-sized hole in your building.

Even accomplishing something on a relative scale will be a borderline miracle. Then, when I attempt to publish, my paper might be rejected for semi-colons? Tell me about inefficient equilibrium.

gd August 18, 2009 at 12:20 pm

@Noah: “Interesting that TeX has been around for over 30 years and still has yet to achieve total market penetration.”

Content-focused editing (LaTeX) has a learning curve that pays off over time but requires an up-front investment (time). WYSIWYG, in contrast, causes many problems over time but gives instant gratification.

Wayne August 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Oh, this is SOOOO annoying, and I have been dealing with this exact problem for the last 2 months! My office mate (an immunologist) just had a paper rejected from Nature Medicine, then decided to re-submit to Science (also rejected for being “timely, novel, and important, but of insufficient interest to a broad audience”) and has now been re-submitted to PNAS at the request of an academy member who heard her present the data at a conference, so it ought to get accepted this time.

Each time, the paper had to be totally reformatted and partially re-written to conform to stylistic standards (and I know, since mine is the only computer in the lab with Adobe Illustrator on it, and I get the fun task of re-formatting figures.)

Anyway, this is very common and very annoying.

Gabe August 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

In economics all the journals are trying to come up with papers that justify more governemnt intervention. The bigger the proven “market failure” the bigger the potential market within the circles of would be tyrants, rent seeking corporations etc. Thus the more ideas the better.

In Biology journals, none of the corporate or government sponsors want to see innovations come along and destroy the market value of the various Intellectual Properties that pharmaceutical companies own and politicians are getting well paid to help. The big profits come from protecting revenue streams, not innovating and destroying them.

Thus they limit ideas and red tape on the front end of the development stage.

Both are in “equilibrium” although the concept of equilibirum is always dependent on time standing still…once enough people realize all the BS that is going on a revolution can occur.

Rimfax August 18, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Are the submission requirements more rigid in fields with a stronger gatekeeper culture?

My understanding is that medicine still maintains something of a fraternity-style tiered culture. Might there be a correlation there?

Anyway, I suspect that it is something about the culture that dominates those in the field rather than the nature of the field itself.

Douglas Knight August 18, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Knuth started working on TeX two decades before Steve Jobs saw the Xerox Star and set out to make the Lisa.

Two years, not two decades. (and Alto, not Star)

rd August 18, 2009 at 5:23 pm

As an engineer, it is clear that sloppy presentation and an inability to read and follow instructions is not an indicator of clear, competent work.

When I was a junior engineer, the primary factor used in determining advancement was the ability to present your work in writing, verbally, and in drawings. That has not changed in the past 30 years. If you can’t present your information well, then there is almost no point in doing the work in the first place. Your client won’t understand what you have done and won’t want to pay for it, and the contractor will not know what or how to build it.

Maybe we have identified the primary problem with economists. The sloppy thinking and laziness in their paper formatting carries over into the theoretical work that proves that housing and technology bubbles cannot possibly exist and combining CCC bonds into one bundle transforms the result into AAA. If engineers approached their job the way economists do, all of our cars would need to be amphibious because of the amount of bridges that would have collapsed.

Cyrus August 18, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Microbiologists have grad students to do that.

Lue-Yee Tsang August 18, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Of course, a good editor will immediately delete a semicolon and replace it with a period.

No way. If the second clause moves the argument forward, full stop; if it gives a parallel premise that isn’t really a bridge from the first clause logically to the next sentence, no full stop. Logical and rhetorical flow is more complex than ‘the semicolon is useless and ought to be replaced by the full stop’: idea hierarchy is at work, and, because of the nature of real-life language, not as simply as an outline would suggest.

gdc August 18, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Economics may have reached efficiency along this particular dimension. But we still have the bad habit of ordering authors alphabetically.

Vince August 19, 2009 at 2:19 am

In mathematics, it is exactly how you describe; the journals recommend bizarre formatting (such as double spaced with lines numbered) and we all just sent in our preprints however we want. Once they accept the article, of course, you format the paper according to their guidelines, but even this is flexible depending on the venue.

Ben Kalafut August 19, 2009 at 10:31 pm

In the physical sciences, getting formatting right is almost entirely done by changing two lines of a LaTeX file.

Thus rejecting papers from those who can’t be bothered is hardly an inefficiency.

Are economists still manually formatting things?

gus andrews August 20, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I’ve been viewing this from a labor standpoint: Aren’t they just making us format the submissions meticulously so that the journals don’t have to hire staff to do it? It’s a pretty good cost-saving trick. Of course, from a labor standpoint this is also a de-professionalization measure: work that was previously the province of English BAs is now part of the repertoire of professional academics.

I was less than thrilled when a conference I submitted to — one which demanded absurdly meticulous formatting up front, with a Word doc to act as a “template” (and we all know how well that works) — recently returned reviewer comments which were ungrammatical, misspelled, and about as attentive to my paper’s details as these errors would suggest.

Ironically, my paper was on Internet illiteracy — or as the offending reviewer wrote, people who were “illiterated.” I’ve been trying to figure out if he was parodying my paper.

Akshay August 21, 2009 at 9:22 am

I’m not so sure whether it it efficient to first accept the manuscript and then have the references and finer details. I’m working on a publication (in the field of Economics) that was accepted more than a year ago, but it has taken immense time, since then, to collect paperwork and references and so forth. I wonder if the publisher still thinks that it is worth it to publish aforementioned material. All this could have been avoided if the publisher required that material be submitted in a very specific format.

Barkley Rosser August 21, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Let me add an exclamation point to the point that there is no positive
signaling gain from trying to show that one is “not a newbi” by
submitting papers to journals with incorrect formatting. Frankly, many
journal editors are somewhat sympathetic with newbies trying to get
tenure. The people that editors are impressed with upfront are people
that they have heard of, assuming that what they have heard is favorable.
If an editor has not heard of you, then it may in fact be preferable to
be a newbie. An oldie whom one has not heard of may be presumed to be
someone who does not amount to much, been around but… ???

J.Otto Pohl August 24, 2009 at 2:36 am

And I still did not get it right I meant the Journal for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism.

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