Eliminate Journal Formatting on First Submission!

Many years ago I was incredulous when my wife told me she had to format a paper to meet a journal’s guidelines before it was accepted! Who could favor such a dumb policy? In economics, the rule is you make your paper look good but you don’t have to fulfill all the journal’s guidelines until after the paper is accepted.

In The high resource impact of reformatting requirements for scientific papers Jian et al. calculate the cost of reformatting–it’s $1.1 billion dollars annually! True, the authors simply surveyed 203 authors for the time it took to reformat and then multiplied that by an hourly wage and then multiplied that by all article submissions so, at best, this is a back of the envelope calculation. What is beyond doubt, however, is that reformatting typically takes several tedious hours for a high-wage professional.

Our data show that nearly 91% of authors spend greater than four hours and 65% spend over eight hours on reformatting adjustments before publication…Among the time-consuming processes involved are adjusting manuscript structure (e.g. altering abstract formats), changing figure formats, and complying with word counts that vary significantly depending on the journal. Beyond revising the manuscript itself, authors often have to adjust to specific journal and publisher online requirements (such as re-inputting data for all authors’ email, office addresses, and disclosures). Most authors reported spending “a great deal” of time on this reformatting task. Reformatting for these types of requirements reportedly caused three month or more delay in the publication of nearly one fifth of articles and one to three month delays for over a third of articles.

And for what? Most papers will be rejected so the reformatting serves no purpose.

What frustrates me about this inanity is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one benefits! We simple seem stuck in an inefficient equilibrium. What hope is there to deregulate zoning or pass a carbon tax–where benefits exceed costs but you can understand why the process is difficult because some people gain from the inefficiency–when we can’t even fix wasteful journal formatting policy? Can Elsevier or other publishing heavyweight not unilaterally move us to the Pareto frontier! Pick up those $1.1 billion bills! Come on humanity, just do it!

Addendum: Economics is good on the reformatting score but n.b. “A prior survey-based research study on biomedical journal publications times noted a median time of first submission to acceptance of five months but this seemingly included all delays in the publication process (including review time and changes to improving scientific content).” Five months would be unheard of speed in economics where you are lucky if you get referee comments in five months!


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