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!


This is true =(

Or journals could simply provide the TeX template to authors so that the paper is automatically formatted correctly.

They do.

LaTeX is robust, has many features and it's endlessly customizable, but I'd never describe its use as "automatic".

LaTeX, OMG the 1990’s are calling!

The issue is that content should be separable from format. For some reason, we don’t seem to have widely deployed WYSIWG solutions to this. In HTML there are DIVs and Ps versus CSS styling. Maybe someone will figure out a solution.

haha, overleaf.com ;)

I'm not a fan of MS Word, generally, but this stuff is really not bad in Word. You can have headings, subheadings, etc. and apply changes to the whole document--assuming that you did it correctly in the first place. Even if you did not, this stuff does NOT take hours.

The one big challenge is formatting references and citations--and this is handled very well by two external applications with Word plugins (Mendeley and Endnote). If one of these is used, you can format all of your references to any journal with the click of a button. Some researchers take hours to do this manually, though.

As someone who has done a lot of web development: HTML/CSS is a horrible, badly designed system. It does not achieve this at all.

You can't use CSS to easily set or alter an overall document style, because of glaring defects and omissions in the CSS language. CSS is so bad that people who have developed CSS pre-processing languages that implement the features you would actually want in a style/format language.

eliminate for matting In
b l og po sts
and splchkers tu.

If you support drafting Congressman Orléans, who is a good friend of America's and has royal blood, to replace Vice President General Mourão as Beazil's President Captain Bolsonaro's running mate in his 2022 re-election bid, please send a letter to the Brazilian Embassy. A strong Brazilian-American alliance means a strong West.

It's TC that writes love letters to big business, you are copy and pasting your usual comment to the wrong one.

Sorry, I may have misunderstood.
Your usual comment with similar wording on each TC post I assumed was a parody of TC's non-fiction non-graphic novel "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero".
Does AT believe the same things? Is his post about journal formatting relevant to big business? Was he complaining about anything connected with big business in this post? Maybe it was too Straussian and I missed it?

As a lawyer, I've always thought that courts use odd formatting requirements (blue backing, book format) essentially as a tax to discourage participation and to subsidize the dependent economy of specialized scriveners.

What are the non-standard requirements of journals that take so long to comply with?

Definitely a waste of time. I just submitted two manuscripts through Elsevier yesterday to a medical journal. Even after formatting the cover letter, manuscript, and tables/figures files correctly (which took over 4 hours), the online submission process took another 2 hours because their website is terrible and whatever software they use to compile the documents made several errors.

I disagree with Alex that no one benefits. The publishing companies and journals absolutely benefit by having this pointless hurdle in place. They are already inundated with submissions and most journals struggle to review in a timely manner. This time-sink slows submission pace and probably limits submissions to manuscripts that are somewhat well-crafted. As someone who reviews manuscripts for a few journals, for free, I also wonder how lowering the cost of submission would impact quality of manuscripts. I would be pretty annoyed if I had to review and attempt to give constructive feedback to a manuscript that was not fully-baked.

I think many (all?) Elsevier journals now have a "your paper your way" policy. Elsevier is evil, blah blah, but this policy rocks. The worst is when a journal takes your beautiful TeX paper and retypes it in Word, introducing lots of typos and making the equations look terrible.

It's fairly remarkable that journals will focus on this, as opposed to making authors clean up their actual code (and some sampling of their raw data) for publication on a GitHub repo. It says so much about the validity of the field.

Does any journal have a repo for code from their published editions?

Why should a journal provide a repo, since GitHub and others already exist? It's much better to use GitHub and link to it from your paper.

In terms of the underlying requirement, many journals want you to share your code and data. Asking authors to clean it up seems like it would be another journal-specific waste of time, though.

>pass a carbon tax–where benefits exceed costs

This is why no one takes you seriously.

His statement is more reasonable than yours. "A carbon tax" is a member of an infinite set of possible real numbers. A fractional percentage. It's more reasonable that some values in that infinite set meet the conditions than none.

Unless you have a proof that for no value of CT ..

I'm OK with a carbon tax, as long as it's offset with a higher deadweight loss tax cut, to cut actual pollution. You don't need to be concerned about CO2 for this to work.

"actual pollution" fail.

What other natural components of air, necessary for life, do you consider pollution?


It's a silly attempt to channel the argument. As I was just saying to Tyler, other human effluents are "natural" but we regard them as "pollution" when they are not kept under control.

But yeah actually, when you don't keep shit under control it does blow in the wind, both providing a noxious complaint and a vector for disease.

Luckily California does have pretty good sanitation. A notable exception are the section of the Half-Dome trail where too many people make a pit stop.

(Since we are doing this, the dictionary definition of pollution is "the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects."

That's true for too much CO2 or too much shit.

And it certainly isn't a get out of jail free card that "but, plants like CO2!"

Hate to break it to you, but plants like shit too.)

And since we are doing this, I might as well complete my political analysis.

Too much CO2 is a pollutant, by dictionary definition. It is introduced by man, and too much causes harm.

But what I think happened was this. The "Obama EPA" made that very reasonable determination, and certain people hated it. So they had to "reason backwards" to make it "not a pollutant."

I have not seen a reasonable argument to defend this conclusion, just tribalist shouting. That "we exhale!", never mind that "we shit too!"

Well, CO2 is a natural part of air, and has been well before animals. And unlike shit in the air, it is required for life on earth. We can argue about what is the correct amount, but it's hard to argue that it's pollution. If you need to distort definitions, then you've lost.

You say "We can argue about what is the correct amount, but it's hard to argue that it's pollution."

That is what we call an internal contradiction.

You accept that there is such a thing as too much, but you don't want to name that "too much" by one word. "Pollution." Why is that? Easy, it has implications under US law and undermines a conservative attack on the "Obama EPA."

Quick reminder, from this blog, two days ago:

"“Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores than those associated with levels of these compounds found in a Green building.” – Allen et al 2016. The effect seems to kick in at around 1,000 ppm of CO2."

More specifically:

"Last, we were motivated by the recent findings by Satish et al. (2012) that CO2 may be a direct pollutant and not just an indicator of ventilation; therefore, we assessed cognitive function after a full-workday exposure to CO2 while holding other variables constant."

I was actually surprised by that! Not only is CO2 a pollutant, it has direct and immediate effect on human cognitive ability. More here:

"Carbon dioxide concentration in indoor environments has long been used as an indicator of ventilation and as a proxy for indoor air quality (ASHRAE 2013b). However, this conventional thinking is being challenged as the evidence mounts for CO2 as a direct pollutant, not just a marker for other pollutants (Satish et al. 2012). We found statistically significant declines in cognitive function scores when CO2 concentrations were increased to levels that are common in indoor spaces (approximately 950 ppm)."

The journals do this to limit the number of frivolous submissions. They have imposed an opportunity cost on the journal spammers. The optimal solution would be for the journals to charge lots of money for submissions and then drop the formatting requirements.

This. The formatting requirements may be a way to reduce submissions to those that are really serious. To some extent, all application requirements serve this purpose. Coming from a Recruiting background.... sometimes making the application process too easy increases the good applications by a small amount while increasing the garbage applications by a really large amount. I'm not disagreeing with Alex's point however, as on balance he may be right. But I don't know that I'd say the requirement is 100$, completely ridiculous.

Yes. Now, this doesn't mean it's a GOOD system. Wasting people's time as a barrier to entry is still a waste of time. But the cost of removing this would be wasting other people's time (editors and reviewers). More analysis is needed to show whether this would be better on the balance.

I don't know if there is a good alternative. This is the product of the various incentives that exist within scientific publishing, and I don't know if it can be fixed without a broader reform to that system.

It would be tough to get buy in for charging for submissions (regardless of outcome). It's the kind of change that only works if everybody implements it at once.

Recent paper by Tiokhin et al models this idea: https://osf.io/gyeh8/

"Information asymmetries and conflicts of interest incentivize scientists to deceive journals about the quality of their research. How can honesty be ensured, despite incentives to lie? Here, we address this question by applying the theory of honest signaling to the publication process. Using a simple model, we show that the conflict of interest between scientists and journals can be resolved by making journal submission sufficiently costly. Submission costs de-incentivize scientists from submitting low-quality papers to high-impact journals via two mechanisms..."

We've been assured by 1%er's Sanders & Warren that undocumented citizens can format scientific and economic papers for pennies a page.

OK, I just made that up.

But that's precisely what those clowns from New England have being their entire lives.

I think formatting matters less than truth.

As my mother used to say, it all comes out in the wash.

your mother couldn't possibly have said that. And if she did, it would have been as an exception. I'm sorry if you misread your mother's expectations of you but remember things she used to say were not one of them. That's what an exception is. It' when we think about our mothers and realize we are not to say what they said. There are many things we can say and repeating something is not the same as say, writing it down, and placing it at a poor woman or never intended the effect. Which is this. If your mother had cared about her daughter's form, she would not have made a cleaning analogy. She would have made metaphorical reference to cleaning. It is not an aside but the point at which we compare ourselves to our mothers unsuccessfully that one becomes enriched without the enriching substance. Sugar anyone?

In the same spirit, "It all comes out in the wash" is an idiom meaning the problem will be resolved eventually, in the same way dirt and stains are removed by washing. The earliest recorded use of a form of this phrase is in Miguel de Cervantes 1605 satire of chivalric romance Don Quixote.

Though possibly the modern washer and tumble dryer add a new meaning. What was hidden in pockets is revealed.

"If an editor has not heard of you, then it may in fact be preferable to
be a newbie," -- this is the natural reaction to a mother's discovery. You are not a new baby; I repeat you're not something that hasn't experienced a linear connection with fragmented violence and spirited disinterest in-between. You cannot type words without typing words that have spaces in-between.

Formatting provides a signal to the reviewers and the Editor - that you are serious about the paper.

This is intentional -- it is meant to be a costly signal. So it is not going to be removed since that would increase the number of bad arguments etc submitted.

Just stop submitting to journals and publish the paper online yourself.

I could understand formatting requirements for citations to enable a more automated way to check such sources. That assumes sources are checked, of course.

It wouldn't be so bad if journals stayed within their lane and generally stuck to APA/Chicago/etc. or whatever, but it seems like every journal under the sun likes to have a modified version of one of those or some odd combination of standard styles. In that way, you can Chicago style your endnotes but then have to go through them and make changes based on whatever their "modified Chicago" mood is.

We should just adopt a fairly universal formatting, at least across certain academic spheres.

It seems this is KIND OF happening by nature of academic publishing centralizing among a few key players that demand a similar format, but this also leads to a lot of major companies outsourcing a portion of their copy/proofing to low-paid people in third world countries, assuring that though, say, Wiley formatting is fairly standard across Wiley journals that the authors need to be ever more vigilant b/c content will not be so judiciously looked over as it might have been in a time when a singular journal could have a larger team of topic experts AND traditional editors all pouring over an author's work.

It's surprising to hear this from a libertarian. Aren't the costs borne entirely by the author and journal? No externalities, right?

I think Alex is right that there is less of this among econ journals.

I am surprised he did not mention redoing References, which some commenters noted, which has usually been the most time-consuming part of reformatting when I have had to do it, although I tend to have long Reference lists, arguably too long. But there is just an incredible plethora of styles of referencing out there. Calls to just do modifications of Chicaog or whatever are a joke.

I also find it hard to believe that the 4-8 hours involved on average for this leads to three months delays for publication. Is this a matter of getting put off an issue or two?

Agree with the point, but to be fair, many of the hours are grad student hours. It was a major part of my 1st year of PhD RA assignments. Kind of awkward to suggest the Prof. should consider Mendeley or other "semi-automatic" formatting software.

the worst is journals that want you to number your refs rather than cite (Smith et al. 2015). Even if you get accepted there are always some changes and the whole numbering changes if you add or delete a single ref. Mind-numbingly stupid. Other people's money.

Comments for this post are closed