Preparing a manuscript for submission (or how to waste hours of your life): the problem and how to solve it

As scientists, we must publish. We must publish to communicate our science. But we must also publish to get a job, to keep a job, and to get a promotion.

As scientists, we are responsible to conduct the research and write the content of our manuscript. Logically, journals and publishers should take this manuscript, have it assessed and reviewed, and then when found to be acceptable, format it for publication. However, as every person who has ever written a scientific paper will know, journals and publishers ask scientists to format their submission to certain standards, which are different between journals and publishers.

This means that scientists must spend considerable time formatting their manuscript before they can submit it. Then, if the manuscript is immediately deemed not suitable for the journal, scientists must find another journal to submit it to, and then spend time re-formatting to the standards of this new journal. Sometimes, scientists must do this three, four or five times before their paper is accepted.

Does this make sense? Why should scientists be forced to spend time formatting their manuscripts over and over? Manuscripts necessarily need to be submitted in a way that make it easy for the editors and journal staff to work with, and for the reviewers to review. But other that this basic requirement, why do scientists have to adapt their manuscript to suit each journal? Is the formatting of references important? No. As long as they are included in the appropriate location, are formatted in an intelligible and consistent way, it makes no difference at the submission and review stage how the references are formatted. Why does it matter if sections are numbered or not numbered? Does line spacing matter?

Worse yet, scientists draft their manuscript, take the time to include an abstract and list all authors and their affiliations, only to be asked by the journal, at submission time, to re-enter the title of the manuscript, the abstract, each author and their affiliations. Why so much duplication?!

Scientific sinkhole

In 2016, a group from Ottawa, Canada conducted a survey to determine just how much time (and money is wasted) formatting scientific manuscripts. Thus, there is a power inequality between scientists who have to write and submit scientific papers and journals and publishers who receive and publish these papers. They found that scientists spend approximately 14h per manuscript formatting each manuscript, which, given the median number of papers each scientist published, amounted to 52h per year, or USD$1,908 per year. That is correct, for each paper that is published (and those that never get published and end up in the file drawer), almost USD$2,000 is wasted per year. Given the number of papers that are published each year, this represents millions of dollars, and thousands and thousands of hours. And who is paying for this? Journals? Publishers? Of course not.

A broken model

Publishers get their content for free. Scientists do not get any money from publishers. In fact, some journals and publishers have submission and publications fees, even for non-open access publications. These fees increase to $1,500-5,000 for open-access papers.

But it is clear that journals and publishers also get a part of the formatting done for free as well. And what is the most frustrating is that publishers do not use Microsoft Word to typeset our manuscripts. They do not keep all the formatting we include to make our manuscripts look nice on submission.

Scientists are short on time. Surely there is a solution to this problem. Surely we can give back thousands of hours and millions of dollars back to scientists to do more research.

A simple solution

There is no reason we cannot have a standard manuscript format. This format would include various text files that include items like authors, author affiliations, bibliography files, study title, abstract, and other information (e.g. funding, acknowledgements, conflict of interest declarations, study registration details). The journal and publisher would be responsible to extract the study title, abstract, etc and insert it in the required fields of their editorial manager software. Similarly, the journal and publisher can take this information and prepare the full manuscript: title page, abstract, manuscript, references, etc.

If a journal or publisher wants to have papers sent to reviewers formatted a certain way, they can ask someone to write a one-time program to render the paper. Similarly, when the paper gets finally accepted, a one-time program could take the material provided by the scientists to render a HTML and PDF version of the manuscript.

Publishers make millions (and some billions) of dollars of profit each year. Surely they could employ programmers to create this type of interface. An interface that accepts a standard input, a standard manuscript format, to generate a specific output.

Why should scientists do this work?

A standard manuscript format is therefore required. This would require time and effort to create. There would likely be different opinions as to what this format looks like, and it would have to accommodate a wide range of different requirements (figures, tables, formulas, special characters, etc). It would also have to be created in a way that allows for future additions (e.g. executable code, interactive figures).

Importantly, this format should be generated and maintained by the scientific community, not journals or publishers. There are many examples of successful, large-scale open-source projects. Some of these projects get contributions from industry, or are in part supported by industry. Thus, publishers could facilitate the creation of this format. Rather than being seen as greedy capitalists, they could give back to the community that underpins their business, the community that provides them with their content, and up to now, countless hours of free formatting.

Conclusion

Tax payers should be furious. Funding bodies should be furious. Universities and research institutes should be furious.

The time for a standard manuscript format has come. This is a problem that effects every scientist, researcher and academic. This is a problem that can be solved. What is needed is funding to support a team to oversee the creation of this standard manuscript format. People, institutions, journals and publishers need to be consulted. Various options need to be created, tested and piloted. New tools need to be created. People need to be educated and trained. When all of this is said and done, the return on investment would be unheard of. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours saved each and every year.

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