Wasting time on the margins of academic writing

29-jumping-through-hoops-w1200-h630Recently I submitted a paper to a leading journal. They had incredibly specific requirements for formatting for submitted papers, and numerous templates in Word, SciWord, Latex and so on for the use thereof. Being a leading journal and wanting to maximise the scant chance they might not bin it after a good bellylaugh, I spent some time formatting columns, table  titles etc to their specifications. Why? Im an editor, and a reviewer of papers. I have seen, literally, thousands of academic papers in my lifetime. I don’t, really, care, about style. I care about content, and that the style and typesetting and layout are such that I can easily comprehend. Never once have I rejected or thought worse of a paper for style issues, within reasonable bounds of sanity. I don’t care what the title formatting is, the kerning,  whether the section numbering goes 1.A.i or 1.1.a ot any combination. I dont really much care if the titles of figures have double, single or indeed any underlines. Im not impressed by a left of a right equation numbering, or the tablenotes being in 8 or 10 font. It makes no difference to me if the the tables have stars or p-values, or t-values, or some combination of these to satisfy frequentists.  If the margins are 1.3 or 1.5 cm, care I not. Centered versus right , top versus bottom, the placement of the page numbers is irrelevant, so long as they are there.

Don’t even get me started on citations. I don’t care. I prefer alphabetical but can live with numerical. I care not so long as the citation is complete enough, in text and in the references (or bibliography or cited literature – we know what it is) that I can hunt it up if I need to. It is irrelevant as to whether journal titles are capitalized, italicised or otherwise folded spindled and mutilated  so long as its clear what they are. Full names vs Initials, the year in brackets or not, before the title, before the journal and after the title, after the …who the hell cares? Nobody.

It is particularly frustrating to have to jump through various stylistic hoops that differ minutely from journal to journal when one is submitting papers. Whether one uses Word, Scientific Word or a LatEx environment, inevitably application of templates and style sheets fails and manual intervention is needed To their credit Elsevier have abandoned this nonsense, at least in the Economics and Finance area.  There, just submit the paper in a legible form. (note : I edit two Elsevier journals, and this has made the job a bit easier. Others take note) . A paper that is accepted by any decent journal will be prepared for publication by a team of professionals. Yes, we need to ensure that they can do it as complete as possible, but that is mostly around references, where the proofreading comes in . A request from the production team “please supply X for reference Y” is not uncommon, where one has missed a page number or a publisher. They are professionals at that not you.

There is one possible reason for such hoop jumping. Spending time on these suggests that the author is very keen on submitting and will thusly submit good work. Im not sure I believe in this signalling – mad and cracked authors , of whom there are many, will happily spend hours and days on these rather than on the hard work of making sure the content is right, and there is usually a submission fee to deter the most egregious casual submissions. Most of this comes from the editors and associations, and is meaningless persnicketiness in the modern world.

We should allow authors to submit a paper formatted pretty much any way. So long as the thing is legible and the references are complete and accurate, the editors should process and the reviewers review. We are scientists, not typographers nor publishers. Time is the only thing we cannot get more of. Making authors spend time on pointless hoopjumping is wasting their time. Its inefficient to have people worrying about kerns and fonts and layouts when these will be done by those paid to do so anyhow.




6 thoughts on “Wasting time on the margins of academic writing

  1. Conor

    Couldn’t agree more. For every 10 hours spent on completing a Research Paper I’d love to know how many are spent on the aesthetics. I’d say the ratios would be shocking.

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Wasting time on the margins of academic writing

  3. cormac

    I get around this problem nowadays by mostly publishing in the same journal. It’s the best in the area and I upload my pre-prints to the Physics ArXiv anyway, so why bother with alternatives?.
    That said, I don’t really mind the slightly different formatting required for different journals if it’s mainly confined to references, citations and footnotes. It’s true the publishing house will recast the whole thing anyway, but the less they have to mess with your original, the better, in my experience!

  4. Wolfgang Marx

    I am not so sure about those professionals who will sort these things out. In my neck of the woods (arts, specifically music) most publishers – certainly those of books – outsource the typesetting and standardising to freelancers who are not always good, or aren’t always given the time to do it properly. More and more often the baseline is that if the author doesn’t do it there is a risk that nobody will do it, or others wll do it badly. But that could be a problem specific to the humanities…


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