At the recent meeting of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) — an important and growing group representing roles that are true linchpins in any publishing endeavor — I gave a presentation that was scheduled to be an hour long. At about 35 minutes, I’d run out of material, so we launched into an “open mic” session, one which the audience gracefully took over with interesting questions, mostly to one another. One of the questions was about the increasing difficulty in promulgating, tracking, enforcing, and understanding all of the various editorial policies and practices that have accreted around journals over the last 10-15 years. The conversation quickly morphed into one about “Instructions for Authors.”
Instructions for Authors are where substantive discussions go to die. Have a problem with contributors making unclear assignments of roles? Instructions for Authors. Have an issue with figure sizing or resolution? Instructions for Authors. Have a controversy that’s new and unusual? Instructions for Authors. These documents grow as receptacles of decisions and near-decisions, a book of case law and judicial preferences.
These seemingly endless scrolls of rules and guidelines brought to mind an interview I recently heard in a podcast covering the history of corruption in politics and the emergence of laws to deal with it. It’s from my favorite American history podcast, Backstory — with the American History Guys. In this episode, they interviewed Elliot Berke of Berke|Farah in Washington, DC. Berke was noting how often he is hired to help politicians and staffers deal with convoluted rules that were the product of scandals over the years:
Most of what we still see are kneejerk reaction to scandal that create very arcane and I think impractical rules to address something that, had proper enforcement been in play, the laws on the books and the rules on the books could have addressed the situation.
This struck a chord, as often it seems that Instructions for Authors are expanded in response to some author or another doing something wrong, annoying, or novel. In essence, the instructions are meant to save the editorial office work in the future. After all, if authors would abide by them, manuscript would flow in without issue — in theory. The problem is that enforcing these complex rules requires a lot of work, which makes Instructions for Authors somewhat self-defeating as the documents swell with words and complexity.
At the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, our Instructions for Authors now amount to more than 4,100 words. They are posted only online, as is the case with most journals today. Back in the days when print was the only option, Instructions for Authors were much more concise, usually fitted to a single page. For instance, our instructions in 1954 were approximately 630 words in length. They were tightened even more in 1972, when they shrank to only 389 words. A caveat here, however — a brochure entitled, “Writing for The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery” was available upon request. It’s unclear how long this brochure was or what it covered.
Some of the expansion of Instructions for Authors involves all the new modalities of publishing, including video, animations, and larger sets of color artwork, most of it in digital form. It’s one thing to say in 1972, “black and white glossy prints” and another to say in 2014, “Illustrations accompanying your manuscript must be submitted electronically in TIFF or EPS format. Do not embed images in other software programs. Color images must be RGB (not CMYK). A minimum resolution of 300 ppi is required.” Authors have more ways of making images, which means publishers have to explain more precisely what they need to make the publishing endeavor efficient.
Other things have also changed over the years, as intellectual property rules, structured abstracts, and authorship requirements have evolved. New embargo policies and funder mandates have also increased the length of instructions.
In addition, requirements to comply to various checklists, formats, and guidelines have also increased, as groups like CONSORT, STROBE, ICMJE, and PRISMA have become involved in medicine, with other disciplines subject to animal testing requirements and a variety of data deposition requirements.
For managing editors and other manuscript experts, the swirl of requirements, checklists, and guidelines that may apply to any manuscript adds to the hidden workload of publishing. This is not a complaint for this group, per se. I believe anyone dealing with these complicated rules and protocols takes them seriously and sees their potential value and importance. What I think fosters a slightly bitter taste is that we are in an era in which some vociferous academics and proto-publishers constantly tell the world how simple and affordable publishing can be, thereby indirectly dismissing the hard work and expertise of the people they’ll want on their side next time they publish.
Oh, if they only knew . . .
With a 5-10x increase in the length and complexity of Instructions for Authors — reflecting a similar increase in the complexity of what they’re submitting — along with a half-dozen or more internal and external requirements, checklists, and guidelines overlayed on the work, it’s easy to see how processing a single paper can take hours. Moreover, most of these steps have to be done as soon as the paper comes in — Did the author comply with our requirement for CONSORT adherence? — before the paper can proceed to editorial evaluation and peer review.
This burden of pre-flight checking has increased the cost of even handling and assessing a paper for possible peer review. Looking at our own experience again, we found it cost us more the $250 per submission just to evaluate it for basic fitness. This was prior to sending it out for peer review. This correlates with other numbers found in more general studies, such as PEER. With an increase of 40% in our submission numbers over four years, our editorial staff was drowning.
To deal with the growing complexity and a rapidly growing influx of submissions, we implemented a submission fee of $250 in May of 2013. It immediately cut our submissions back to a level we hadn’t seen in years, but they rebounded fairly quickly to a level that’s more than healthy but not nearly as burdensome. At the same time, the basic quality of the manuscripts we’re receiving (as measured by level of evidence and quality of study design) has improved, and the workload for our staff and editors is once again manageable.
The complexity of on-boarding a manuscript is part of what drives these costs and makes it harder to manage increases in submission rates. Every submission requires a lot of time checking that instructions were followed.
Can this problem be solved? Not entirely, especially because there is no sign that the world of scientific and scholarly publishing is becoming simpler — an interesting counterweight to demands that it also become cheaper. The world has become more complex, as new formats, new author pools, new expectations, and new capabilities have emerged and developed over time. But perhaps we don’t need to reflexively add to our instructions with each new wrinkle. It’s often a pressure valve for decision-making (“Add it to the instructions!”), but with instructions going unread and looking weedy already, these additions are less effective each time.
There may be other approaches to ameliorate the complexity. It may be time for a pruning of your instructions, a streamlining. Instead of an editorial meeting to add to your instructions, have one to trim them back. In addition, maybe ensure that every policy and third-party compliance aspect is required, and that your current team fully understands why those are in place. You may be surprised to learn that you’ve been carrying some policy baggage around.
Design can be part of the solution. Perusing a number of Instructions for Authors while writing this post, I was struck by how many consist of undifferentiated text, with no use of color, design elements, or visual cues. This may be important for compliance. Some parts of the instructions are really important to follow — failure to do so kicks the manuscript out. Yet, these are often blended into the text with little distinction. Why not redesign your instructions with a red/yellow/green background to denote importance or a similar zoned approach, where the “vital to follow” items are given first, the “better results if followed” items next, and the “you’ll make it go faster” items last?
Long “Instructions for Authors” impose a burden on authors, staff, and editors. They can be trimmed, improved, and updated. And there’s probably no time like the present to do this. After all, part of the audience we serve consists of authors. Giving them a long list of requirements and instructions that is difficult to read and follow is not good service.
31 Thoughts on "Instruction Junction — The Ballooning Lists of Editorial Policies, and the Burdens They Create"
Organize! In the internet age, people are used to dealing with expanded amounts of information, and, speaking personally, from the author’s side, I am happy to scroll through large amounts of text so long as I can easily find what I need. (And hyperlinking everything isn’t a great idea – fancy web design may look good, but often isn’t as functional as simple searchable text.) I like the idea of the “quick start” version you suggest as well, with the key elements abstracted.
I am also amazed how many instructions-to-authors don’t contain the basic, important information I’m looking for, even for (some) long-established journals from major publishers – I’m particularly aware of this right now because I have been looking for the most appropriate home to submit a small one-off study, so I have been checking which relevant journals take short communications. Not all of the journals I checked stated clearly on their webpage which article types they accepted (although only a small minority didn’t, I admit) – and even for the ones that did, most didn’t state clearly just how long they considered a short communication to be.
Perhaps a standard template is called for. One would think that most journals need to cover the same topics, even though the specific rules may vary from journal to journal. If so then covering these topics in different ways creates a confusion burden all by itself. The same sentences can be put in many different orders, making discovery difficult.
Such a template could include the ranking you mention. Standard language would also help. Maybe this is a job for NISO or some such group. The local rules may vary but the structure can be standardized. This would also promote completeness, along the lines Jake describes above.
The problem with a standard template, an option I thought about including more about, is that journals are in a highly varied space and are creating editorial innovations all the time. Establish a standard today, and it will be modified tomorrow — almost literally — and in a way that very few journals would want to borrow.
You might be surprised, as this is something I have done a lot of work on, in my research on complex reasoning. I once built a template on designing chemical plants and they vary a lot and are constantly innovating. The trick is to abstract the topics without specifying any of the rules, a non-trivial task. There are standard patterns of reasoning for every situation, consisting of lines of thought that must be covered. This is what my issue tree model of complex reasoning is all about.
Can you give me an example of an editorial innovation?
Examples of editorial innovation are everywhere. A new article type that has a new structure. A video article series. A new interactive article. A new educational article series or type. These are everywhere, and they go back decades. Some of the older ones I’m aware of include “Images in Clinical Medicine” at NEJM and “Current Concept Reviews” at JBJS, both of which have important and different requirements for authors. Specific examples from my experience include “Clinical Decision” and “Videos in Clinical Medicine” at NEJM, “Case Connections” at JBJS, “Surgical Techniques” at JBJS (modifying a previous innovation), “Peripheral Brain” at Pediatrics in Review — and there are more in the works at JBJS which I won’t mention, but they’ll be rolling out over the next six months.
Authors often want and need very specific instructions. I think there is a difference between instructing authors and giving them a preferences and policies manifesto. Hewing to this distinction could help cut them down to size.
These are specific features, each of which needs to be explained. The template merely provides the framework, such that these explanations will occur in the same place in every journal that uses it. Given the opaque names of some of these features, categorizing them via the template might be very useful.
The whole idea of logic is that the structure of reasoning can be considered more or less independently from its subject matter. The template is a logical form for a recurring set of considerations. By analogy, no two chemical plants are the same, but there are certain considerations that apply to all. Journals are not more complex than chemical plants.
In many ways, there is a standard template, which has evolved over hundreds of years. With some notable exceptions (e.g., Nature), most journals follow the same template:
Materials and Methods
Or some near variant of that. That may be as standardized as it gets, as each field and each journal has its own requirements for articles on top of the basic template.
This is indeed the standard structure of an article. But the standard structure of what authors need to know and do is quite different. If you look at a bunch of author’s guidelines you will soon see the existence of standard lines of thought. Abstracting and mapping these lines accurately is more of a challenge, but it certainly can be done. Complex reasoning is surprisingly well structured.
What about standard Instructions for Authors – not just the template but the actual “rules”? I know they’ve been trying to standardize the reference formats for decades, but it’s only gotten worse. Why must every journal have its own set of unique rules?
A very good question, Karen. It is rather fascinating, and perhaps telling, that there is no standard reference format. I suspect that academic freedom is part of the answer. Local tradition may be another part. But the main part may be who would make such rules?
The most common used style guides are:
AP for journalists
Amer Psy Asso manual – Social Sciences, business,
MLA – Lit
ACS – physical sciences
I would guess that between these about 75% of the academic market is covered.
The urge to say, “There oughta be a law” was pervasive before (see: http://paranoiastrikesdeep.blogspot.com/2012/06/there-oughta-be-law.html) and is now accelerated by the internet (social media and blog comments such as here).
Creating rules is characteristic of modern civilization. The US Federal budget for creating laws and regulations probably exceeds the basic research budget of sixty billion dollars a year. We thus get what we pay for, research and rules. Part of the problem is that given the issue tree structure of rule systems, the number of rules increases exponentially with the level of detail. This is true for all explanatory texts. See my http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/07/10/the-issue-tree-structure-of-expressed-thought/.
I was surprised that some standardization was needed before articles could even be processed for initial review. This is not the case for book manuscripts submitted to scholarly publishers. If they had to worry about authors all conforming to some set of common standards just to submit a manuscript in the first place, the burden for publishers would increase substantially. It is a big enough burden to get authors to comply with instructions after a book is put under contract. I have seen some sets of instructions for university presses that are so long as to be mini-books in themselves! P.S. Did you mean to say “judicial precedents” rather than “judicial preferences”?
Ah, one of the major bugaboos of both authors and editorial offices.
What used to be “How to format your manuscript document” 20 years ago now includes technical guidelines, what you need to know to submit to us, editorial policies, journal policies, etc. etc. And we’re still including how to format your file.
Not to mention there are different policeis for different article types. The whole thing can be a mess.
The purpose of these words on the web are, as I see it, three fold:
(1) If an author really wants to know what the article types are or how to format he or she can find it.
(2) People who are looking for your policy on X (open access, clinical trial registration, authorship) can read it without having to contact you. How many times have we wanted to know what some other journal’s policy is on something?
(3) when the editorial office or editor wishes the author to do something they don’t necessarily want to do (deposit data, provide us a checklist), there is a written, public statement they can point the author to.
How to fix it on the web so people can find it and it’s not so many words? Your guess is as good as mine.
On a separate note, a possible answer to the problem of editorial office time is not to stress over papers you are going to reject immediately. If the study is one you would never publish anyway, why check to see if all 20 points of the CONSORT checklist are covered? Focus time and energy (and policies and procedures) on papers you might be interested in.
I am constantly amazed at how many authors submit a manuscript without having read our Instructions for Authors. I don’t mean small details; they obviously haven’t followed the most basic guidance. We try to work with nonstandard formats for a round of reviews, but it’s not always possible.
I’m beginning to wonder if some authors don’t just use their own generic style for all submissions, only accommodating a journal’s style if they get through the first round of reviews.
If the instructions are complex and highly detailed the author will say: That is the job of the publisher which, in my opinion, it is. The goal should always be KISS.
This is an important post, highlighting the valuable ‘pre-flight checking’ work that good journals carry out on submitted manuscripts. Having user-friendly and appropriate instructions for authors can make things easier for everyone, not just the authors. It can also save a lot of time, prevent unnecessary frustration, and avoid relationship breakdowns, with perhaps authors taking their work elsewhere. Too many instructions for authors are a mess, and Kent has made some good suggestions on how they could be improved. A couple of additional points.
First, I’d urge all journals to check that what they say in their instructions to authors on their websites (and anywhere else) is consistent with what authors actually find on the online submission system when they come to submit their manuscripts. This is especially important for things that are critical for manuscript progress through peer review or acceptance. Getting editorial staff, or whoever is doing the manuscript checking, to submit a dummy manuscript each year is one way to pick up inconsistences and problems. It can also help them understand why it is some authors are frustrated or driven mad by certain things. Submissions from the editor-in-chief are also guaranteed to throw up issues!
Second, it would be great if all instructions for authors were written as simply and clearly as possible, avoiding jargon. The research world isn’t just becoming more complex, it’s also becoming more international and more interdisciplinary – bear in mind those authors whose first language isn’t English or who come from other disciplines.
“…often it seems that Instructions for Authors are expanded in response to some author or another doing something wrong, annoying, or novel. In essence, the instructions are meant to save the editorial office work in the future. After all, if authors would abide by them, manuscript would flow in without issue — in theory. The problem is that enforcing these complex rules requires a lot of work, which makes Instructions for Authors somewhat self-defeating as the documents swell with words and complexity.”
Authors are also confused when they detect discrepancies between the Instructions to Authors and what actually gets published. As soon as a researcher notices something in a recently published article that departs from the Instructions and that requires extra time and effort to comply with, they will almost always assume that compliance is optional.
Conscientious authors (and their authors’ editor or translator) may try to check a recently published article to decide how to handle certain particulars. But often, no sample article is made available for this purpose, This is frustrating for people who are trying their best to satisfy the journal’s expectations.
For researchers whose first language is not English, long, detailed, unclearly structured Instructions are a huge challenge to understand and implement. Researchers can deal with discipline-specific specialized terminology and usage in English in their own field of work, but Instructions stuffed with highly technical language about layout, software, image files, ethics and other editorial- and production-related processes are likely to elicit only partial compliance.
A few ideas about how to make the Instructions easier to apply are offered in Table 3 here: http://www.ease.org.uk/sites/default/files/essay_kshashok.pdf
We managed to cut lines and lines of text from our AG’s when we switched from giving an exhaustive list of how citations and references should appear to
“Please see a recent issue of the journal for reference formats”
Further to Karen Shashok’s post, there is a lot of scope for improvement re: Instructions for Authors, as outlined in our white paper, ‘Innovating the Authorship Experience’: http://www.edanzediting.com/white-paper
In particular the “Proposed Solutions” section (pp. 14 onwards). A lot of our experiences are relevant to ESL (English as a second language) researchers.
Warren Raye | Chief Scientific Advisor
+86 (010) 6528-0877 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Global | China | Japan
Indeed, ESL authors are a growing and large fraction of all authors. My understanding is the China may surpass the US in authorship. But the basic point is surely that the rules are becoming quite complex. There is no simple way to explain complex rules. The complexity of the explanations must match the complexity of the rules in order to convey them.
If anyone is looking at their author instructions they might find my taxonomy of confusions helpful. See http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/02/05/a-taxonomy-of-confusions/. It was originally developed specifically for documents that explain rules and/or procedures, as author instructions do. The basic point is that while there are 126 possible confusion causing factors, any given instruction document will typically only suffer from a few of these. Knowing which they are can be very useful.
for my journal Free Radical Biology & Medicine we started a simpler submission system – “Your Paper Your Way”, which has up till now been taken up by over 600 other Elsevier journals. This means the author sends in a PDF good enough for peer-review, and during revision, high quality image files etc are requested. It saves annoying authors who spend hours formatting a paper using the GFA, only to have it desk-rejected! Elsevier also puts the paper’s references into journal style after acceptance – to save the author more work. The majority of authors and referees are happy with this change. A small step in helping authors – hopefully more journals and publishers will follow.
Wiley and PeerJ are also doing similar things:
Instituted that policy at CRC in 1990.
The policy was use the citation style with which you are most familiar.
“Your Paper Your Way” pushes the enforcement of the rules further down the review process timeline which may well be more efficient. It is simpler in the sense that fewer submissions are affected but the rules are not simpler. Doing the references for the authors shifts the labor but does not reduce it. Presumably it raises the cost of publishing, because the references are now crafted in house. Also, the author version must supply the necessary reference data. All in all this may or may not be a better approach.