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.