Recently I submitted an article for publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal. The process was a nightmare. In order to finalize my submission, I had to
- negotiate a misleading and counterintuitive third-party platform
- read and try to absorb several pages of arcane (and sometimes self-contradictory) format guidelines
- categorize my article according to a rubric that did not make sense
- follow an uploading process that left me, at several points, unsure of whether I would have the opportunity to include essential figures
Never has the word “submission” seemed so bitterly apt as it did during this process.
Even worse, I strongly suspect that I screwed up at several points in the process, and that while reviewing my submission, the editors probably rolled their eyes and said something to the effect of “Why won’t these stupid authors read the directions?”
There’s a simple answer to that question, of course: your directions suck, your submission process is ridiculously and needlessly complex, and authors have better things to do than learn and adapt to your workflows.
Based on this and similar personal experiences, and on what I’m hearing from fellow authors (and editors), it seems clear to me that we have a major problem in the world of scholarly publishing: too many publishers are making life easier for their editorial staff by making life harder for their authors. The fact that a journal will typically have many, many more authors than editorial staff suggests that this approach is exactly backwards. What I preach to my fellow librarians would seem to apply here as well: we need to focus on bringing complexity indoors—imposing it on ourselves behind the scenes rather than imposing it on those who are trying to use our services.
In libraries, the negative response I get to that assertion is often based on the fact that our patrons are mostly students who are here to get an education. Why should we try to make life easier for them? College isn’t supposed to be easy (so the argument goes); it’s supposed to be difficult.
I actuallly agree with that statement. But my rejoinder is always the same: yes, college should be difficult. It should be a challenging, stretching, exhausting intellectual experience. But it seems to me that the challenge and the stretching should come from engagement with intellectual content—not from the process of trying to get access to the intellectual content.
Of course, it’s also true that libraries are in a very difficult competitive situation when it comes to patrons: an awful lot of what the library offered in the past at a high cost (in time and energy) is now on offer at a very low cost from competitors, and this has implications for how cavalierly we can treat our patrons’ time and pateince. Publishers are competing for authors as well, and it’s only to be expected that those publishers who have the least difficulty attracting authors should also be the ones that worry the least about making it easy for authors to submit content.
But I don’t think that makes it excusable.
So, enough with the complaining. What can we do to improve the manuscript-submission process? I have a few ideas, and I welcome more and better ones from commenters:
- Instead of making every author master the arcana of manuscript preparation for your particular journal, the publisher should have a few people master it internally so that authors can submit their manuscripts according to an absolutely minimal number of standardized rules. This might be expensive—but consider the expense imposed on the system as a whole by the current arrangement.
- What if we had an industry standard for the manuscript submission process? The standard process would make life easier for authors, and adherence to the standard would both create an advantage for journals in their competition for top authors and also save every journal or publishing platform from having to reinvent the wheel of article submission itself.
- Given that a standard that works for social science papers written in MS Word may not work for mathematics papers written in LaTeX, what if standards were established by discipline rather than industry-wide?
- Perhaps the first round of editorial and peer review should be format-agnostic. Deal with pure content first, and accept or reject the paper on that basis—if accepted, then and only then will the author have to deal with format specifications. Make the initial submission process a simple matter of sending in one’s paper as an email attachment in one of several acceptable document formats.
Now, I realize that there are probably publishers out there already doing some (or maybe even all) of these things. If so, I apologize for my ignorance and would be interested in hearing about them from commenters—please do let us know which publishers are doing this particularly well. I’m also probably missing other and better ideas that are obvious to others; by all means, let’s hear them.
But one way or another, if we could get this problem resolved by the next time I have to submit an article, I would really appreciate it.