Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Nathan A. Stevenson. Nathan is Associate Professor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at Kent State University. He currently serves as Associate Editor for the journal Assessment for Effective Intervention.
As the story goes, a famous rock band used to insist their dressing room include a bowl of M&Ms with all of the brown M&Ms removed. The removal of brown M&Ms was not simply a quirky request, but a formal provision in the contract between the performers and venue management. This tale is often told to illustrate the gross excesses and eccentricities of rock musicians at the height of their fame and influence. The very premise of the story invokes a sense of privilege and power few people ever experience. Though there are true tales of performers requiring odd, expensive, or elaborate accommodations as a flex of their celebrity status, the story of the brown M&Ms is not one of them. The basic facts of this story are indeed true. The underlying rationale described above is not. This contract provision, belonging to the band Van Halen, served a much more practical purpose. More on that in a moment.
Some academic journals, and the editors of such journals have developed odd, and sometimes angering reputations for onerous, arcane, and seemingly arbitrary formatting requirements of manuscripts submitted for review. Rather than simply stick with the standard format of the chosen field of study (e.g., Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th Edition), some journals require manuscripts be formatted in a unique way. Examples include the use of non-standard fonts, alternate organization of section headings, uploading of tables and table captions as separate documents, and even specifying the order of content within a manuscript. And, just like Van Halen and the brown M&Ms, the stories and rationale behind such formatting requirements are as numerous as they are annoying, which is to say, very. Many scholars have experienced the annoyance, confusion, and disbelief of having otherwise high-quality work desk-rejected for failure to follow formatting requirements. These instances fuel perceptions of journal editors as sadistic, tyrannical figures driven purely by ego and schadenfreude. Fortunately, there is no more truth to these perceptions than to the assumed motivation behind removing brown M&Ms from the Van Halen dressing room.
As many journalists have previously reported, the contract clause to remove brown M&Ms had nothing to do with the band’s candy preferences. Van Halen’s legal and management team included this provision in performance contracts as a clever mechanism to quickly determine if venue management had thoroughly read the contract. As singer David Lee Roth noted in his autobiography, if the band or their representatives arrived to find a bowl of M&Ms sans brown ones, it was a clear indication that venue management had indeed read the contract. This gave the performers and their management team reasonable assurance that other, much more important provisions (e.g., critical safety and security procedures, technical specifications for lighting and sound, weight thresholds for staging, and electrical service) were being honored. The presence of brown M&Ms indicated exactly the opposite, kick-starting a necessary item-by-item check of the entire production. Essentially, the brown M&Ms were a shortcut to assessing compliance to critical components necessary to make the show happen smoothly and safely. Clever, eh?
In academic publishing we see the same mechanism at work in the form of specific manuscript format requirements. On the author’s side, non-standard formatting specifications are unnecessary hoops to be jumped through. On the editor’s side, compliance with formatting is a shortcut to evaluating the worthiness of a manuscript for peer review. At a time when academic journals are overrun with submissions, formatting is one way editors can efficiently filter manuscripts that warrant peer review from those that do not. If an author has taken the time to thoroughly read the submission guidelines and alter their manuscript to fit, the editor has some assurance the rest of the manuscript was crafted with care and attention to detail. Filtering by style compliance is also a task that could easily be assigned to the journal’s action editor who may or may not have expertise in the journal’s specific field of study. Of course, attention to formatting does not necessarily equate to quality science, or quality writing. Nevertheless, it is one [mostly] objective criteria editors can use as an initial gatekeeper to peer review.
It is easy to see the appeal of such a strategy. It is quite easy to explain, and easy to justify to authors whose manuscripts get rejected. Having a lot of desk rejected papers also keeps acceptance rates low, potentially adding to the prestige of a journal without overburdening reviewers or associate editors. However, this strategy is not without costs. One could easily argue that style should never trump substance when it comes to scientific information. And the quality of research within a publication is certainly more important than any journal metric (e.g., impact factor, acceptance rate). At least it should be. The public benefit of making scientific data visible and available is simply too important to be stifled by things like headings and fonts. Rejecting a paper merely because of formatting issues may keep valuable scientific data out of the public record and ultimately slow the pace of scientific discovery.
Likewise, the time spent formatting and reformatting an article is time that would be better spent on more direct research tasks like study design, data collection, and analysis. The time necessary to find, read, and format a lengthy paper [presuming one actually does these things] is often significant time that cannot be recouped. In the aggregate, that loss of time may have a considerable negative impact on ones’ career and the availability of important scientific data more broadly.
And yet the core function of a journal editor is to shepherd sound scientific research into public view while keeping out research that is erroneous or unsupported by credible data. It is a difficult job with an immense weight of responsibility to journal readership, the scientific community, and humanity. Filtering by explicitly defined formatting criteria can make that job much more manageable, enabling editors to devote greater attention to issues of scientific merit.
Unique style requirements are certainly not used by all journals. It would be a mischaracterization to suggest they are the only point of consideration in article screening. Some manner of specialized formatting requirements may also be attributed to technical requirements of publishers and the quirks of online manuscript submission systems.
The preceding discussion should not be taken as an endorsement or refutation of specialized formatting requirements nor their use in screening manuscripts for review. The point is merely to dispel a myth of academic publishing and enable better communication between authors, editors, and other stakeholders. Regardless of whether one loves or loathes such things it is in everyone’s best interest to have a clear understanding of the machinations of manuscript review. So, the next time one is asked to metaphorically remove the brown M&Ms, keep in mind it is likely just the editor, “Workin’ so hard, to make it easier, whoa”.