Let’s Get on the Same Page (or Format)! – An Editor’s Opinion on Journal Formatting

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

We’ve all been there. Working deep into the night, fighting sleep, trying to finish the latest manuscript, only to be confronted with…journal formatting. You left it until the end, and why not, scientific papers are structured virtually the same, right? Of course, a thorough read of the Instructions for Authors for your selected journal tells a different story. Lo and behold this journal uses the numbering system for in-text citations, places a period after author initials in the references section, as well as a host of other eccentricities that were not a part of your last manuscript! If you are like many others, you sit there and wonder (with some anger), why?

Why in the discipline that demands and covets structure, consistency, clarity, and reproducibility do we fail it in the seemingly simple facet of manuscript construction? Some suggest that it is to distinguish journals, while others suggest that particular formats are best depending on the content or audience. However, neither of these answers really holds water, given that the vast majority of researchers could not distinguish journals based on their formatting requirements and a well-written article is going to be amenable to any reasonable format.

What’s worse is that these formatting requirements cannot be ignored. Manuscripts are commonly rejected or at least returned for further editing because of incorrect formatting. This can be very costly. Certainly, this is the case with respect to time lost in having to reformat your paper. However, the downstream financial effects can be significant if rejection due to lack of formatting leads to publication in a less prestigious journal. As we all know, it is both the quantity and the quality (i.e., impact of the journal) of the material published that will often dictate funding opportunities and job success.

So, what’s the solution? There are two possibilities:

1) Journals adhere to the same format (depending on the scientific field) – This option would necessitate that all journals for a particular field (I mean this broadly, e.g., all of the life sciences fields) adopt one agreed upon format.

2) Format-free manuscripts – This option involves submitting manuscripts to journals under a format of your own choosing (under the general guidelines of a typical manuscript) and formatting would only be required after journal acceptance.

Option 2 is certainly the more easily obtained solution and is a step in the right direction. Some journals have actually adopted this for initial manuscript submission (e.g., Journal of Experimental Biology) and some have adopted this option for certain sections of their manuscripts (e.g., PeerJ indicates that you can format your references however you like (within reason of course).

While option 1 will be more difficult to achieve, I think it would have the greatest overall benefit. However, to get all of these journals to follow the same format for their publications would likely need some governing body to step in and that seems unlikely.

That said, option 2 does appear to be gaining some traction as journals are beginning to recognize (likely at the behest of the scientists that publish in them) that scientists should be focused on doing good science and producing manuscripts that are clear and concise, rather than ensuring that they italicized the journal name in their references section.

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