Windmills, tilting at

Journals again. I’ve reviewed several papers in the last couple of weeks and completed corrections or updates on several more. This has once again brought me into contact with many of the joys of dealing with various journals, editors, online review / submission systems and others. While before now I’ve had a right go at the whole review system and many of the general problems it entails, here are a few more specific criticisms that seem to come up again and again and whose entire existence seems to be based around the concept of wasting time or confusing people unnecessarily. So get your popcorn and enjoy ‘Dave pointlessly whines about certain issues surrounding reviews and submissions which will probably never change’:

1. Being asked to format your manuscript according to a ‘recent issue of the journal’. And then not supplying a recent issue of / paper from said journal, which is a real pain if your library does not stock the journal. In other words they don’t’ give you guidelines and don’t give you a source of those guidelines.

2. Giving multiple and contradictory instructions. Often done in conjunction with the one above where the few instructions they do give you clash with the format in the printed journal so it’s not clear what you should do. A good subsection of this is having different formatting requirements for general submissions and then for resubmissions for publications. Why do this? Why not just have the final requirements implemented from the off? Does it really affect the editors and referees to have the subheading unnumbered during review, but not when published?

3. Journals not checking their own data. One journal, who shall remain nameless, has now registered me on their online author / reviewer system four times. This is very annoying as when asked to review a paper I have to keep logging in with different IDs until I hit the one the paper has been registered under. I doubt this affects too many people but it’s happened to me more than once so I can’t be the only one. Similarly I’ve been forced to register myself several times with various sites because when I move jobs, my work e-mail etc. changes. Since I hardly submit multiple papers to every palaeo journal every year, it’s perhaps not surprising that I don’t always remember my password or login details. Except that most journals seem to treat 3 year old login details for palaeontology papers as more secret than the average county’s nuclear arsenal so I can’t log back in without access to an e-mail address for a job I left years ago.

4. Not giving you the necessary details to format your references properly. I know I’ll come into immediate flak / tutting or head shaking since I don’t have EndNote, but that’s besides the point. Journals should provide all the information necessary for someone to submit a manuscript properly and getting the references formatted is a key part of that. Apart form the bizarre insistence on pretty much every journal ever having a different standard format, the real issue here is when the guidelines they give are very sketchy (this is joyfully compounded by them complaining that you didn’t do it right). Most commonly they don’t give examples of citations from theses or book chapters / special publications, or what to do with those that don’t use Roman scripts, but I’ve caught one or two who only ever give examples with one or two authors making it not clear how the commas, points and spaces are supposed to be put in.

I have flagged several of these issues to journals and editors on occasion and they seem to get ignored regularly. I suspect it’s seen as a minor inconvenience to correct the application process, which is understandable, except that it’s also an inconvenience to every author every time they try to format or submit a paper to a journal. It’s also likely to be a frustration to at least some editors, referees and type-setters who have to put up with all the errors that cross their desks because the authors were given confusing or inadequate instructions. So, how about a moratorium on ‘instructions for authors’? I can think of few journals that would not benefit from an overhaul and I suspect most authors would benefit from it too.Share this Post


5 Responses to “Windmills, tilting at”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 11/02/2010 at 5:58 pm

    “Apart form the bizarre insistence on pretty much every journal ever having a different standard format, the real issue here is when the guidelines they give are very sketchy”.

    No. The real issue is the first one, that every journal requires references formatted differently. There is NO JUSTIFICATION for this — none at all. If we lived in a sane world where there was one and only one format, then it wouldn’t matter how well or badly any given journal’s guidelines documented that format, or whether (more sanely still) they skipped this part completely.

    Honestly, is there anywhere in the worlds of academia and commerce a more painful example of the Pointless Waste Of Time than reformatting references for resubmission to a different journal? And don’t even get me started on (A) the various and mutually incompatible lists of journal-name abbreviations or (B) freakin’ numbered references.

    Eh, I gotta go lie down.

    • 2 David Hone 11/02/2010 at 7:26 pm

      Mke, we are on exactly the same page. I can agree on two systems – some journals really do need / want and abbreviated format, and that’s OK. But yes, one normal format and one short format. And a standard list of abbreviations for every journal.

  2. 3 Mike Taylor 11/02/2010 at 7:33 pm

    Well, we’re on nearly the same page, anyway. Two formats would indeed be a vast improvement over the current system of an effectively infinite number of formats. But, no, I don’t see a legitimate need for the second format, nor for journal abbreviations. Space is not THAT limited; and it’s going to become increasingly unimportant as we move inexorably towards electronic-only.

    (One of my few real problems with the PLoS journals is their utterly brain-dead abbreviated-journal, numeric-citation bibliography format. This in journals with NO space limitations whatsoever. *headdesk*)

    • 4 David Hone 11/02/2010 at 10:29 pm

      I do agree utterly with the numbering system, hateful to do, hateful to read. 1000% agree.

      And yes, while I ust be nice to PLoS1 before Monday, why they use this is utterly, utterly beyond me.

  3. 5 David 13/02/2010 at 7:08 am

    I think that one of the problems is that journal websites get updated infrequently by publishers with no coordination with actual changes in the format of the journal itself. I don’t think it is usually editors’ fault but publishers. It’s like those university websites where the “recent publications” on people’s webpages are all from 5 years ago.

    I really don’t understand why there would be a submission and a resubmission format. I haven’t heard of that.

    Yeah that PLOS format for references is the most annoying of all. It used to be used by the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management too – the top journal in Env Econ. Anyway, now they use numbers in the text but the numbers are now in alphabetical order rather than the order in which they appear in the text which is even more bizarre. Footnote references are used in some disciplines and make sense but numbers where you have to flip to the end of the article all the time to see what is being referred to are ridiculous (and even worse in current electronic formats than they were on paper).

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