Academics ‘lose a week a year’ to formatting journal papers

First analysis of economic cost of manuscript formatting highlights need for more flexibility from publishers, say authors

October 9, 2019
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And again… formatting a paper for a journal takes an estimated 14 hours

Most academics will be familiar with the laborious task of formatting their research articles to meet the requirements of peer-reviewed journals – multiple times over in the case of papers that are rejected by one periodical before finding a home elsewhere.

Now a study has attempted for the first time to quantify the cost of this painstaking activity, and it doesn’t appear to come cheap, either in terms of time or money.

Drawing on responses to an online poll from 458 researchers in 41 countries, a paper published in Plos One claims that scientists lose an average of 52 hours a year to formatting manuscripts – the equivalent of about one working week – either before submission to peer-reviewed titles or after they have been accepted.

That figure is based on results suggesting that respondents formatted an average of four papers a year – each of which took an estimated 14 hours to process, having typically been submitted to two publications before being accepted. Tasks involved in formatting included altering figures, tables, supplementary files and references to meet journals’ requirements.

With the median annual income of respondents falling between $61,000 and $80,999 (£49,460 and £65,675), the wage costs for each manuscript were estimated at $477 – or $1,908 per researcher each year, according to the paper.

It recommends the “elimination of strict [scientific] formatting guidelines, at least prior to [a paper’s] acceptance” to “alleviate [an] unnecessary burden on scientists”.

Four out of five scientific papers are rejected at least once before publication, according to recent research.

The authors of the latest paper – who are based at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and the University of Prince Edward Island, both in Canada – say that repeatedly formatting papers is often regarded as one of the most frustrating and time-consuming tasks in academia.

Allana LeBlanc, the study’s lead author, told Times Higher Education that the investigation was inspired by a “particularly onerous systematic review” of a previous paper that led to changes to more than 200 references.

“We joked often about how frustrating formatting references, tables, font size and headings was, and how incredible it was that this duty fell to the authors,” she said.

Dr LeBlanc acknowledged that the self-reporting nature of the poll – promoted on Twitter and completed mainly by those in health sciences – meant that the $1,908 annual cost figure could not be regarded as definitive.

However, the “problem is clear”, she added. ”Formatting to random standards set by various journals has no impact on the scientific value of the work; it just costs scientists both time and money,” she said. “Given the scarcity of grant funds in academia, there needs to be a change in role whereby the publishers take on some of this burden themselves.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Formatting is a fount of trouble

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Reader's comments (4)

Interesting to see that this topic is now the subject of a research project. I blogged about this very thing for the Copyright Licensing Agency earlier this year: https://cla.co.uk/blog/higher-education/referencing It does seem ludicrous that we have to format and reformat when the journal in question might not even want our papers. I would be more than happy to ensure the formatting requirements are addressed post-acceptance.
Good bibliographic software has been around for at least 25 years so a couple of mouse clicks reformats the references. As the majority of science journals stick to the IMRAD structure preceded by an abstract, I can't see where the 52 hours go. Or am I missing something here?
new
Good point, one could say this an opportunity for machine learning to come and help researchers writing papers to handle the bits they don't have to do.
As a chief editor of a journal myself I read this article thinking to myself, "what about all the voluntary work put into reviewing a paper?". This article complains about the effort researchers put into formatting and presenting a paper before submitting. Indeed I pay careful attention to this and proof read it several times over. And why? Because I know from reviewing however many thousand papers over my academic life and also at present I see about 1000 papers go through the review process I can certainly say that a paper which is badly formatted makes reviewing ten times harder. There is a need to present a paper that is clear and well proof checked for a journal as it is otherwise very hard for the reviewer to absorb it. This is the reality of writing good papers and if I don't find enough effort has been put into this I will return the paper to the authors to get it improved. The second point I see come up in this article is the burden of re-formatting when a paper is rejected by one journal and then submitted onto another. This is where publishers could help a bit more by journals in a given discipline being more consistent in the referencing style as that is indeed a pain to change. That is already the case in my own discipline but may not be true in others. Style can be easily adjusted otherwise. I do believe though that there are a number of researchers out there trying to rush a paper out of their work and it does pay better dividends to get a paper properly internally reviewed within their own institution before submitting, which will often lead to more successful submissions than unsuccessful ones.

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