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“Format-neutral”: Why doesn’t every journal accept submissions this way?

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 16.05.2016
Post type: Article
Subject: Technological innovation, User experience
Product or service: Preprint

Attracting and retaining authors is a significant goal for HighWire’s publishers: based on our survey of publisher priorities, this comes out at the top!   So it is not surprising that editors and publishers spend time understanding what authors want, and what the barriers are to great experiences with a particular journal. Especially with increasing competition, this is not just an abstract “feel good” or a “do your best” kind of thing. If authors routinely go elsewhere, you may see a decline in quality submissions, with the obvious subsequent effect on impact.

There have been studies – both anecdotal and survey – of what matters to authors in deciding where to submit their work.   And these largely confirm what we know about the decision-making around submission. Scholarly Kitchen author Rick Anderson described his manuscript submission experience, and it wasn’t pretty. And Joe Esposito in a Scholarly Kitchen post highlighted one issue starkly: every author hates the manuscript submission experience. Every author but two, that is: the author who submitted a manuscript as an attachment in an email to the editor did not find that too burdensome a process. It would appear from this anecdotal report that it is the complexity, confusion, burden, time and tedium of manuscript preparation, formatting and entry that has taken a toll on author equanimity with the process. (Though as Phil Davis and others have archly pointed out, perhaps if papers were accepted more, authors would be unhappy less.  And that is the other author of the two who was not unhappy: this author’s paper was accepted for PLOS One.)

It isn’t that the manuscript submission systems themselves are bad. Just as there are some very good applications to help you prepare your taxes, people still hate the tax filing process (perhaps Phil would point out here, “except when they get a refund”).

It appears that a significant part of the problem is the effort an author has to exert, only to experience a desk rejection shortly afterward. (Rejection is the typical experience when submitting to selective journals, let’s remember.) And then the author has to go through that again, to submit to yet another selective journal. Lather, rinse, repeat. No wonder so many authors – perhaps concerned about being scooped if they delay a few days to reformat and resubmit – make their second stop a “mega journal” where acceptance is based on sound science, but not on novelty; megajournals feature less likelihood of manuscript rejection.

From a process-engineering standpoint, it seems odd that so much effort is spent up front in a workflow that leaves so many articles on a journal’s cutting room floor. It is as if you have to write an acceptance speech each time you buy a lottery ticket.

The journal editorial and production offices are of course looking for efficiency of their own – so that editors and reviewers will not have to work harder to evaluate each uniquely-formatted manuscript – and certainty that any manuscript they invest time in will be publishable – i.e., will have all their checklist criteria met for data deposit, conflict of interest, etc. So most submission processes force uniformity at the journal level and right up front. The problem is that journals – even journals in the same field – are different. So authors have to jump through different hoops as they submit (a word that Rick Anderson noted is painfully apt) to each journal.

In my Academic Publishing Europe 2016 (APE2016) talk, “Friction in the Workflow”, I identified this variety-of-submission-rules-and-workflows as one of the friction points or barriers in the researcher workflow, as if each store where you shopped accepted only its own currency. Since that talk, I’ve found at least four publishers who allow authors’ “first submission” to be in any format they want. (I’m sure there are other journals that have this policy; please comment if you know of others!) This goes beyond the “pre-submission inquiry” that many journals allow. The four publishers:

  • Genetics Society of America – GSA
  • Federation of European Biology Societies – FEBS
  • European Molecular Biology Press – EMBO
  • Rockefeller University Press — RUP

Though it is not a journal, the bioRxiv preprint server from Cold Spring Harbor Lab also allows format neutral submissions.

GSA’s approach is simple:

GENETICS accepts manuscripts in any format, including figures, tables, and references (e.g. may be formatted according to another journal’s guidelines or a format of your preference). For the review process, upload one PDF of the manuscript. If your manuscript is accepted for publication, we’ll ask you to format the files for publication according to guidelines.”

GSA Executive Editor Tracey DePellegrin gave some insight into their shift to this model: “We let people submit in any format; what’s the big deal?” Tracey explains further that previously they were very specific about what went where in a submission, but that this was just inherited from a print paradigm, “because that’s the way we had always done it.” In preparation for the 100th anniversary of its first journal, GENETICS, the society had done a user survey in 2014, and found that there was an intense dislike for submission – “people do all this work only to get rejected – so they are feeling bad and at the same time, they’re thinking of your journal.”

The Society also felt is was not in a position to continue this barrier to submission: the rise of “cascades” – manuscript transfers among journals at large publishing houses – was increasingly giving authors a “friction-free” option to move a paper to another journal after rejection at their first-choice title. No reformatting. Journals that require strict formatting wouldn’t be seeing as many papers once cascades became commonplace and well-accepted by authors.

Tracey also noted that from their survey, data revealed that early-career researchers were often the decision-makers on where to submit. They want flexibility, are less ‘brand loyal’, and aren’t used to ‘how things have always been done’. And her society doesn’t want these people with years of articles ahead of them using the words “annoyed” and “irritated” when describing their feelings about submitting articles to GENETICS or G3! Quite the opposite: as a society publisher, they want to distinguish themselves from the large commercial one-size-fits-all publishers by offering personalization and customization – you submit the manuscript in the format that you think presents your science best – and a high-touch customer experience. GSA feels this will build brand loyalty, and indeed, has developed longstanding relationships with authors and reviewers.

Most of us might think a society pubs committee would go through a year or more of discussion to shift to this process – after all, editors and reviewers would find it less efficient for themselves, and they are real heroes in the peer review process! But Tracey was candid about this: the new process got started when an author who was about to be scooped asked for a fast-track review of a paper “as is.” Editors agreed it really was just not necessary to have the references “properly” formatted according to GSA style in order to review the manuscript. And so began the seeds of GSA’s new policy of format-neutral submission.

Key benefits:

  • Saves time between submissions to journals – can submit to GENETICS or G3 (if rejected from other journal)
  • Saves author time & energy
  • Improves readability and reader experience in many cases (for early online version as well)
  • GSA make it easy for authors to submit to GSA Journals – remove one potentially time-consuming and frustrating barrier

One author’s tweet is a particular point of pride at GSA:

GSAtweet

As Tracey said, “for a 100-year old journal to be called ‘forward thinking’ is not something you’d expect, but it’s what we constantly aspire to hear from authors, readers, reviewers, and editors.”

Asked about drawbacks, Tracey noted that they use author-submitted manuscripts as the “publish ahead of print” version of articles, and so those early-versions of articles do not have the consistent look and feel that they once had.   I would note that this is also true of preprint servers, which we now have in the life sciences, with bioRxiv and others: the different PDFs don’t look alike. Yet among various concerns about preprints, that’s not one I’ve heard!

Tracey answered questions from HighWire publishers about the “format-neutral” approach:

Q: Do you have a concern about authors changing the content after acceptance, when they reformat?
Tracey: They could do this anyway in the previous system, so it isn’t a new or greater concern.

Q: Do you think this results in authors ignoring advice of reviewers and just submitting a manuscript as it was before the previous review?
Tracey: That’s certainly possible. But we believe that a lot of the manuscripts we see are “rapid rejects” so there were no reviewer comments. We would hope, though, that authors took the time to incorporate beneficial reviewer comments into any version they submit to another journal.

Q: Do you need to change much in your manuscript system [which is HighWire’s BenchPress]?
Tracey: No, we just ask for less!

Q: Is your acceptance-to-publication time longer, because of the manuscript formatting being introduced after acceptance?
Tracey: No, the composition and copy editors do final reformatting starting with either a Word document, LaTex file, or Overleaf template, just as they did before.

Q: If a journal has a checklist of compliance requirements for authors, would that preclude taking the “format-neutral” approach?
Tracey: I can’t imagine that any author would not want to comply with a journal’s formatting requirements if it meant getting an accepted manuscript published. I wonder if those items might be, say, providing data or some type of IRB approval numbers or say not providing data in a PDF format? In that case though, maybe the checklist of items could be agreed to at the time of submission, with a statement that authors would supply whatever is necessary to adhere to journal formatting requirements.

[Updated 16 May: addition of Rockefeller University Press to the list of publishers accepting format-neutral submissions.]

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