If DVD region locking is the third stupidest thing in the world, then the second stupidest thing is …
The wildly differing submission formats of academic journals.
Long-time readers might remember that when I’m not programming, I am a palaeontologist specialising in the sauropod dinosaurs. (I got my Ph.D from the University of Portsmouth in 2009, and I’m currently an honorary research associate at UCL). One of the reasons I’ve not been writing The Reinvigorated Programmer much in recent weeks is that I have — finally — got around to working on resubmission of a couple of pretty substantial papers. (One is the description of a new genus; the other is about the anatomy and mechanics of sauropod necks.)
Both of these papers were submitted to journals in 2009, and both were rejected. (Needless to say, I disagree with the reasons for the rejections, but there’s no point whining about that — periodic rejections and resubmissions are just part of the game in academia, at least if you submit to good journals.) The procedure when this happens is to update the manuscript to reflect those of the reviewers’ point that you feel are of value, then reformat it and send it off to another journal.
In theory this is a relatively quick and easy job — a lot quicker than writing the paper in the first place, anyway. In practice, it’s a horrible demoralising slog. One aspect of this is of course just that it’s a pain to have to revisit a manuscript that you thought you’d done with. But a bigger deal for me is the sheer mindless drudgery of the reformatting process.
Here’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing in my evenings as I change my manuscript from one journal’s format to another:
- Adjusting the sizes of the margins.
- Changing the punctuation of the title.
- Adding telephone and fax numbers to the author addresses.
- Moving the addresses up before the abstract.
- Rewriting the abstract from 200 to 250 words.
- Changing the format of all the headings.
- Changing the spacing between lines.
- Changing the capitalisations of taxon names in the Systematic Palaeontology section.
- Putting commas between the names and dates in all the citations (so “Hatcher, 1901” instead of “Hatcher 1901”).
- Separating consecutive citations with semi-colons rather than commas (so “Marsh, 1878; Hatcher, 1901”) rather than (“Marsh 1878, Hatcher 1901”).
- Removing italics from the “et al.” in citations of many-authored papers.
- Putting the “e” back after the “e” in the “Acknowledgements” heading.
- Changing the “Bibliography” heading to “Literature Cited”.
- Changing the formatting of tables to have vertical lines between columns.
- Rewriting table captions to be much shorter with the rest of the old caption repurposed as table footnotes.
- Changing mentions of “figure 4” to “fig. 4” when part of a citation of another work, but to “Figure 4” when referring to an illustration in the current paper.
- Obtaining formal consent, on the new journal’s mandatory form, to cite the personal communications that I had already obtained permission to use by email.
And none of this even touches on the true nightmare of reformatting — handing the references. Everything changes between one journal’s reference format and the next. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- Authors listed as “Firstname Lastname” are changed to “Lastname, Firstname”.
- First names are replaced by initials.
- Author names are set in capitals, normal case or in some cases small caps.
- Publication years need parentheses added.
- Journal names need to be set in italics.
- In many cases, journal names need to be abbreviated, using only the sanctioned abbreviations in an official (and apparently secret) list.
- Page ranges need to be separated by en-dashes rather than hyphens, or the last-page numbers need to be removed completely.
- Publisher names (for books) need to have publication states added as well as cities.
- States must be written out in full/abbreviated in two letters.
- For chapters in edited volumes, page-ranges need to be moved from the middle of the reference to the end.
- Names of editors need to be messed about much as those of the authors are, but — need I even say? — the editor names are not formatted the same as the author names.
And so it goes on.
By the way, the manuscript that I have successfully resubmitted (one is done, the other is still in progress) has ten solid pages of references. Each one of them needs to have all these things done to them. Just think of the endless tedium and the huge potential for introducing error.
And do you know what the value of all this work is?
I will tell you.
None at all.
That of course is not the same thing as its cost. (In fact, this is a great illustration of the difference between cost and value, and why those two concepts shouldn’t be confused.) It’s costing me a lot. I’ve spent a whole bunch of evenings on this — evenings that I could have spent watching Buffy season 6, or writing The Reinvigorated Programmer, or indeed a new palaeontology paper. More frightening still is calculating the value of that time if I’d spent it on doing consulting work.
I gotta tell you, It really burns my badgers that journals are wasting my valuable time like this. I would understand it (though I’d still resent it) if it had any value for them, but the truth is that no journal derives any actual benefit whatsoever from having a different mandated spelling of “acknowledgments” than some other journal. I fully understand that each journals wants its own distinctive look, and I support that; but this can be done by typography, and most certainly doesn’t need to require all the pithering little changes that I’ve wasted the last few weeks’ evenings on.
So, when I am appointed Supremor, my first act will be to make all the journals agree on a single submission format and especially a single format for references, with instant death as the penalty for non-compliance.
You know it makes sense
But Mike, you’re whining about nothing as usual
You can use EndNote/BibTeX/whatever to reformat your references.
No I can’t — by the time a manuscript’s been submitted to one journal, the citations and references have all been resolved, and further manipulation has to be on the resolved manuscript.
But there are standard reference formats.
Yes, there are — at least eight of them (APA style, MLA style, The Chicago Manual of Style, Bluebook, ALWD Citation Manual, ASA style, Harvard referencing, and Vancouver system). And of course that makes them all completely useless for moving from one journal to another. (Plus it seems that in my own field, none of the journals uses any of the standards anyway.)
Surely the journal’s publisher can do all this formatting for you, as part of this “added value” they’re always going on about.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Is it really that big a deal?
It surely is. Suppose I spend 2% of all my palaeontology time formatting and reformatting manuscripts (and especially references). Actually I suspect it’s more than that, maybe much more, especially once you throw in all time spent studying the submission guidelines and style guides, but that figure will do. I doubt that I am unusual in this, so perhaps 2%-5% of all academic work is spent on formatting. What could be done with that extra time if it were spent elsewhere? More research, more writing, more students able to be taken on, more conferences attended? There are plenty of options.
Or to put it another way, suppose the government came up with a new tax that would take away 2-5% of your time? Or your income? How would you feel? Of if such a tax already existed, how would you feel if it were abolished?
So we need to get rid of that tax on academic work. Bottom line, it’s just stupid. Really, really stupid.