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The Black Hole

Calling for a unified paper submission style


Before we get to today’s post, a final reminder for postdoctoral fellows to help inform the policy that governs their status, salaries and future opportunities in Canada by filling out the CAPS postdoctoral survey. Earlier this month, I wrote a UA news article on its importance and encourage you all to read through it and forward to your postdoctoral colleagues (including international postdocs in Canada and Canadian funded postdocs abroad!) – today is the last day for the survey, so please consider filling it out. And now, back to our regular programming:

Last month, a colleague (thanks Steve!) forwarded me a correspondence in Nature that complained about the enormous amount of wasted time that goes into preparing grant proposals. The authors extrapolated that over 400 years of cumulative researcher time in Australia alone was spent on preparing applications that would not get funded. In some small defence of the current system,  it is important to give appropriate consideration to the best experimental design and the best team of collaborators and researchers to work on the project and this should take time, though some streamlining would almost certainly help curb some wasted effort.

Importantly, this link got me thinking about other places where researchers waste time and the most egregious example of time wasting has to be the submission of the same research paper to multiple different journals each with their own style requirements. Authors will spend weeks altering the same data set and core ideas to fit the new journal’s style, resulting in a colossal waste of researcher time and money. This could all be solved with a simplified and unified submission style that was accepted by all journals. Post-acceptance, authors would be more than happy to spend weeks making it fit the journal’s style and requirements.

Prior to acceptance, peer reviewers are being asked to judge whether or not the research paper has the necessary quality and scope for a journal. It does not really matter what font, reference style, or abstract length the manuscript uses or even whether or not the results and discussion are one section or two. What matters is the quality of the research and ideas and whether they fit with the journal.

The current system burns through hours of potentially productive research time while the manuscript gets bounced through two or three journals’ individualized peer review systems. A unified paper submission style would result in quicker turnaround times, less peer review burden (since all papers would have essentially the same structure), and should require minimal effort to enact worldwide. The one concession I would make is to have options for “short paper” (e.g. 2-3 display items) or “long paper” (5-7 display items) to best match with journal options for brief reports and full articles.

The core components of any life science paper are the same across the major journals:  a brief summary, some context for why the experiments are being undertaken, a description of the experimental results and the implications of these results for the wider field.

I challenge our readers to give me any reason why we should not push for a single paper submission style as soon as possible.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SC / April 30, 2013 at 16:00

    Great idea! One of the time-wasting activities for a researcher is re-formatting and re-submitting the same manuscripts to different journals. Even the journals under the same publisher (say, Elsevier) would have different styles, requiring re-formatting.
    Hopefully the emerging role of PLosOne would help in pushing forwardc the ‘unified style’ theory, at least in teh field of biological/biomedical science!

  2. PN / May 1, 2013 at 10:09

    “I challenge our readers to give me any reason why we should not push for a single paper submission style as soon as possible.”

    The humanities.

    That said, I support your proposal with regard to the physical sciences and the social sciences.

  3. Maarten Vonhof / May 1, 2013 at 16:22

    Here here! You should submit this post as a letter to Nature (and other similar high-profile journals) for more widespread dissemination and hopefully more pressure on journals to stop wasting our time!

  4. Julia M. Wright / May 1, 2013 at 18:23

    I understand the frustration, having spent a number of hours at this sort of thing myself, but how much time will it take to lobby for such a change, collectively define that standard format, and then implement it across hundreds of journals and presses? It’s easier to walk around the building than to turn the building around.

  5. Dave K / May 1, 2013 at 19:16

    PN – I’m curious why you say “The humanities”… is this because multiple styles are not common across different journals? or perhaps it is not common to have multiple submissions of the same manuscript?

    Is there some sort of intrinsic merit in having different formatting in the Humanities?

    Thanks for your comment!