Submitting a Manuscript Should Be Easier

Submitted a paper to a peer-reviewed journal lately? Found that it took you approximately 100 times longer than you thought it would? I’m putting on my crank pants for this week’s post!

My experience with journal submissions typically goes something like this. I spend a year or so collecting all the data from that great experiment I set up last summer. I spend a few months analyzing it and talking to others about it. It takes a month or two to write the first draft of the paper, and then it goes through a half dozen serious revisions before it’s finally ready to submit. I go into the office at 8am, excited to submit the paper, figuring I can go home at 9, feeling satisfied with my productivity for the day. But somehow I always forget to anticipate that I’ll spend the entire day trying to submit the manuscript, going home closer to 9pm far more frustrated than anticipated.

In the old days (or so I’m told…I am after all very very young),  one printed out a few copies of the manuscript, stuck them in an envelope and mailed it off to the journal. Online submission was supposed to save us time and money and make the submission process even easier. I contend it’s done the opposite. I seem to find myself doing pointless activities assigned to me by the submission robot:
Count the number of words and/or characters in the manuscript, or in just the abstract, or in each section separately.
Make sure the Figure Legends and Table Legends on are separate pages. Don’t put the figure legends under the figure, where it’s be more convenient for the reviewers.
Make sure you add line numbers, even though the journal will add their own more confusing line numbers over the top of them.
Be sure to include your fax number on the title page, even though nobody has faxed anything in a decade.
I’m sorry, you used the full journal name in your References section? Please spend hours looking up all the appropriate journal abbreviations and use those instead.
But above all, make sure your figures are at an insanely high resolution and in the right file format for the journal. Somehow I wait just long enough in between submissions to forget how to get high resolution TIFFs from my Powerpoint file. At certain journals, you can’t even submit the manuscript unless their computer system deems your figures to be of sufficiently high resolution, regardless of what you own computer says.
Fail to do any of these things, and you’ll find yourself dealing with that manuscript all over again the next day when the managing editor returns it.

Look, I mostly get why a lot of these things are important for the journal. Obviously, image resolution of figures is critical, especially when folks are reading these things on their Retina Display iPad. However, there is almost zero percent chance that the journal is going to accept the initial submission of the manuscript as is. Has anybody had a manuscript accepted on the initial submission? The best case scenario is that the editor accepts it after you make minor revisions. If you’re lucky enough to resubmit following revisions, then you go through the whole process again, all the while realizing that you wasted your time doing this the first time. When the journal accepts a manuscript, I would be willing to jump through hoops to put the manuscript in whatever format they want, but bothering to jump through any hoops before that is a waste of time…for both authors and the editorial staff.

There’s a lot of things in the world I complain about, but don’t realistically expect to change. This one seems easy to fix. We’re all frustrated by the same problem, albeit to different degrees. For those who are editors at these journals, you have a lot of sway, even at the large for-profit journals. Let’s make the online submission process as easy as it should be.

I also want to give a shout out to The American Naturalist, where I still find submission to be relatively easy. Figures can be embedded within the text. It doesn’t matter if the resolution of the figures can’t be seen from space. You submit it just like you’d send the manuscript to a colleague, with minimal red tape.

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