How to read journal instructions for authors

10th Jun 2013

Journal editors often complain that few authors seem to read their instructions for authors. But journals don’t make it easy to read these instructions. Every publisher has its own way of displaying the instructions, with differences in the wording for the same thing, in the order in which information is presented and in how the information is split over web pages.

I’m going to attempt to bring some order to the chaos by picking out the points that really matter. These are:

  • Subject areas
  • Threshold for significance
  • Article types
  • Policies
  • Length limits
  • Article format for submission

There are also some things that nearly all journals require, which I’ll summarise at the end.

Scope

The most important thing to read when you are considering whether to submit to a particular journal is what subject areas it covers. This aspect is pretty straightforward, although it is the only area covered by most commercially available tools for choosing a journal, such as Edanz’s Journal Selector and JANE.

One important aspect to consider, however, is how broad a subject area you would like the journal to cover. If your study will be of interest to readers in more than one field, you will probably want an interdisciplinary journal that covers both fields.

Threshold

There is generally some statement in the instructions for authors or elsewhere in the journal information about the impact, significance or interest threshold. This can be written in all sorts of ways. For example:

  • Nature requires that articles “are of outstanding scientific importance” and “reach a conclusion of interest to an interdisciplinary readership”
  • Blood takes into account “the originality and importance of the observations or investigations, the quality of the work and validity of the evidence”
  • Cell says “The basic criterion for considering papers is whether the results provide significant conceptual advances into, or raise provocative questions and hypotheses regarding, an interesting biological question.”

‘Megajournals’ include a statement that the journal does not select on the basis of perceived impact or significance. For example:

  • PLOS ONE says “PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership”
  • Frontiers says “Review editors focus on certifying the accuracy and validity of articles, not on evaluating their significance”
  • Scientific Reports says “Referees and Editorial Board Members will determine whether a paper is scientifically sound, rather than making judgements on novelty or whether the paper represents a conceptual advance.”
  • Biology Open focuses on “publication of good-quality sound research without a requirement for perceived impact”.

If you choose a selective journal rather than a megajournal, it is important to consider carefully whether your study is likely to reach their stated threshold. Get a colleague in another field to read your title and abstract and give an honest view of how groundbreaking they think it is compared with papers in various possible target journals.

You are likely to be biased towards finding your own work fascinating; never forget that editors and reviewers won’t share this view.

Article types

The instructions always include a list of the types of article that the journal publishes. Your paper must fit one of the article types and must follow the instructions for that type (especially regarding length limits).

What I call a research paper can be called by a variety of different names:

  • Original article
  • Original research
  • Research report
  • Primary research
  • Article
  • Letter

The word ‘Letter’ is used for a full (short) research paper in some journals (such as Nature journals) but for something much shorter in others, akin to the more colloquial meaning of the word letter.

Journals have a variety of criteria to distinguish between different article types. Sometimes the main difference is simply length, but often there is a difference in ‘significance’ or ‘completeness of the story’. These can be rather subjective judgements. Read a range of papers in the journal to get a feeling for the differences.

If your article isn’t a research paper, it is equally important to check whether the journal publishes articles like it. Usually journals invite review and comment articles, but some also accept unsolicited offers. Always send an email first describing your proposed review or comment, rather than just submitting it.

Policies

The policies section will vary a lot depending on the field. It will cover things like:

  • requirements for making data, software and materials available
  • ethics for animal experiments or human studies
  • adherence to subject-specific guidelines such as MIAME or CONSORT
  • adherence to authorship criteria, such as regarding ghostwriting and guest authorship (see the criteria laid out by the ICMJE)
  • whether they will accept papers that have previously been published on a preprint server or presented at a conference
  • policies on discussing the research with the media before publication.

It is crucial that your research follows all the guidelines for the journal. Violations can lead to immediate rejection.

Journals vary in how strict they are. However, if your study follows the highest possible ethical standards you are unlikely to find major differences between them. The exception to this is in journal policies on previous publication; newer journals are often less strict on this, and there is ongoing debate about the issue so instructions might change.

Format for submission

Some instructions aren’t to do with the manuscript contents itself but rather its file format and other things to do with how it is uploaded to the journal’s submission system. Publishers vary in what they require in terms of:

  • File formats allowed (commonly allowed formats for text are doc, docx, odt and rtf; TeX files may or may not be accepted)
  • Whether the text and figures should be in a single file or separate files
  • Whether the figure legends should be under each figure or at the end of the text
  • Whether a cover letter is required and what it should contain
  • Whether page or line numbers should be included
  • Whether the manuscript should be double spaced
  • Whether suggestions or exclusions of reviewers are allowed or encouraged
  • Whether submission has to be through the online system or whether post or email is allowed

Following these instructions is advisable, as online submissions systems can be inflexible. If you don’t follow the instructions there may be a delay before the manuscript is looked at by the editors or sent to review.

Length limits

All print journals and many online-only journals have length limits. It is best to keep to them at first submission, if only to avoid annoying the editors and reviewers and to avoid having to shorten your paper later if it is accepted. Some journals will reject any paper that is too long without considering it.

There are usually also length limits on the title and abstract, and sometimes on other sections too. Limits on the numbers of figures, tables and references are also common.

Formatting within the manuscript

Then there are the details of how the manuscript is laid out. In general these instructions are not quite as important at the submission stage as those listed above, as any problems can be fixed once the article is accepted. However, some journals are strict about this kind of thing being done properly on first submission. And it isn’t always clear from the instructions to authors how strict they are. See my previous post about formatting for initial submission for more.

The kind of thing that journals care about in this category are:

  • Whether the abstract is subdivided into sections
  • What sections are required in the main text (usually Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion or similar)
  • What order the sections should be in (whether the Methods come before the Results or after the Discussion)
  • Whether citations are allowed in the abstract
  • Whether the reference citations should be numbered in order or given in the form “(Author et al., 2009)”

Non-varying instructions

Finally, there are the requirements that practically all journals have, although they can be worded in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Use SI units
  • Define all abbreviations and special symbols on first use
  • Cite all figures, tables and references in the text
  • Gene symbols should be italic; protein names should be Roman.

For more on what most journals tend to have in their instructions, see the generic set of instructions provided by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME).

There are companies and freelance editors, including me, who can help you to comply with instructions for authors for your target journal.

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