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The Evolution of Author Guidelines

December 14, 2012

Congratulations are due to PeerJ for succeeding in bringing into focus an essential publisher service that has been little publicised in the past.

The journal opened for submissions on December 3rd, and many tweets and blogs have been spawned by the following passage in the Instructions for Authors:

We want authors spending their time doing science, not formatting.

We include reference formatting as a guide to make it easier for editors, reviewers, and PrePrint readers, but will not strictly enforce the specific formatting rules as long as the full citation is clear.

Styles will be normalized by us if your manuscript is accepted.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to assert that every manuscript ever submitted up to this point had perfectly formatted references in journal style; in fact it is relatively rare to make no edits at all on a reference list. Journal Production Editors have been converting reference formats since journal publishing began; laboriously at first, but the digital revolution has certainly helped in recent years, with more automated processes and specialist typesetters taking on much of the tedium.

 As the PeerJ guidelines correctly state, a requirement for a particular style can help the editorial and review process, and I would go further in saying that it can impose some rigour on the creation of the reference list, helping to ensure that all critical elements are present. However, it has been the case for some time that publishers have barely batted an eye if an article happens to arrive in the incorrect format, as long as all of the important content was present.

 At Wiley, we took this a stage further on the launch of our Wiley Open Access program back in May 2011. We made a point of paring the formatting requirements down to a bare minimum for the entire article. The Author Guidelines state:

 We place very few restrictions on the way in which you prepare your article, and it is not necessary to try to replicate the layout of the journal in your submission. We ask only that you consider your reviewers by supplying your manuscript in a clear, generic and readable layout, and ensure that all relevant sections are included. Our production process will take care of all aspects of formatting and style.

And with respect to the references:

 As with the main body of text, the completeness and content of your reference list is more important than the format chosen. A clear and consistent, generic style will assist the accuracy of our production processes and produce the highest quality published work, but it is not necessary to try to replicate the journal’s own style, which is applied during the production process. If you use bibliographic software to generate your reference list, select a standard output style, and check that it produces full and comprehensive reference listings…The final journal output will use the ‘Harvard’ style of reference citation. If your manuscript has already been prepared using the ‘Vancouver’ system, we are quite happy to receive it in this form. We will perform the conversion from one system to the other during the production process.

There is no doubt that this service, which has been quietly in operation in most journals for some time, has now been thrown much more into the limelight, and this can only be positive because it showcases one of the valuable services that professional publishing can provide.

Reading through the blogs, I see that the more overt adoption of this service as a point of policy is already spreading to more journals, as it has to eLife, and Elsevier’s Free Radical Biology & Medicine.

 This can only be a good thing.

Will Wilcox, Journals Content Management Director for Life Sciences

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2012 1:24 pm

    As a copy editor I found this particularly interesting. Generally I find that references are the most problematic area of books and journals. Often authors have not bothered to check their details and not only do I find that references are are not styled as per guidelines (which can be corrected relatively simply, but is often rather time-consuming) but often, and more importantly, information is missing or incorrect. The copy editor often has to become a ‘PubMed detective’ in order to check and locate references. I am sure that I am not alone in finding that there are many cases where references have merely been copied from other works and these errors then become the norm. In some of these cases authors may never have actually read or even seen the original work they may be quoting from. My personal view is that if authors cannot use due diligence in their sources then it does cast a shadow on the accuracy and importance of their main work. However, I have to be pragmatic and follow guidelines provided by the publisher. The net result is that sometimes that it can take longer to edit the references than the actual article.

    • Will Wilcox permalink
      January 2, 2013 4:13 pm

      Thanks for your interesting reply. Indeed, the vagaries of journal style for references have always represented a significant proportion of a copy editor’s work. Of course, this could change rather rapidly, and there is a significant difference between content and style in this sense. I’m not sure anyone has perfected a system for it yet, but a copy editor’s time may be best spent ensuring that the elements of a reference are all present and correctly identified, rather than worrying about punctuation and emphasis; especially when layout and style may soon be managed ‘on the fly’ rather than being optimised at the outset for print. The ‘PubMed detective’ element may never go away entirely, therefore, but one could imagine tools that would ease the process considerably if the content was properly structured up-front.

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