Few things will get an academic paper relegated to the reject pile quicker than an author not following that journal’s submission guidelines. Such guidelines are a quick way for editors to weed out poor-quality papers or studies that don’t fit the journal’s focus. Unfortunately, a lot of important research may be overlooked simply because the author didn’t understand the guidelines. Now imagine that you as the author are not a native English speaker, which compounds the problem of comprehension. How can journal publishers make sure their guidelines are understandable and that they aren’t turning away important research simply because of unclear wording or language barriers?
As reported in Nature, a 2018 survey by Editage found that two thirds of the more than 7,000 researchers from 100 countries surveyed had difficulty understanding journal submission guidelines and interacting with reviewers and editors. Three out of four respondents stated that preparing manuscripts for English language journals was the most difficult part of getting their research published. Seventy percent of all respondents were from non-Western countries such as China and India, which are rapidly evolving into important scientific contributors.
Toward clearer guidelines
If your journal is getting a lot of manuscripts with technical errors, formatting problems, or other issues that were spelled out in your submission guidelines, these issues may be clues that your guidelines are confusing or incomplete. Often publishers or the editorial staff don’t realize their guidelines aren’t clear, so it’s a good idea to review them periodically with a third party to get a different perspective on potential problems. In addition, you should solicit feedback from authors about how you can make your instructions better.
The two most important sections in your author guidelines are “How to Prepare your Manuscript” and “How to Submit.” These sections should contain precise directions for authors to follow when submitting their work and therefore should be written in plain language and short, concise sentences. These sections will explicitly describe the submission types the publication will accept (e.g., case studies, original research).
It’s important to include examples of what you are describing. Don’t send writers to a style guide or have them look at a published article because the formatting of a published article is not how a publisher wants a submitted manuscript formatted. You should also include specific examples for things such as table legends, citations, and references rather than simply referring to a style manual.
Clear, logical organization of your author guidelines is the key to clarity. It’s often helpful to organize basic information such as line spacing, word count, font, and required elements into a table or chart that lays everything out in a read-at-a-glance format.
Although these recommendations won’t solve the language barrier for non-native English speakers, using simple, concise words and phrasing and following standard organization methods will allow authors to more easily discern the material’s meaning. Don’t use slang or words that have developed alternative meanings. Simple illustrations, explicit examples, checklists, and step-by-step instructions can also help with comprehension.
The push for standardized guidelines
A major problem for researchers is that when one journal rejects a paper, the author will make edits and submit to another journal. Because every journal has its own guidelines and preferences, authors can spend countless hours rewriting, reformatting, and changing citation styles and table legends. Not only is this annoying for the author, but it also impedes scientific progress because of the delay in getting research published.
Several initiatives seek to remedy this situation. One is a push toward standardizing initial submission guidelines so that the first submission isn’t turned down simply because of minor style issues that don’t diminish the science behind the paper.
The other push is for a journal guidelines database. TRANsparency in Scholarly Publishing for Open Scholarship Evolution (TRANSPOSE) is a crowdsourced initiative to create a database of journal author guidelines and policies. It will allow researchers to search for journals according to policies on open peer review, co-reviewing, and pre-print policies. TRANSPOSE will also help journal publishers in setting and clarifying their policies.
Too much research is being overlooked simply because a paper doesn’t follow a particular style or comply with a policy. Publishers owe it to the scientific community to make sure their guidelines are clear and don’t place barriers in front of those who have important research to share but may not express themselves as well as someone more familiar with the language.