Although the “Your Paper Your Way” concept has found its way into many scientific journals since its introduction in 2011, many journals still require authors to format their paper according to very specific guidelines at initial submission. This often includes rules for font type, margin size, and numbers of panels allowed on a figure. The guidelines themselves can make the submission and peer review process lengthier and more arduous, especially when a manuscript is rejected and needs to be reformatted to fit a different journal style (even up to several times) until it is eventually published.
However, the real problem for many authors is to first understand and clearly follow journal submission guidelines – not only because of language issues, but because instructions can sometimes be confusing and even contradictory. Here, we look at the most important things to look out for when following journal guidelines and give tips on how to circumvent some of the common problems to make sure your manuscript is not rejected at first submission because it does not conform to the journal standards.
Will my paper be rejected if I don’t follow specific journal rules?
The short answer is “probably, yes.” Manuscripts can be rejected for technical reasons (e.g., inappropriate methodology or inaccurate conclusions) or editorial reasons. Even if you think your research question is brilliant, your findings groundbreaking, and the world absolutely needs to know about your work, an editor with too many submissions to choose from might just look at your manuscript and decide that it does not fit the usual scope of their journal or is not in line with the general format they expect (e.g., it is way too long) and reject it without even going into any further details. The best way to avoid risking a rejection due to such issues is to prepare every manuscript following general structure and formatting guidelines in your field before you even choose a journal to submit to. That usually means following the IMRD (or IMRaD) structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) when writing the first draft of your paper, which you can then adapt to whatever specific style your target journal follows (e.g., regarding in-text citations and the reference list).
Table of Contents:
- Find the Author Instructions
- Aims & Scope
- Preparation Guidelines
- Submission Process
- Common Ambiguities and Inconsistencies
- Presubmission Enquiries
Find the Author Instructions
You find the journal submission guidelines on the homepage of your target journal – usually under a tab with a name containing the words “author,” “instructions,” guidelines,” or a combination of these terms. Sometimes you must first find a page titled “Publish” or “Submit” or “Contribute” (as opposed to “About,” “Content,” “Current Issue,” or “Archive”) that then leads to a site titled “For Authors” (as opposed to “For Referees” or “For Reviewers”). If you don’t see any link to author instructions at first glance, never assume that there are no specific guidelines to follow. They are somewhere. If you are lost, use the site search function or search for “[your target journal] author guidelines” on Google.
Aims & Scope
The next step is to make sure that your paper matches the “aims and scope” of the target journal. If you do not find a statement on aims and scopes or the “purpose” of the journal under the author instructions, then go back to the main site or use the search function. Matching the aims and scope of a journal means that your field of research is what the journal covers (e.g., don’t submit a paper on mouse behavior to a journal that only covers research on humans) and that your research question is relevant for the journal audience (e.g., basic researchers vs medical practitioners). Manuscripts being outside of the scope of the journal they are submitted to is one of the main reasons for desk rejection.
Additionally, check that the journal publishes your manuscript type. If you submit a medical single case report to a journal that only publishes longer case series that include four or more patients as well as a literature review, you cannot expect the editor to make an exception for you. Reviews are also often not included in the types of articles many journals publish or if they are, they are subject to even more specific rules and guidelines (e.g., regarding search methodology, covered period, and amount of included literature. No matter how much you want your article to be published in a certain journal, not carefully checking such details or hoping that the editor will accept your manuscript anyway because of its relevance will most likely backfire. If you are unsure where to submit your manuscript to begin with, have a look at this article on how to find the right journal.
Now that you are sure your article is a good match for the journal you want it to be published in, go back to the instructions for authors and carefully check that your manuscript format is in line with the journal style regarding the following points:
1. Title page: Journal review processes can be single-blind or double-blind. That means that either the reviewers can see the authors’ names and affiliations but the authors don’t know who reviewed their manuscript (single-blind) or that even the reviewers don’t know who submitted the manuscript (double-blind). In the latter case, the title page needs to be separate from the rest of the manuscript (and is usually submitted as a separate file), and the manuscript cannot contain the names of institutions, institutional review boards, or authors. Also make sure the corresponding author is clearly identified on the title page (but only there), so that the journal knows who will be responsible for communication at any point during the peer review process.
If there is any confusion about the person in charge at initial submission or if the manuscript needs to be sent back and anonymized before it can be passed on to the reviewers, the editor might just not want to invest that extra time and effort and sort your manuscript out in favor of others that can be proceeded with quickly.
2. Manuscript length: You might have a lot to say and think that every paragraph and every piece of information in your manuscript is essential, but if the target journal has a specific limit when it comes to word count and/or numbers of tables, figures, and references, then submitting anyway in the hope that it won’t matter will often lead to a desk reject. If you are very lucky and the editor does think your work is interesting enough, you will be asked to make changes and submit again, so that your manuscript can be sent out for review. If you don’t want to cut down on information but don’t want to risk such back-and-forth or an outright rejection, then check if the journal allows you to submit “supplemental” files and reorganize your manuscript before submission.
3. Specific rules on where to put information: Some journals have very strict ideas about which details should be included in the manuscript and where. Even if these rules might seem a bit excessive, don’t expect the journal to change their rules just for you. For example, carefully check the guidelines to see whether the results or study design should or should not be included in the article title. Likewise, the introduction section can end with a brief summary of the results of your study or just with a summary of the research question and methodology – make sure you follow whatever the journal wants you to do.
Another important part of a submission are declarations/statements regarding funding, potential conflicts of interest, ethical compliance, and data availability. Check whether these have to go on the title page (especially if the manuscript has to be blinded) or if they have to be listed at the end of the main text.
4. Tables and figures: Many journals prefer a manuscript text file with all figures and tables included at first submission, to facilitate the review process, even if they have to be resubmitted in a specific format and as separate files after acceptance. However, what most journals insist on even at first submission is figure quality (i.e., high resolution, clarity, and readability) and consistent (sometimes specific) labelling. Go through all the details on the submission guideline site and don’t skip over rules that seem too excessive to you (e.g., regarding font, font sizes, color schemes, or file formats) to save time. If the journal editor thinks your manuscript is too far away from the journal format or that you (the author) don’t seem to be willing to comply with the journal rules, that saved time can easily result in a rejection.
5. Text format: Many journals have clear rules on what font type, font size, margin size, and line spacing to use. While that might seem a bit picky, it takes no time to adapt these things if your manuscript is already in line with general journal article formatting rules. But make sure you also follow guidelines on what headers to use in the abstract and main text, on header capitalization (title case vs sentence case), and on whether to use page and (continuous or section-specific) line numbers.
Other details you should not miss when going through the journal instructions are whether the target journal uses American or British spelling and punctuation, whether abbreviations need to be spelled out at first use or presented as a list before the main text, and what reference style the journal wants you to use.
6. Cover letter: Not all journals require a cover letter, but the ones that do usually have very clear ideas about what kind of statements (e.g., that the manuscript has not been published before) and what information (e.g., reviewer suggestions) it needs to contain. Remember that the cover letter is your chance to convince the editor that your manuscript is worthy of being published before they even dig deeper into the details of your work and make sure to not only follow all guidelines but also give it your best.
Now that your manuscript is in order and complies with all important rules and guidelines, you are almost ready to submit – usually via the journal online portal. What you still might need to prepare are official forms that the journal provides on their website for you to download and fill in (e.g., authorship statements) and standardized checklists (e.g., for randomized clinical trials (CONSORT) or for systematic reviews and meta‐analyses (PRISMA)) that might have to be added to your submission. Don’t skip these because you think it’s too much work and you’ll wait and see whether your manuscript will be reviewed first and submit them later if necessary. Editors want to see such checklists to make sure your work complies with all standard rules and guidelines BEFORE they consider investing their and the reviewers’ time into getting it published in their journal.
Common Ambiguities and Inconsistencies
There are some common ambiguities or even inconsistencies in journal guidelines that can lead to confusion among authors who are trying to do everything right but end up not knowing which rules to follow. The reason for such inconsistencies is usually that the journal has added on more details to their original guidelines over time or combined guidelines for several sub-journals and never reviewed their instructions in a holistic way. If you come across such inconsistencies, don’t despair – just make a reasonable choice and either let the editor know (in the cover letter) that you were unsure or follow the general formatting rules for journal abstracts and wait for further instructions at a later stage of the review process. Or, if you come across some of the following inconsistencies, we have some advice for you.
Placement of statements: It happens fairly often that guidelines tell you to place Acknowledgments or the Funding statement onto the title page as well as at the end of the main text. Don’t add the same statements twice, and don’t just randomly split them up and put half on the title page and half at the end if the instructions are unclear. First check whether the journal review process is single-blind or double-blind: If the manuscript needs to be free of author names (and initials), locations, and names of institutions, then put all statements on the separate title page, because funding information and ethical statements usually contain such details. If the manuscript does not need to be blinded, then simply decide on one location and keep the statements together, for simplicity. An editor will not reject your paper simply because of the placement of these declarations – but if your manuscript looks messy overall, the random placement or splitting up of statements can increase that impression.
Word count: It is not always clear if word count applies to the entire manuscript (including abstract and declarations) or just to the main text. If your manuscript is above the limit when you include everything and just below if you exclude some parts, then look up several articles in the most current issue of the target journal and check what rule the journal seems to apply in reality. If you are still unsure, then address the issue in the cover letter and offer to reduce the word count if necessary. But note that this only applies if your manuscript length is close to the journal limit, whatever way you count. If your paper exceeds that limit by far, then don’t waste your and the editor’s time and either shorten your manuscript or choose a different journal that does not require such changes.
Reference style: Journals often explain their reference style in words but then provide an example of how to cite an article that is either ambiguous (e.g., regarding journal name abbreviations or the use of punctuation) or in direct contrast to the just stated rules. If that is the case, then look up the current issue of the journal and use the reference lists you find in published articles as reference.
No clear formatting guidelines: If the target journal does not tell you what fonts or line-spacing to use, then opt for the simplest and most basic format that follows general standards. Times New Roman size 12, double spacing, no text justification, 1-inch margins, continuous page numbers, and half-inch paragraph indentations are a good basis to start from. If you then make sure that your structure (e.g., header names and capitalization) and style (e.g., in-text citations) is consistent in itself, any necessary changes can easily be applied later in the review process.
If you have a specific target journal in mind but matching your manuscript to the journal format would require a lot of work and you are not sure if your chances at being published in that journal are high enough to warrant putting in all the effort, then you can also opt for a “presubmission inquiry.” Such a request consists of an email that, like a cover letter, explains why you think your work is relevant and should be published in the target journal, with a summary or abstract of your paper and all relevant information copied in or attached to the email. Some journals mention this option in their guidelines and provide instructions on how to go about it, while many don’t. You can, however, always try to email the editor-in-chief with such inquiries, especially if you have a question about a particular issue (e.g., no previous article on your topic in the journal or methodology that is not commonly used in your field) that you worry might prevent your article from being published in the target journal. Even if you receive a negative response to such an inquiry, you will save a lot of time and can quickly proceed with a submission to another journal.
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