How to………3: prepare a paper for submission

Recent events, in the form of papers I was asked to review and papers I had to style edit, have made it clear to me that, apparently, many people do not really know how to make a paper ready for submission. I’m not talking about the content, that depends on your research. Rather, I mean the workmanship issues that, in extreme cases, can make or break.

Obviously, editors and reviewers should judge your work based on its content: the data, the analysis, the conclusions. Did you do good science work or not? And if you did good work, are the results important enough to warrant publication in the specific journal in question? However, we all know how much especially the latter decision is a matter of gut feeling. And if you manage to upset your editors’ or reviewers’ literary stomachs, so to speak, they may end up puking all over your work even if you did excellent work. So do not mess up either the presentation of your work, nor the steps that make reviewing and editing your paper a trouble-free exercise.

Previously, I already described my method for structuring papers properly. Today, I will focus on the “making life easy” steps.

How to make an editor’s life easy

The best thing you can do to make an editor look favorably at a paper is to write a good cover letter. You should make sure that

  • you get the editor’s name right
  • you get the journal’s title right
  • you use the correct contacting procedure (check the website: email? c&p into a field in a submission system? Add cover letter as first page of a PDF you send in?)
  • you explain concisely why your paper is important.

(yeah, all no-brainers, hu? But I didn’t dream these up from nothing).

Also, if the journals asks for suitable reviewers, make sure that you provide as much contact info as possible. If they ask for reviewers you think NOT suitable, explain properly why you think so (e.g.: “Dr. XYZ recently reviewed four papers of mine, he needs a rest” or “Prof. YZX is my father in law and hates me.”) Give contact info anyways!

If you can, so not just say that your paper is Nature material, so the journal should be happy to have it. Point out why your paper is suited for that specific journal. For example, there may be classic works that your work relies and expands on that were published in the same journal. Or they may be the best journal for publishing a certain kind of electronic supplement. Or your research may tie in with or contradict recent papers in the journal. Or whatever – find a reason for the editor to think “Oh, this really is something we should consider”.

Also, before you send in a paper, make sure that the manuscript complies with the journal’s rules for formatting in ALL respects! I can’t overemphasize this: if you send the files in wrong, the editor will be pissed. If you use a wrong citation style, the editor will think “oh, we were second or third choice, but the author was too lazy to adapt the manuscript”. That’s the first step on the Road to Rejection!

How to make a reviewer’s life easy

Well, this is a more problematic issue. Obviously, if you made the editor happy, you have already gone a long way to making the reviewer happy. However, a reviewer will obviously focus on the content of the paper, so this is where you can do a few small things.

Some of them sadly are out of your control with many journals. If, for example, the journal uses one of these non-intuitive submission systems that create a PDF directly from your files, you have no control over the PDF creation. Thus, the following tips may not help you at all. Other journals, however, give you a lot of options:

  • create a PDF for review that has bookmarks created from the headers, a proper Table of Content. Set the document preferences so that bookmarks are shown on opening, or put a short “Note to editors and reviewers” just below the title (maybe in a different text color?) that says “This PDF has a Table of Content in the form of bookmarks to allow easier navigation.”
  • If you are a PDF/word processor wizard, turn call-outs to figures in the PDF or text file into links to the figures (only works if you submit one file with the figures at its end, obviously).
  • same for in-text cross references.
  • make sure that the PDF (if you are asked to submit one) is of good quality. Many install have a size reduction pre-selected; turn that off.
  • make sure that figures are shown at the correct size.

As I mentioned, often all this isn’t possible.

I had a reviewer whine for many lines about the bad quality of my figures once, when I had submitted 4-screen-sized ones at 600 dpi. Especially bad was that this paper was handled by an editor who did not read the reviews but simply looked a the recommendations. And one of them was bad explicitly because of the supposedly bad figures. What I should have done was add a small-sized but full-res sample figure, too. Also, if the submission system shrinks your figures to shitty size, it sometimes helps to do the shrinking yourself, and upload the tiny version.

Post-acceptance: how to make the editorial staff happy

Once your work has found favor, you will usually get it back not only with the scathing remarks of the reviewers, but also by someone who is a “style editor” or some such. That person makes sure that you follow the journal’s style guide. That includes using the correct type size, line or page numbering (or none), headers, way of calling out figures and tables in the text, formatting of in-text citations and the list of references, resolution for figures, and so on. A big issue is the demanded 1-on-1 relationship between citations and references. You can massively piss off some poor soul if you submit a manuscript that has excellent science in it, but shoddy formatting. Don’t do that! Today’s editor may be tomorrow’s reviewer, and if your name as author elicits an “not THAT MORON again!” you’re halfway to rejection already. Or you may even make the uncomfortable and frustrating experience of getting rejected despite good content.

So here’s a short checklist of things you should do:

  • read the journal’s Instructions for Authors
  • save the file to your computer and consult it
  • if the journal offers one, use their template
  • if not, pre-tune your word processor for formatting of headers, the page as a whole, page numbers, etc.
  • make sure that citations and references correlate
  • make sure you format references correctly, and give ALL info the journal asks for
  • make sure your figures match the journal’s demands. If they are color, print them in greyscale and make sure that you can still distinguish the different colors

if you follow all this, there will still be a lot of things to fix. But if you give everybody involved the feeling that you care about doing things right, and about making their jobs easy, then your life will become easier, too. At the latest with your second submission to that same journal.

Just so that you do not think I’m stupid: As a style editor at Palaeontologia Electronica I really had someone tell me that there should be Instructions for Authors to make HIS life as an author easier – when PE has had such a document online and accessible from Day 1. I am not kidding!

Other points: respond quickly to emails, in clear English and with a proper salutary address. Argue only about important points. Do not whine about how much time something costs you. And do make sure that if you are asked to make corrections you make them ALL, not just half. I have become quite an ass: if I make corrections to a paper, send it back to the authors, then get it back with only half of them addressed – well, that goes right back, without me doing anything on it at all. In the end, it is the authors who want their research published. Thus, it is their responsibility to deliver a publishable manuscript.

oh, and:

Use a darn reference manager!

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
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3 Responses to How to………3: prepare a paper for submission

  1. Cheers for this guide – I’m trying to rewrite my dissertation into manuscript format atm, so the tips here are all very useful!

  2. Pingback: How to………. 4: cite and reference | dinosaurpalaeo

  3. Pingback: How to………. 4: cite and reference – modrstudio

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