The untold cost of formatting manuscripts

Just how deep is this time and money sinkhole?

4 October 2019

Jon Brock

Tetra Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The average scientific paper takes researchers around 14 hours to format — that’s according to a new study published in PLOS ONE.

For the study’s lead author, Allana LeBlanc of the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada, formatting has been an enduring frustration.

“We joked often about how frustrating formatting references, tables, font size, and headings was and how incredible it was that this duty fell to the authors,” LeBlanc says.

The issue is not just that formatting has to be performed once, but that different journals have different formatting conventions. If a paper is rejected, it often requires reformatting before it can be resubmitted to a new journal.

To estimate the time cost of formatting, LeBlanc and her colleagues developed a 5 minute survey which they promoted through email, websites, blogs, and social media. The final sample included 372 respondents, each of whom had submitted at least one peer- reviewed paper that year.

More than a week's work

In total, the average manuscript required 14 hours of formatting. That included initial formatting, reformatting for a new journal when the paper was rejected, and final reformatting after the paper was accepted. On average, the respondents researchers spent 52 hours each year formatting manuscripts.

Respondents were also asked to provide their annual income. From this, LeBlanc and colleagues calculated that the average cost of formatting a paper was US$477. Over the course of a year, the cost per person was US$1908.

LeBlanc and her colleagues note several important limitations of the research. Respondents were not a representative sample of researchers. Most (60%) were from Canada, there were more women than men, and the sample is likely to be biased towards the authors’ own field of health science.

It’s also unclear how accurate researchers are at estimating the time spent on formatting. The initial plan had been to ask researchers to keep a diary during manuscript preparation but that would have added more time to an already onerous task.

What matters, says LeBlanc, is not the exact numbers, but the “spirit” of the work. “We aimed to highlight that the time-cost is significant — be it $200, $2000, or $200,000!”

Call for change

LeBlanc and her colleagues suggest that the cost of formatting should be borne by the publishers rather than authors. They also note that costs would be reduced substantially if publishers relaxed their formatting requirements for initial submissions to their journals. Such an approach is already adopted by some journals including the open accessPeerJ and eLife and by Nature and some Elsevier journals.

The paper has struck a chord amongst researchers on social media. Tanita Tasci, Head of Research Policy at the University of Glasgow tweeted that researchers should avoid publishers that are “hung up on formatting”.

Bridgette Kelleher, a neurodevelopmental psychologist at Purdue University agreed that formatting is a sinkhole, but that hiring an undergraduate to format papers for her lab was a “game changer”.

Paul Fowler, Chair in Translational Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, described formatting as a “shocking waste of time and effort” and urged journals to “wake up” and agree a common submission format.

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