Tips on scientific writing from European Science Editors

The European Association of Science Editors guidelines for scientific writing are a great resource.

I have recently joined the European Association of Science Editors (EASE). They have a valuable document on their website: EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles to be Published in English (pdf; published June 2011). These guidelines are full of useful tips for those who write or edit scientific articles in English or translate them into English. They will be especially useful for non-native speakers of English.

Some highlights:

  • A description of what is needed in each of the main sections of a research paper
  • Various things to watch out for where English differs from other languages; for example, full stops should be used for decimal points (not commas), and Roman numerals should not be used for months
  • A recommendation to avoid phrasal verbs, such as ‘find out’ or ‘pay off’, where possible, as they are often difficult for non-native speakers to understand
  • An appendix on how to write an abstract
  • An appendix on ‘empty’ words and sentences that should be avoided, both for conciseness but also to avoid ambiguity (such as ‘good’ or ‘big’ when a more specific term could be used)
  • An appendix on how to use linking words and phrases to give cohesion to an article
  • Examples of expressions that can be simplified or deleted (for example, ‘conducted inoculation experiments on’ can be changed to ‘inoculated’)
  • Examples of differences between British and American spelling.

I was particularly intrigued by a note in the guidelines (page 4) that parallel constructions are allowed in English, though not in some other languages. An example of a parallel construction is ‘It was high in A, medium in B, and low in C’. Native speakers of some other languages might (incorrectly) want to change to something like ‘It was high in A, medium for B, and low in the case of C’.

I hadn’t realised that avoiding parallel constructions was recommended in any other languages. I’d be curious to know which languages these are, and how strict this rule is. If it is Japanese or Chinese, this might explain why I frequently see ‘respectively’ being overused by native speakers of these languages, as it would be one way to avoid a parallel construction (‘it was high, medium, and low in A, B, and C, respectively’). If you are tempted to use ‘respectively’ in this way, consider changing it to the parallel construction, which is more standard English usage.

The guidelines have been translated into many languages by volunteers, including into Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and most Western European and Eastern European languages. They are free for all to read, and non-commercial printing is allowed.

Do go and read them!

Do you really have to reformat for each new submission?

There was a fascinating conversation at the blog of neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop recently. As a side point in a post on getting replication studies published, she says:

…if a journal commonly rejects papers without review, then it shouldn’t be fussy about the format in which a paper is submitted. It’s just silly for busy people to spend time getting the references correctly punctuated, or converting their figures to a specific format, if there’s a strong probability that their paper will be bounced. Let the formatting issues be addressed after the first round of review.

Palaeontologist Mike Taylor agreed in the comments:

…it seems unbelievably stupid that when preparing my research output for the world, such a huge proportion of the effort is dedicated to inserting and removing commas.

He blogged about this issue back in 2010, commenting that the value of this work by researchers is zero but its cost is enormous. In a recent article in Discover, he says:

Most journals have stringent formatting guidelines that authors must follow in submitted manuscripts. (A colleague of mine recently gave up attempts to submit his manuscript to a particular journal after it was three times rejected without review for trivial formatting and punctuation errors, such as using the wrong kind of dash. Seriously.)

I found it hard to believe that some journals are this strict. When I was an in-house editor (for Elsevier and BioMed Central), I always ignored the formatting of newly submitted papers. I was trained to focus on whether the topic of the manuscript fitted the scope of the journal and whether it would be interesting enough for the readers. I have never seen an article rejected because it was in the wrong format.

But it does seem that there are journals that reject because of formatting before they even decide whether to send a paper to referees. Mike mentions The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology as being one, and Dorothy describes similar procedures at Journal of Neuroscience and Psychophysiology.

This seems to me to be a great waste of authors’ time. It is an insult to an author to ask them to reformat, only to then reject their paper on grounds other than the formatting – grounds that were presumably clear in the first version. If an editor is sure that they are not going to send a manuscript out to referees, why not just reject it straight away, so that the author can submit it quickly somewhere else?

I know how much time it can take to reformat from one journal style to another. In fact I quite enjoy doing this, though it helps that I am generally being paid to do it and that it is part of my job, not a distraction from important research. And I also have lots of practice in macros, wildcard searches and other tricks that make reformatting far quicker. If you’re a scientist whose main expertise is research, reformatting will be much harder and more frustrating. Scientists are good at research, and copyeditors are good at house style – why don’t journals get their (usually freelance) copyeditors to do this reformatting? The only reason I can think of is that we will charge for the work.

The best time for reformatting to journal style is after a paper is accepted. The second best is when revisions have been requested: given that there is now a good chance that the journal will publish the paper, it seems reasonable at this point to ask the author to get the formatting close to the journal style. Major things, in particular, such as whether the methods section is before or after the results, or keeping to overall length limits, are best done by the authors in revision.

I’d like to put together a list of journals that do or don’t require perfect formatting at first submission, so that authors can find out before submission what will be expected of them. This information isn’t easy to find. Of course, instructions for authors always imply that formatting should be done before submission, because (I suggest) the editors would love every author to do this, as it makes an editor’s job easier. But detailed formatting issues, like the kind of dash used (or other examples given by Mike Taylor)? I don’t believe any editor really needs this kind of thing to be sorted out by authors. If they do, they must frequently be disappointed!

If you feel that it would help your paper to get published if you reformat it precisely to the journal style before submission, I won’t stop you – after all, you will be making the job of the in-house editor easier, which might, you never know, tip the scales in your favour. And if you want to pay me to do the reformatting for you, I probably won’t say no. But at the risk of doing myself out of some work, I would recommend that authors don’t spend too much time or money on reformatting before the paper has been first submitted. And if a journal asks you to reformat when they haven’t promised to send the paper out to referees, I suggest asking why.

Your experience

Journal editors, do you expect papers to be formatted to your house style before you will consider sending them to reviewers? How strict are you about this? Why?

Researchers, which journals have asked you to reformat before they decide whether to send your paper to reviewers? Which journals don’t mind the formatting being incorrect?

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