Annual Meeting Reports

Your Instructions for Authors: How Helpful Are They?

This session identified some problems with journals’ instructions for authors and offered suggestions on how to solve them.

According to Cheryl Iverson, of JAMA and the Archives journals, although they are tedious to prepare, require frequent updating, and seemingly are seldom read, journal instructions for authors not only help authors but also help publishers and journals, particularly by describing journal policies.

Updates for a journal’s instructions may have many sources, Iverson observed: the journal editor, the editorial board, the managing editor or other editorial staff, the online submission-system manager, and the publisher’s Web team.

In her experience with JAMA and the Archives journals, the publication of instructions online enables updates to occur as often as needed. She advised editors to include the date of the last update in the instructions. Benefits of online instructions include ease of access to forms, links to helpful tools, and the ability to link online-submission systems to the instructions for instantaneous access and more detail.

To serve users more effectively, Iverson recommended that journals consider shortening their instructions and highlighting items added at each revision. She then suggested that this might be a subject of research on instructions for authors—comparing authors’ use of short and long versions.

Jane C Wiggs, of Mayo Clinic Scientific Publications, presented a study that she conducted whose main objective was to determine whether biomedical journals that have high impact factors have complete instructions for authors. (This study was previously presented at the 2009 Peer Review Congress.) As measures of completeness, Wiggs looked for mention of 10 items in the journals’ instructions for authors:

  1. The journal’s peer-review process
  2. Clinical-trial registration
  3. Open access (free or paid)
  4. Public access (response to the National Institutes of Health mandate)
  5. The sponsor’s role in the study
  6. Authors’ access to all data
  7. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) Web site for policy (not style)
  8. Figure integrity or image manipulation
  9. Racial or sex bias in participant selection
  10. Detailed author contributions for publication

Wiggs studied the 46 clinical journals that had the highest impact factors in 51 Journal Citation Reports categories. The impact factors for 2007 ranged from 2.217 to 52.589. Overall, she found that the mean number of criteria met was 3.9 and the median was 4. Of the 10 criteria, the one most commonly met was description of the journal’s peer-review process (37/46, or 80%). Only 22 journals (48%) required clinical-trial registration. She observed that many journals publish author instructions that lack important information; even if a journal is “best” in its category, the author instructions are likely to be incomplete.

Wiggs analyzed the journals in a single category and found that journals with high impact factors have more complete author instructions than do journals with lower impact factors.

Tom Lang, of Tom Lang Communications and Training, identified some pitfalls and offered suggestions for improvement, using examples of instructions for authors from several unnamed journals. He identified three main problems: instructions that are tedious and difficult to follow because they essentially require authors to become copyeditors, instructions that have nonstandard and unexpected requirements, and instructions that are vague and incomplete.

Lang presented examples of flawed instructions, such as telling authors to follow the style of the ICMJE Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals and then mandating a different format for references. Lang said that instructions for authors should be short and easy to read, should make information easy to find, should be consistent with standard practices, and should be identical in the print and online versions. He also passed on a thought that was brought up on the World Association of Medical Editors’ listserv: perhaps journals should not require full formatting of manuscripts before acceptance, because authors whose papers are yet to be accepted seem to be overburdened. Lang also suggested that submission instructions should be available with the instructions for authors and should not appear only after one logs in to the journal’s electronic-submission system.

Lang recommended that instructions for authors define authorship, conflict of interest, plagiarism, duplicate publication, divided publication, and scientific misconduct. He also said that authors should be informed about how the journal will respond to ethical violations.

In conclusion, Lang advised that “the best way to handle manuscripts that are not prepared according to the instructions for authors is to get tough and reject them.”