Formatting a paper for peer review can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when there is no certainty that it will be accepted. So, should you bother?
The answer may well be “yes” if you don’t want to see your carefully crafted paper rejected out of hand before it even reaches the peer review stage. A desk editor would be well within their rights to dismiss any essay that does not meet basic journal requirements, such as word count and format. At the very least, they would likely insist that the author make the necessary amendments before they consider the work for publication, which is a waste of everyone’s time. The best course of action is to check each publisher or journal’s rules regarding their minimum expectations. Taylor and Francis, for example, insist that authors use double spacing and line numbers; that they include an abstract, affiliation and any figures that they wish to use; and that funder information, references, ethics statements and consistent citations are all present.
You might also want to bear in mind the fact that, if certain standard elements of a paper do not appear or are inconsistent, peer reviewers are likely to judge it more harshly, and to spend more time commenting on technical details than the content. This is particularly true if the peer review is single-blind and you are a PhD or early career researcher. The more junior you are, then, the more you may want to focus on perfecting your formatting at this stage in the publication process, and on following journal requirements to the letter (though, of course, not even senior academics are immune from criticism!).
It is also worth bearing in mind that specialist reference management software exists, which is specifically designed to help researchers format and reformat their citations and reference lists. Some, such as Mendeley, are available as add-ins for Microsoft Word, others (Zotero, for example) are free to use, whilst some institutions provide access to EndNote. This means that, as far as references and citations are concerned, there may be no need to compromise between time efficiency and flawless formatting.
There are, of course, exceptions to the above rules. One of the main ones is if you are submitting to a journal that will accept format-free submissions. An increasing number of publishers, amongst them Elsevier, Wiley and Taylor and Francis, are opening up their journals to less rigorous formatting specifications prior to acceptance (although you will still need to check the rules for each journal, as not all operate on this basis). Whilst you may not have to meet all formatting requirements at this stage, consistency remains key. The same can be said of less traditional, open access publishers, such as F1000Research, where the emphasis is on speedy publication and transparency, and there are no strict rules regarding referencing and citation styles at any point in the publication process. This being said, they clearly state that poor English can lead to rejection before the peer review stage, and that basic rules regarding uniformity of referencing and presentation must be followed, so you will still need to make some effort to ensure that your work is well-organised and cleanly formatted.
You may, then, be able to avoid some of the more onerous aspects of formatting your paper for peer review, but you should always check journal requirements, and aim for professionalism and consistency every time.
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