Today I have mostly been writing a paper. It’s pretty nice, and I feel quite pleased with it because it shows something I wasn’t expecting. On the other hand my heart is sinking because I know what is coming shortly. I am going to have to submit it for publication.

Scientists are expected to have a pretty wide range of skills. An enquiring mind and understanding of the scientific method: they should come as standard. But to that you have to add things like specific laboratory expertise, maths and statistics, often a good dollop of programming talent, and perseverance (to a pretty high power). And that is before you finish your PhD. Then come the ever mounting demands of presenting your data, managing your finances (not to mention managing people!) writing papers and grants, reviewing other people’s papers and grants, and yet more perseverance. Eugh.

And at some point journal editors decided that we needed an extra set of hoops. I cannot say how much I fear those words ‘Instructions for authors’. They mean ‘Huge pain in the arse for authors’.

I mean, I am a scientist, not a bloody graphic designer. Some of the instructions for handling images are completely impenetrable to me. Down the corridor there is a computer which is specifically maintained with an old retro version of Powerpoint because in more recent versions it is not possible to save the file in a sufficiently resolved format to be acceptable to some journals. And what’s with this from PLoS?

“…we cannot accept for review or revision any documents created in Microsoft Office 2007, even if “saved down” to the 2003 version.”

There follows some guff about how changes in the new version of Word are

“incompatible with the established workflow processes of many publishers…”

Now I don’t know exactly what an established workflow process is, but it sounds very much like they just can’t be arsed to change things around. Note that I can think of many publishers who do NOT have this problem.

And this isn’t even the point. Check out that statement again; “…cannot accept for review or revision”. They’re insisting on this before they’ve even agreed to publish it! That’s what really gets my goat about scientific publishing. You know as well as I do that an awful lot of papers don’t get into the first journal they go to. That means you have to sit down, and reformat your paper – shaving a few words off the abstract here, changing the titles of the sections there, and then letting your reference management software crash your computer multiple times as you try to get the sodding references in the right format (like many of you, I have stayed up all night re-inserting references over and again in the face of this scourge. Again, I have laptops which have old versions of this software on, because I trust only them to not paralyse my PC*)

And then you sit down with the web based submissions system, where you have to enter every author, and their address, and their phone number. Again.

Why is there not a single format for initial submissions? Better than that, why are all initial submissions not done in pdf? You can make them on your own computer and send them direct. If somebody does not happen to have Acrobat, then the online tools can be used, but as an exception. I can’t understand this. If the Natures and Sciences want to keep up their policy of splitting papers into an often absurdly short summary of results, which is then linked to the supplementary material where the real paper is, then that is fine. But everybody else…?

This has been a long winded way of getting around to this link. It’s not strictly about submitting an article, being instead about a dreadful experience trying to get a journal to accept a technical comment, but in several ways it resonates with my point above (thanks to João Carrico for bringing my attention to it via Twitter).

*Mac users – don’t start