“Dear Author”

On April 1st of this year, I celebrated one year as Managing Editor of The Pan-Pacific Entomologist. For many years, I thought an editorship might be something I’d like to do; however, I must confess that when this opportunity did arise, it was with some trepidation that I accepted. Could I learn the role quickly enough? What was the process for dealing with the printer (a process I knew nothing about)? Could I effectively organize the manuscript process from submission to publication, influence the Editorial Board on policy matters and maintain high journal standards? Most importantly, could I return the journal to on-schedule publishing? Despite these doubts, I couldn’t have asked for a better first opportunity than The Pan-Pacific Entomologist—rich in history, biosystematic in focus and fairly well-known without being too terribly large. I’ve gained some comfort in the role now and am, to this point, pleased with the quality of the papers published and the progress made towards returning to on-schedule publishing.

In my previous role as Subject Editor, I dealt with authors primarily from the standpoint of getting their manuscripts reviewed, communicating reviewers’ feedback back to them and ensuring that their revised manuscripts appropriately addressed that feedback. In my current role I still deal with authors, but now it is on the front end—in receiving their submissions—and the back end after the manuscript has been accepted by the Subject Editor. In theory, the latter should be the more involved process—providing guidance on final formatting (or doing it myself if necessary) to ensure that text and figure files meet requirements for printing and managing corrections/alterations to galley proofs before final publication. In practice, however, receiving submissions has proven to be the more time-intensive process. The reason for this is that manuscripts are often submitted before they are truly “ready for review.” i.e., properly prepared and relatively free of mechanical, language or formatting problems. Our reviewers willingly and freely give of their time and expertise to ensure that the papers published in our journal meet the highest scientific standards. Ideally, their efforts should be focused on the manuscript’s scientific content; however, the extent to which a manuscript contains structural and mechanical problems needlessly detracts from that focus. Even if such problems are set aside until final formatting, they still require resolution before the manuscript can truly be considered ready to publish. In my experience authors who neglect to address these areas before submission usually have trouble dealing with them after acceptance as well, increasing delays in publication.

Of the 97 manuscripts I inherited or have received since taking on the role of Managing Editor, 57 have been published or are currently in press, while 19 were rejected or withdrawn (the remaining 21 are currently in queue awaiting decision). In looking back over these submissions, I am amazed at how many I received for which it was evident that the author paid little, if any, attention to the guidelines for preparing and submitting manuscripts given in our Author Instructions. It goes without saying that compulsive review of author instructions (printed inside the back cover of each issue and posted at our website) prior to beginning and during preparation of a manuscript and then again before submission is the best way to ensure that a manuscript satisfies journal requirements, minimize the introduction and propagation of errors and avoid omitting critical manuscript components. That said, and despite guidance to the contrary, there seem to be certain areas that are consistent pitfalls for authors. If I could write a “Dear Author” letter, the following items are what I would include:

1.       Don’t try to format your manuscript to resemble the printed journal
While a few smaller journals employ a “camera-ready” process—i.e., the journal is printed off of hard copy manuscripts that are formatted for the journal’s particular style, most, including The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, prepare and format manuscripts for publication via electronic file conversion. Formatting commands in most word processing programs can interfere with commands in the conversion software used by the printer, creating layout errors that must be manually corrected. A basic text file that uses as little formatting as possible may not be the prettiest thing to look at, but it will convert with the least chance of introducing errors that need to be corrected or, worse, make it past galley reviews and into the final publication. The most common formattings applied by authors are those that also appear in the printed journal, including bolded and center justified titles and headings, italics for subheadings, tabbed or indented paragraphs, insertion of hard returns within titles to force line breaks and “even out” the width of multiple lines, and use of hanging indents to format literature citations.

2.       Create “real” tables, but don’t worry about making them “look nice”
Along with manuscript formatting, table formatting also is applied automatically by the printer during file conversion to achieve the desired layout. I’m not sure why some authors create “pseudo-tables” using tabs and spaces rather than using the table function in their word processor, but such manually created tables will not convert properly. Even authors who use the  table function are often tempted to format their tables with various lines, re-size cells or text (including manual hyphenation of long words) so that the table fits the page nicely, and even use spaces or hard returns within cells to manually align the text contained within them. Again, all this accomplishes is to introduce errors that must be corrected or that will compromise the printed article.

3.       Know your “dashes”
It is a shame that modern keyboards contain a key for only one of the three types of dashes that authors will find useful: 1) hyphens, 2) ‘en’ dashes and 3) ’em’ dashes. The result of this is a tendency by most authors to simply use a hyphen whenever any one of these three types of dashes are called for. In fact, I suspect that many authors aren’t even aware of the existence of the latter two! Hyphens, however, are properly restricted to joining words or terms (e.g., Pan-Pacific, species-group, wood-boring, 10-m diameter plot, etc.) but should not be used for connecting value ranges. These, which include page ranges in literature citations, are more properly connected with an ‘en’ dash (–). Note that an ‘en’ dash is slightly longer than a hyphen (basically the width of the letter “n” in fixed-font type) and is achieved in MS Word by holding down the ‘Alt’ key while typing “0150” on the numeric keypad (on my own keyboard I have made this much easier by using the AutoCorrect function to insert an ‘en’ dash whenever I type two consecutive hyphens). Examples of proper ‘en’ dash usage include “pages 76–99”, “1–3 June 2012” and “Figs. 3–5”. The third type of dash, or ’em’ dash (—), is not used by most authors (although I tend to use it quite commonly!); however, it is very useful for connecting unrelated clauses within a sentence (see examples earlier in this article). This is the longest of the three dashes (equal to the width of the letter “m” in fixed type font) and is achieved in MS Word by typing “Alt+0151” (or, on my keyboard by typing three consecutive hyphens). Authors who become proficient in the use of all three dashes will do much to enhance the professionalism of their manuscripts and minimize the need for manual corrections or the chance of errors in print.

4.       Literature Cited
I give this area its own paragraph, because it seems to be one of the most problematic for authors. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, like most journals, uses a precise format for literature citations. Many authors seem to have their own personal formatting preference for literature citations, but to the extent that personal style varies from the requested journal format in the final file, reviewers, editors or typesetter will need to make manual corrections. I’ve already mentioned the most common one; use of hyphens rather than ‘en’ dashes to connect page ranges, and it is also common not to adhere precisely to specifications for spaces or punctuation (or their lack) in author name(s) and journal volume/issue/page range formatting. Another error that I take special interest in is citing “Pan-Pacific Entomologist” rather than “The Pan-Pacific Entomologist. Without doubt, however, the most frustrating habit by some authors is the practice of inserting hard returns and tabs within the citation in an effort to simulate hanging indents. While hanging indents can more properly be created using paragraph commands, all use of tabs and indenting should be avoided to begin with (see #1 above). Simulated hanging indents with manually inserted hard returns and tabs require manual correction—again by reviewers, editors or typesetter if the author does not do it.

5.       Line spacing and numbering
I sometimes receive manuscripts in which the text is double-spaced, oftentimes with line numbering also turned on. This seems to be a holdover practice among authors accustomed to the days of hard copy manuscript review. In that process, reviewers and editors needed room between lines to mark their annotations or line numbers to easily summarize their location. Nowadays, most journals use fully electronic processes for reviewing manuscripts and communicating reviewer feedback to authors. Use of “Track Changes” for marking changes and inserting comments has obviated the need for reviewers to print out a copy of the manuscript and annotate it manually (this also makes unnecessary the use of headers/footers to indicate page number), and in fact with electronic submission procedures now commonly used (by both the journal for receiving submissions and by the printer for receiving ready-to-publish files), most manuscripts need never appear in hard copy until final printing in the journal!

6.       Don’t create “pseudosymbols”
Many authors are familiar enough with the use of symbols, e.g., male and female (♂ and ♀), degrees (°), etc. Most of these symbols are not found on normal keyboards and, thus, must be inserted using the word processor’s Insert Symbol tool. There are, however, a few symbols for which reasonable facsimiles do exist on the keyboard, usually the letter “x” rather than a multiplication (×) symbol and “+/-” rather than a plus-minus (±) symbol. Once again, the use of “pseudosymbols” requires manual correction and should be avoided.

7.       If English is not your native language, have your ms reviewed by a native English-speaking colleague
If you are reading this, then you probably already know English well enough. However, I just need to say this: The Pan-Pacific Entomologist is an English language journal, and although we welcome manuscripts by all authors from around the world, they must be written in proper English. In an effort to satisfy this requirement, it has become common for authors whose native language is not English to submit their manuscript to commercial translation services. Unfortunately, while the translators may speak English, they do not know science—and certainly not the author’s research. As a result, oftentimes the manuscripts I receive that have gone through such services are written as poorly as a manuscript that has not been reviewed for English at all. I have returned a number of submitted manuscripts strictly because the English was unsatisfactory and, in some cases, even received a terse response from author stating that their manuscript had already been proofed for English by a commercial service (even attaching the “certificate” they received from the service). Nevertheless, my advice is this: the best way to ensure that your manuscript truly satisfies the English language requirement is to have it reviewed by a native English-speaking colleague who understands your research!

p.s. it might be fun for you, the reader, to “proof” this letter and let me know of any errors in English that you find. Imagine the satisfaction of getting to tell an editor about mistakes in writing that he has made (and I can take it… really!).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

20 thoughts on ““Dear Author”

  1. I love your work Ted. I am a frequent user of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. I’m also keen on using the correct symbols for multiplication. Now that I’m a Mac user it has taken me some time to learn the keyboard shortcuts but it is worth it. My staff cringe whenever I send back work when they have used the incorrect dash. I’m also peculiar because I like the YMD format. When naming files it makes more sense to me and put them in an easy to follow order.

  2. Thanks for a great post. I agree totally on points 1, 2 and 6 – if all authors followed your advice here, the work of journal editors (both academic editors like you and copyeditors like me) would be made much, much easier. I’ve written previously on my blog about the really dangerous formatting errors authors can make (related to point 6). Points 3 to 5 don’t seem quite so crucial to me, as any good copyeditor will routinely correct these things with no great difficulty (unlike tables formatted with spaces, which take an age to put right).
    I don’t quite agree with you about commercial editing services (point 7), though. Yes, an editing service that uses editors who aren’t experienced in editing articles in your field will cause problems. But there are lots of good scientific editing companies and individual freelance editors out there who will be not only expert in your field, but will also understand points 1-6 and all the other conventions of scientific writing and will know what to look out for in manuscripts written by non-native speakers of English. We can most easily be found by searching the directories of associations of editors such as the US Editorial Freelancers Association and the UK Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Some journal publishers also have lists of editing companies as part of their instructions for authors, and some have partnerships with particular companies. Maybe your journal could look into editing companies and recommend good ones to your authors?

    • Hi Anna, and thank you for weighing in. Your suggestion to recommend good editing services is a good one, although it could only be done in the context of a formal partnership. I think I’ll bring this subject up with the Board and see what the possibilities are.

      You’re right that points 3 to 5 are not crucial, and even though such issues should be easily caught during copyedit mistakes do happen. In reality, however, a manuscript with only these minor issues will not be sent back to the author before review. They have to be dealt with eventually, but as long as there are no big issues like using tabs/spaces to create tables or extensive formatting it’s not worth frustrating the author.

  3. “Don’t try to format your manuscript to resemble the printed journal.”

    Some journals, however, have very explicit instructions about manuscript format that seems to be explicitly intended to do exactly this.

    “I sometimes receive manuscripts in which the text is double-spaced, oftentimes with line numbering also turned on.”

    Again, it’s worth noting that this request varies from journal to journal. (Aide: I recently had one manuscript that explicitly asked for line numbers to be off, and the first thing reviewers did was to turn it back on!)

    • YMMV 🙂

      Your comment, however, is a good reminder that there are several parties at this dance—author, editor, reviewer and typesetter; each at their own place in the continuum between past practice and future trend. Getting all of them to step in time can be a challenge.

  4. In my “real” occupation I’ve written a few articles (PreciseEdit.wordpress.com) specifically geared towards authors who have a difficult time formatting in Word. It is our job to help authors who use our editing service to help them format their manuscripts, however, I’m always amazed to see how much harder authors or writers make their own lives by not knowing a few simple keyboard controls. I wince when I see that someone has used the space bar to create a first line indent for every paragraph in their manuscript. The time it takes them to do this can easily be cut in half if they were more familiar with formatting in Word. If you don’t mind, I’d like to foward this post to David Bowman, the owner of Precise Edit. I think he would appreciate some of your suggestions!

    • It seems currently there is a generation dilemna amongst authors – those who grew up with typewriters and those who grew up with computers (I’m actually the former but adapted quickly to the latter). It think it’s easy to assume that any author these days should have command of basic word processing functions, but nevertheless to some it just doesn’t come easy. There are, however, some habits that just can’t be forgiven no matter what – using spaces to line up text must be near the top of that list.

  5. Well, I can see you are trying to be helpful, but as one of those pesky authors, let me put the other side of the picture. I speak as someone who will try to get the formatting right as best I can, and who is married to a scientist who predates the computer and who seems congenitally incapable of getting formatting right at all. He grew up with typewriters (and secretaries who typed on them) and is really banjaxed by formatting. I fear it will drive him to an early grave.
    The thing that really gets to me, and many others, is journals who (a) adopt an arcane formatting style and (b) insist you adhere to it before they will even send out your paper for review.
    If the journal’s acceptance rate was high – say 85% or more – I could see some point to this. But many journals have a much lower rate than that. So you end up fiddling around with your hyphens and ens, and putting the date in brackets, or not, as the case may be, only to have your paper rejected. So you revise it to send elsewhere and then have to change everything again.
    This makes scientists miserable because it is pointless. We like spending our time doing things that lead somewhere.
    I was a journal editor for 8 years, but it was quite a while ago, and journals still employed copy-editors. I would encourage authors to follow instructions, but I wasn’t particularly obsessive about it: I justified a rather light-handed approach to style on the basis that if authors got too good at this, all the copy-editors would end up unemployed. Well for many journals, the copy-editors are now unemployed, but it’s not because the authors have come around to formatting properly. They just have formatting as another awful pointless chore in their daily grind.
    And just don’t get me started on figures: see http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/exciting-day-in-life-of-scientist.html

    • I hope I haven’t given the impression that I return manuscripts if they contain any of the problems I described. The manuscripts that I return have issues primarily in points 1, 2, and/or 7. I would never insist that an author convert all of his hyphens to en dashes before the manuscript can be processed further. However, since I was offering advice about things that will get your manuscript returned (like manually constructed tables, poor English, and excessive formatting), I thought it would be useful to mention the other common mistakes that authors also make and how they can be dealt with. Again, all of this is in the context of The Pan-Pacific Entomologist—editors of other journals might have different instructions for their authors.

      Speaking of other journals, I agree with your point about those that adopt an arcane formatting style and insist on adhering to it fully before accepting the manuscript for review (in fact, The Pan-Pacific Entomologist used to be one of those journals under a past editor). In recent years our submission requirements have generally moved in the direction of less/no formatting. I can see how authors have trouble applying numerous format requirements to their manuscript prior to submission—it’s a little less clear to me why authors would have trouble meeting a ‘no formatting’ requirement.

  6. Informative essay, Ted. I’ll admit that em dashes were new to me. Well, not new in concept, but I have expressed them as an en dash with a space to either side for them till now.

    #7 is near and dear to me, because word somehow got out that I am willing to edit the English of non-native speakers’ manuscripts (usually on ants only, but did one on scorpions recently). This is a lot easier if I know at least a little of their mother tongue , since I can then back translate and replace their literal translation with the correct English wording. Proper English is not merely a matter of the words and grammar, but also of style. Style has components both of accepted conventions and the author’s idiosyncratic tendencies or preferences. When editing the English of foreign-language-speaking (and even English-speaking) writers, I like to give a little leeway for the author’s own “voice” to come through. Occasionally, this butts up against conventional (and often rather dry) English scientific writing style, but as long as it is still clear and understandable, I think it is acceptable.

    • Our journal has a rather unique problem in this regard. We are considered ‘international’ (albeit small) because of our Pacific Rim focus, so many east Asian authors see our journal as a desirable English-language outlet for their research. Obviously, the chasm between English and east Asian languages is wide, and many of the Asian authors who have submitted during my tenure have not done an adequate job of translating their manuscript to something even remotely acceptable for an English-language journal. Differences in style and voice are fine, and as Managing Editor I don’t concern myself with such, but choppy sentences, tense and plurality discordance, and wrong word choices just don’t cut it. We don’t do our journal and its reputation any favors by allowing such papers to be published without extensive re-writes, and we don’t endear ourselves to our coveted reviewer pool by sending them manuscripts in such sad shape to begin with.

      All your base are belong to us!

    • This is an incredibly useful article, Ted. I have learned things today.

      I will, as others have, take issue with a few points, though. I’m submitting a manuscript in a few days, and the journal explicitly requests double spacing and numbered lines (even thought the submission is electronic) – every journal is a bit different in this regard, and I think it’s only fair to format your submission according to their guidelines/standards.

      Also, re: editing services…I AM a freelance academic editor who works for one of these services, and most of my jobs are manuscripts. Now, I will say that I don’t translate documents, but most of my clients are ESL and many of the finer points they’re trying to communicate are already “lost in translation” when I receive the document. Even if their study lies outside my particular area of expertise (I get a lot of biochem and medical ‘scripts), I have enough base knowledge of the subjects that I can identify problematic terminology and tidy up the rest of the poor language usage. The quality of these editing/translation services does vary greatly, though, I do acknowledge that.

      • There are ‘small’ format specifications—such as en dashes & use of commas in within text citations—that can be easy for authors to overlook despite thorough review of submission guidelines. Then there are ‘big’ ones—like double-spaced, line-numbered text—that can only suggest the author gave the submission guidelines the most cursory of reviews, or did not even read them at all. If another journal specifies double-spaced, line-numbered text in submitted manuscripts, by all means that’s how a ms should be submitted to them. We, however, specify the opposite, and when an author ignores a big guideline like that it automatically triggers a more thorough inspection of the rest of the manuscript. It doesn’t take too many more deviations on top of that for me to conclude that the author, at best, hasn’t consulted the guidelines or, at worst, thinks that they, for some reason, don’t really have to follow them, and the manuscript is returned.

        Regarding language check, I’m sure that there are good commercial services out there (and I’m sure yours is among the best :)). Perhaps some of the manuscripts I receive have gone through them and I don’t even notice, but if so it must be a small percentage. In my field, it is routine for the English-speakers among us to review manuscripts by our ESL-colleagues, and this seems to be common practice among taxonomists in other groups as well (just read the acknowledgments in a taxonomic paper by an ESL author, which usually thank a colleague working in the same group for their assistance with English). Perhaps it is the language of taxonomy—the descriptive terminology and telegraphic style—that makes it more difficult for non-taxonomists to provide effective translation. In reality, however, what I was talking about in point #7 was basic English! If there are translation services that are truly providing product so bad that I still advise the author to seek review for English, then the field needs some cleaning up.


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