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Confessions of a managing editor (or 6 reasons I’m returning your manuscript)

Things you do – innocently, of course – to drive your science editor crazy

Angelica Kerr is an Assistant Publisher and in-house Managing Editor for four Elsevier Health Sciences journals (Photos by Alison Bert)Before the journal editor has seen it, before the reviewer has evaluated it — and way before the first decision to accept or reject is made — I've read, corrected and sent back your manuscript. And, yes, you have to make this "laundry list" of editorial changes.

From the "thank you notes" in my inbox, I suspect many of you are not thrilled to receive my constructive criticism.

I am the Managing Editor of four health science journals, and more than 900 submitted manuscripts a year pass by these eagle eyes. If you've submitted a manuscript, my co-conspirators and I have picked through your methods and results, your figures and your references (Oh, the references!), and we've seen that you've been a naughty researcher (tsk, tsk). You did not follow the author guidelines on the journal's website – you know, the point-by-point instructions in the Guide for Authors that you conveniently ignored to save precious time in submitting your manuscript. The same guidelines the editor, publisher and I painstakingly wrote in order to make the review and publication process run smoothly and in turn get your paper published and cited more quickly.

What's a managing editor to do? I'll tell you what an ME doesn't do, and that's get reprimanded by her editor!

So to save both of us from grief, I present to you the top six reasons I'm returning your manuscript.

In no particular order – except perhaps the order in which the editor would have my head if I send through a manuscript with these issues.

1. Your ritten English could use improvement.

"But I did my residency at NYU Medical Center!"

Global manuscript submissions are on the rise. Great! And they are, for the most part, written in English. Also great. You speak English, you speak English well, you speak English well to your English-speaking colleagues. (And when it comes to science, you're as brainy as it gets.) However, your written English … mmm, not so great. Speaking and writing are two different things. Even native speakers could use a second pair of eyes to proofread their papers. In fact, a proofreader will read this article write right after I type it. (Postscript: As you can see, the proofreader did her job.)

If you're not a native speaker, I would highly recommend you have at least one colleague look over your work, or consider paying for a language editing service.  (At Elsevier, we have English Language Editing). And don't forget to edit your own copy. In a note to an author recently, one of our editors pointed out that even as a native speaker, he proofreads his own manuscripts three or four times before submitting them. Whatever you do, don't make your editor re-write your paper in frustration.

PS: Don't despair. Even native speakers have trouble with the English language, so much so that our common lapses have become fodder for music satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic in his Word Crimes video:

2. References should not be an afterthought

"But I used EndNote!"

Picture this. I just received a manuscript and am opening up the PDF file. I'm already on the edge. I see a few minor changes to be made. Scrolling, scrolling, scrooooool — Nooooooooo!

About 75 percent of my time is spent reformatting references.

Now I hear you. Every journal has a different referencing format. You waste time formatting and reformatting depending on which journal you submit to – and there's no guarantee your paper will even be accepted.

Should journals strive to have a more uniform referencing style? Yes! Your time should be spent more productively on your findings and data.

Fortunately, your colleagues at Elsevier agree with you, so they created Your Paper, Your Way. The program is rolling out to more and more journals here. It allows you to skip those "pesky style guidelines" for the initial submission as long as the basic article elements are there. Only if your paper is accepted will you be asked to format it to the journal's style. Elsevier will even convert the references for you as long as they have all the necessary information.

Of course, not every journal has this program, so check with the Guide for Authors, and submit your references according to specs. You will make your managing editor smile.

3. Your copy is crawling with acronyms

"Everyone knows what STDBUEA stands for!"

Now, I know that HbA1c is glycated hemoglobin; you know that HbA1c is glycated hemoglobin; the editor knows that HbA1c is glycated hemoglobin. So then everyone else should know that HbA1c is glycated hemoglobin, right? Not quite. Although we live in a virtual alphabet soup of technical jargon, not everyone is up on the lingo. For example, if your paper is published, it will likely be read by researchers in other disciplines who are unfamiliar with the abbreviations. The Guide for Authors on the journal's homepage usually states that you need to define your abbreviations when they are first introduced in the manuscript, or include an abbreviation list so that reviewers and eventual readers don't have to scratch their heads trying to remember that GLP-1 is glucagon-like peptide-1 (yes, I had to look that one up).

4. Your manuscript is a sea of red

'Voilà, I used the language service."

So you've written your manuscript or re-written your revision. You've checked it once, you've checked it twice. You've even sent it to a proofreader – hooray! But you've left the tracked changes on so we can see, in red, all the changes you've made. But that's all I can see: RED, underlined and crossed out all over the page. Comment bubbles, back and forth from you to the editor to your co-author. The journal should receive a clean final copy of your submission. For revisions, you are usually asked to upload your responses to reviewer comments as a separate document, or highlight the changes in the manuscript in a manner than does not impede the natural flow of reading of your paper.

5. You "conveniently" embedded figures and tables into the manuscript.

"But, that's how it appears in print"

Yes, I know. In the printed article, tables and figures appear right alongside the text they complement – and yes, it would make it easier for the reviewer to have them right there next to the text. This is where you have the opportunity to make someone else smile: the production team. When your manuscript is accepted – kudos by the way – and I send your files to our production team for copyediting and typesetting, they will need those files submitted separately. If not, guess what one of the first production queries will be (right after the missing Conflict of Interest statement: Number 7 if I did a Top 10 list). This adds extra time to the production process, and we want to get your paper to the citable stage as quickly as possible. There are drop-down menus for each submission type conveniently located at the manuscript upload page. Feel free to use them with wild abandon.

6. The line numbers are lost in translation.

For one of my journals, we ask authors to insert line numbers, again to make the review process smoother for our many manuscript-fatigued reviewers. On some papers coming from nations that use the right to left formatting on their word processing software, the line numbers somehow get embedded right through the text of the manuscript. Darned if I can figure out how to fix that dilemma other than overly exaggerating the left margins, or copying and pasting the entire manuscript into a new document. Something in the conversion to a Western format just makes the line numbers go higgly-piggly, and it drives me batty! If anyone has any suggestions or remedies, I would greatly appreciate it.

I look forward to receiving your next submission – in the proper format of course.

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Elsevier Connect Contributor

Angelica KerrAngelica Kerr is an Assistant Publisher and in-house Managing Editor for four Elsevier Health Sciences journals in the fields of surgery, cardiology and pediatrics. She began her career at Elsevier 15 years ago as an Editorial Coordinator for two very active clinical medicine portfolios. In her previous life, she earned a degree in Television Broadcasting from Brooklyn College and worked for various media production outlets. She also holds a Certificate in Foreign Languages (Italian) from New York University School of Continuing Professional Studies.



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