Reference simplification

Streamlining the author submission process

As journals’ reference-related instructions have continued to grow in complexity, so too has the amount of time required to comply with them.

Recent research (1) shows that authors now spend an average 3.2 hours per paper on this task. Not only is this an unnecessary use of their time, the focus on formatting increases the opportunities for factual errors to creep in.

Elsevier’s Publishing Services team has been working on a multi-stranded shake-up of the reference system. Dubbed the Reference Simplification Project, it will not only standardize reference styles, but offer journals the opportunity to forego them completely. Other elements will focus on the accuracy of link information.

Elizabeth Przybysz, a Junior Project Manager in Publishing Services, has been leading the project team. She believes one of the key benefits will be an increase in author satisfaction as more of their time is freed up to concentrate on other elements of the paper. “We think we will also see journal discoverability enhanced, while publication times should experience a reduction,” she added.

Over the coming year, a number of changes will be rolled out – one of these will automatically be applied to all Elsevier titles while others will be introduced on an opt-in basis. Read on to find out what it could mean for your journal.

All Elsevier-owned journals will switch to one of six standard reference styles

Examples of some of the detailed formatting specifications we currently require from authors:

  • Journal titles should be abbreviated without punctuation and not in italics
  • Always use "&" symbol when there are two authors in parentheses
  • ONLY use the English version "et al"

The majority of Elsevier journals require authors to use one of 10 standard reference styles. Another 200 plus journals use their own unique, non-standard reference styles. Last summer, Elsevier’s User Centered Design team carried out a survey and usability tests with journal readers. Those questioned indicated that six styles in particular were easy to follow. Based on this information, six standard Elsevier styles will be rolled out to all Elsevier-owned journals in 2013. These are:

Appreciated by our readers for displaying all author names. Once all deviations are removed, this style will be used by 335 Elsevier-owned titles. The style is popular in Physical Sciences.

Primarily used in Humanities and Social Sciences. Our readers liked the name / date format, which displays basic information without the need to visit the last article page. It will be used by more than 400 journals.

Vancouver Numbered
The Vancouver Embellished format will be incorporated into this style and the result will be used by more than 242 journals - popular in Medical Sciences.

Vancouver Name / Date
A version for communities that prefer citations to feature the authors’ names in parentheses.

American Psychological Association
The only style presenting full journal titles, an option preferred by 35% of the readers we spoke to. Almost 200 of our journals will follow this style, especially within Social and Economic Sciences.

American Medical Association
This style is used in more than 150 medical journals, especially popular amongst Societies.

A standard style for each journal will be chosen based on its close resemblance to the journal’s current reference style. If you feel that another style from our list above suits the journal better, please contact your Publisher.

All styles will include the article and chapter title. In the past, these items were removed due to space restrictions in print versions of journals, however, our survey respondents asked for their reintroduction to assist with assessing source relevance.

Figure 1. Current situation with regard to reference styles – Elsevier titles only

Figure 2. What we hope to achieve by April 2013 with the rolling out of six standard styles – Elsevier titles only.

Journals are invited to consider removing formatting requirements

This will be offered an on opt-in basis only. If you choose this model for your journal, authors will be invited to submit their references in any style, as long as the references are complete and consistent. The typesetters will apply the final style.

Elizabeth believes this may prove a deciding factor for authors when choosing a journal and could help to attract more high-quality papers. She adds: “In exchange, we will ask authors to focus on the quality of the data critical for the link creation, invite them to use the DOI and urge them to pay attention to the presence of links in any references they decide to copy from other sources.

“Online what really matters is that a citation is linked to its source. Impact Factors take into account the number of citations an article has received. An error introduced to a reference can prevent a link creation and potentially lead to a journal missing out on a few decimal points on its Impact Factor.”

Key data used by the linking services to create a link are author(s) name(s), journal title (or its standard abbreviation), year of publication and the pagination. Italics, use of dots and data sequence are not important. Elizabeth explained: “That key data must be recognized correctly in the process of tagging; therefore the consistency of the pattern of the reference is essential for the structuring. DOIs are real life savers: even if all other data is misspelled, but the DOI is correct, the link will be still created.”

Those journals adopting this model will be closely monitored to ensure that the typesetters effectively convert the styles and that the change brings the benefits expected.

Examples of the journal-specific reference style will still be displayed in the Guide for Authors.  As part of the project we will also update the Endnote and Reference Managers, so that they accurately reflect the journal style.

Journals adopting this option would see the following section appear in their Guide for Authors

Guide for Authors: new instructions

Discoverability of research and high quality peer review are ensured by online links to the sources cited. In order to allow us to create links within ScienceDirect and to abstracting and indexing services, such as Scopus, CrossRef or PubMed, please ensure that data provided in the references are correct. Please note that incorrect surnames, journal/book titles, publication year and pagination may prevent the link creation. When copying references, please be careful as they may already contain an error. Use of the DOI is encouraged.

There are no strict requirements on reference formatting at submission. References can be in any style or format as long as the style is consistent. Author(s) name(s), journal title/book title, chapter title/article title, year of publication, volume and issue/book chapter and the pagination must be present. Use of DOI is highly encouraged. The reference style used by the journal will be applied to the accepted article by Elsevier at the proof stage. Note that incorrect or missing data will be highlighted at proof stage for the author to correct.

The reference style used by this journal is 'here we state the journal-specific style'. If you do wish to format the references yourself they should be arranged according to the following examples...

In future, accuracy of references will be checked with one of the major linking service providers

Elsevier plans to introduce a new step of comparing the references received from an author with the database of one of the major linking service providers. This will allow us to correct and complete missing data without the need to delay publication by sending the manuscript back to the author. We hope to see this come into effect next year (2014).

If you wish to find out more about the Reference Simplification Project and what it means for your journal, please contact your Publisher. The project complements other author-centric solutions currently under development at Elsevier. The Simpler Submission service, for example, offers authors the opportunity to reduce formatting across all manuscript components.

Understanding reader behavior

The survey and usability tests carried out by our User Centered Design department have uncovered the following facts about reader behavior:

  • While 53% of researchers read articles as downloaded files on their screens, 45% prefer to print them out before reading. With new technologies such as tablets, we expect the percentage opting for print to decrease.
  • 48% indicate that while they may look through the references while reading an article, they only go to the sources once they have finished reading.
  • Linking of references online was important to 88% of the respondents.
  • 58% prefer the name / date citation format over numbered citation.
  • 46% indicate they want to see the names of all authors in the citation, no matter how long the list is.
  • 69% of authors format references manually. Reference formatting takes, on average, three hours per paper, even taking into consideration the use of reference managers.
  • 39% do not include DOIs, and 16% don’t know what a DOI is.
  • The researchers surveyed believe that within a reference, items should be listed in the following order of importance:
  1. Author
  2. Article title
  3. Title of publication it appeared in
  4. Year of publication

Author biography

Elizabeth PrzybyszElizabeth Przybysz
Elizabeth joined Publishing Services for STM Journals in October 2011. Alongside the References Simplification project she manages the Simpler Submission project mentioned in the article. Elizabeth has also successfully introduced the Guide of Transfer and Acquisitions for Publishers. Prior to her move to Publishing Services, Elizabeth worked in Customer Services, assisting our customers in both Italian and Polish. Before moving to Oxford, Elizabeth worked in the banking sector in Italy and Ireland.


(1) Elsevier’s User Centered Design team surveyed around 200 authors in August 2012. Respondents were asked how long it took them to prepare references and if they used any software to reduce the workload. Although 60% of respondents used software, the average time taken to format references was found to be 3.2 hours.

Archived comments

Satish Raj says: March 14, 2013 at 11:01 am
I suspect that MOST authors use common reference management software (Endnotes, Reference Manager and perhaps a few others). The journal styles within these programs is often wrong. It would be useful for each journal to have a "style file" for their particular format for the common programs that could be uploaded by the user.

Elizabeth Przybysz says: March 15, 2013 at 8:23 am
Hi Satish, indeed as the part of this project we will update the Reference Manager and the EndNote!

Peter HAWKES says: March 14, 2013 at 12:58 pm
Some flexibility is essential. I write a regular group review for Ultramicroscopy which includes EXTRA information after the references (ISBN, ISSN, price). This gives trouble every time as it does not fit into the standard template for references.

ray white says: March 14, 2013 at 1:39 pm
Thanks for this. Can you give me examples of the reference styles? rw

Elizabeth Przybysz says: March 15, 2013 at 8:25 am
Please feel free to request the examples of the style form your publishers – they have the document ready to share.

Samantha Enslen says: March 14, 2013 at 2:27 pm
Elizabeth, this is Samantha Enslen. I manage the copyediting for European Urology, published by Elsevier. You mention that for journals who opt out of formatting requirements, "the typesetters will apply the final style." Do you anticipate that the typesetters will actually do this? Or the journal's copyeditors? Thanks for leading this project — any simplification of reference style is a blessing for all! :-)

Elizabeth Przybysz says: March 15, 2013 at 8:27 am
Hi Samantha,
The typesetters already do this. In order to create the online version of the article the references are strapped of all of the dots, brackets and each building block is tagged with the correct category (name, title, pages). Upon the creation of the final article in PDF the style is reapplied. I have seen it done, it is very effective!

Bensasson Rene Victor says: March 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm
To Elizabeth Przybysz
I appreciated your interesting information.
I do agree with the 58% who prefer the name / date citation format over numbered citation.
Rene V. Bensasson

Nigel Cross says: March 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm
"The typesetters will apply the final style." Oh, yes?? They certainly can't be trusted to do it now – they can't even be trusted to sort references into alphabetical order!

Elizabeth Przybysz says: March 15, 2013 at 8:29 am
Would you mind providing few examples via your publisher? Typesetters who do not do their job properly must improve and we are keen to ensure this happens.

Ged Ridgway says: March 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm
Brilliant! I think Elizabeth Przybysz should be commended for both the References Simplification and Simpler Submission projects, which allow authors to focus on the research and its explication rather than the references and the formatting. This will ultimately benefit research quality, and make compliant Elsevier journals more attractive than comparable journals with more retrograde fussiness in their author instructions.

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