Publish or perish: The cost of reformatting academic papers

You’ve probably heard the expression “publish or perish,” which describes the pressure to publish research in order to succeed in an academic career.

You’d think that conducting the research needed to write a paper would be the hard part — and it is. But publishing isn’t easy either, a new Stanford-led study in PLOS One emphasizes. Even top researchers often have to submit papers to multiple journals before getting one to accept it. This process is very time consuming and frankly a bit painful for most authors.

The new study quantifies the pain and cost of a key part of this resubmission process — reformatting the manuscript to another journal’s guidelines.

“All researchers have wasted an inordinate amount of time reformatting papers to another journal’s specific requirements for things like word count, font and figure limits, which is entirely separate from improving the scientific content,” said Sidhartha Sinha, MD, a gastroenterologist and researcher at Stanford. “As medical researchers, we should be spending this time on actual research and patient care, not on adhering to seemingly arbitrary and highly variable formatting requirements.”

So just how detailed are these formatting guidelines? Sinha shared one of his favorite absurd examples taken from a top medical journal: “Type decimal points midline (ie, 23·4, not 23.4). To create a midline decimal on a PC: hold down ALT key and type 0183 on the number pad, or on a Mac: ALT shift 9.”  

He suggests that these rules shouldn’t matter during the initial submission and review process, particularly given that the rejection rate for biomedical journals is 62% on average and over 90% at top tier journals.

Sinha and his colleagues were inspired to study this problem after years of feeling frustrated with the current inefficient process. Although everyone complains about it, very little actual research has been done on the topic, he said.

The team of physicians and editors randomly selected 96 journals focused on basic and clinical biomedical research. They then randomly selected three recently published, original research articles from each journal and sent their survey to the first or corresponding author. A total of 203 authors filled out the survey.

“We had a very high response rate of 72%, which shows that we struck a chord with researchers because it is such a huge problem,” said Sinha. “In fact, only 12% of authors indicated satisfaction with the current resubmission process.”

The survey asked about the time spent by the participating authors and their entire research team to reformat resubmissions for their recent paper. Participants also gave input on the overall reformatting process and how it could be improved.

The study found that most of the 203 authors spent 1 to 3 days or more on reformatting alone, which delayed resubmissions by over two weeks in most instances and up to three months for 20% of the manuscripts.

“It’s not that they are spending three months on reformatting, but they get sidetracked with grant deadlines or other research pursuits,” explained Sinha. “In fact, I currently have one manuscript that is indefinitely on the back burner because I’ve already submitted it a few times and have other research priorities .”

Based on their survey results, the authors estimated that the total time spent reformatting the 2.3 million scientific articles published annually translates into a global cost of over $1 billion. And Sinha said the actual cost is likely much higher — since they assumed, for example, a first-year postdoc salary of $48,000 for all authors even though senior authors make significantly more — and much of this cost is funded by taxpayers’ dollars.

In the paper, the authors make some recommendations — including adopting a universal format-free initial submission policy. However, they primarily hope their study will start a discussion about how to improve the existing broken process, Sinha said.

“There are trends towards minimizing formatting requirements, but there is still much room for improvement,” said Sinha. “I’d like editors from each field to get together and agree on generalized formatting guidelines. For example, maybe brief reports are 3,000 words and original research articles are 6,000 words. And it might be different for radiology and cell biology journals. But we can find a better way to disseminate research faster and more cost-effectively.”

So, like me, are you wondering how much time his team spent on reformatting this paper on publication inefficiencies?  “We kept track and we spent just over 25 hours on reformatting before it was accepted. We hope this paper helps change this in the future,” Sinha said.

Photo by Nic McPhee

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Looking beyond life as a bioscience university professor

Photo by Vic
Photo by Vic

Life as a tenured university professor seems idyllic with its job security, intellectual freedom, prestige, livable wage and flexible schedule. No wonder so many bioscience students aim to become professors.

But numerous factors, including a lack of available faculty positions, are making bioscience trainees consider other careers. That’s been the experience for Scott Carlson, PhD, a Stanford postdoctoral research fellow in biology, who recently told me:

“My dream job is a baffling question right now. When I started as a postdoc, I would have said my dream job was to be a professor at a program in interdisciplinary biology or bioengineering. After five years as a postdoc, I’m not sure anymore but I don’t know what to replace it with. Academia makes it impossible to explore other options. If I leave, my grants would disappear and it would be hard to get back in without recent publications.”

Carlson isn’t alone. It’s increasingly difficult to secure a spot as a tenure-track faculty member, even for those who spend years conducting research first as a student and then as a postdoc. According to the National Institutes of Health’s 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report, “Although the vast majority of people holding biomedical PhDs are employed (i.e., unemployment is very low), the proportion of PhDs that move into tenured or tenure-track faculty positions has declined from ~34 percent in 1993 to ~26 percent today.”

This decline in bioscience faculty positions is correlated with funding difficulties. For example, the success rate of researchers applying for new NIH grants dropped from 28.2 percent in 2000 to 16.3 percent in 2015, and the success rate for grant renewals dropped from 52.7 percent to 28.6 percent for the same years. In addition, grants tend to go to established investigators, making it even more difficult for postdocs or new professors to secure funding.

One solution proposed by the NIH working group is to change graduate training so it is no longer “aimed almost exclusively at preparing people for academic research positions.”

Stephanie Eberle, director of the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center, works with students, MDs, PhDs and postdocs from all the biosciences. She agreed that it’s time to “revisit the value of graduate education” and added:

“It isn’t just for an academic job, and it hasn’t been for a long time. We need to allow our trainees to explore other options while they’re here. For instance, we offer some biotechnology business and finance classes at Stanford. Improving our trainees’ business skills improves their chances in any career, academia included, by helping them stand out in a competitive market.”

However, Eberle and Carlson both acknowledged that this requires a change in culture. “There’s little direct pressure from colleagues, but there’s a strong implicit feeling that an academic career is somehow the most successful or prestigious career path,” said Carlson. “I didn’t get this sense as much when I was doing my PhD in bioengineering, but it’s pervasive in biology. I think it’s a big problem in academic culture and a huge disservice to the trainees.”

Eberle concluded:

“Most faculty assume all the students intend to go into academia, but some of our students don’t even want to go into academia in the first place. People aren’t talking and they’re making assumptions — that’s a problem. My charge is to help support our trainees’ combined academic, professional and career development. We need to help them find the career that fits them best.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.