Before submitting your manuscript to an academic journal, it is important to format it according to the journal’s guidelines, which can cover anything from the font style used to the sections that should be included in the paper. Formatting a manuscript can be a detailed, time-consuming process, but there a several advantages to submitting a properly formatted manuscript.
One of the most important advantages is decreasing time to publication, as many journals will send a paper back for pre-review revisions if it is not formatted appropriately. This means that, instead of having your manuscript sent out immediately for review, several days or weeks may be added to the overall submission time, depending on how quickly the journal contacts you with their pre-review revision requests and how efficiently you are able to apply them and resubmit the paper.
Another important advantage of carefully formatting a manuscript according to a journal’s guidelines it to ensure that your paper is complete and not lacking any crucial content. Following the journal’s formatting checklist can remind you to include elements such as an ethics statement of supplementary information, the lack of which could delay submission at the pre-review stage or attract negative comments from peer reviewers.
How to format a manuscript
When formatting a manuscript for submission to an academic journal, the first thing to do is locate the journal’s formatting guidelines. Every journal will list their formatting guidelines either online or in a downloadable PDF. These guidelines are typically referred to as ‘Instructions for Authors’ or ‘Guidelines for Authors’, or more generically as ‘Information for Authors’. We recommend bookmarking the webpage for your target journal’s guidelines or downloading the PDF (if available) and saving it where you can easily find it, so you can refer back to the instructions as often as needed while preparing your manuscript for submission.
Keep in mind that most journals publish multiple article types (such as Original Research articles, Case Reports, and Reviews), so make sure that the formatting instructions you are following are the appropriate instructions for your submission type.
We recommend reading through the formatting instructions carefully before making any changes to your manuscript, as these guidelines can often be lengthy and highly detailed. It may help to print out a copy of the guidelines and highlight the instructions that are most relevant to your paper to avoid getting distracted by instructions that may refer to another article type, for example.
In some cases, journals provide downloadable Microsoft Word templates that are already formatted exactly according to the journal’s guidelines, which can be extremely helpful in preparing your paper for submission. In these cases, you can simply cut and paste your manuscript text into the template file and be confident that it is formatted appropriately.
When formatting a manuscript, be sure to follow the journal’s stated guidelines, instead of trying to match the style of previously published papers. For one thing, occasionally papers end up being published that do not comply completely with the journal’s formatting standards, so the formal guidelines are a better standard for correctness. In addition, the format that most journals request for peer review is often quite different than the final published format. For example, using double spacing makes a text easier for peer reviewers to read, whereas most published articles are single-spaced. Similarly, many journals publish articles in a two-column format, but a single-column format is typically more readable and manageable for peer reviewers.
Common elements to consider when formatting a manuscript
The following is a list of formatting considerations that are often specified by academic journals:
- Sections and headings - a typical research paper includes a Title, Abstract, Introduction, Methods, and Discussion. That being said, some journals require additional sections, such as a Conclusions section. Furthermore, the headings for these sections can vary from journal to journal: for example, the abstract may be referred to as the Summary, the introduction may be referred to as the Background, and the methods section may be referred to as Materials and Methods.
- Heading style - in addition to the heading content, heading style is often strictly regulated by academic journals. For example, some journals require sections and subsections to be numbered according to a specific scheme. Other common variations include whether all of the main words in a heading are capitalized, or only the first word, and whether full stops are placed at the ends of headings.
- Title page - the content that appears on the title page can vary significantly depending on the journal, and specifically based on the peer review model. In particular, if a journal operates under a double-blind peer review model, the authors’ names and affiliations should not be included on the title page, so that peer reviewers do not learn their identity.
- Publication ethics statements - almost every journal will require statements of competing interests, financial support, and acknowledgement, but where these statements appear in the paper depends on the journal’s preference. Sometimes these statements are included at the end of the paper, and sometimes at the beginning; and occasionally, a journal may require these statements to be entered directly into their submission system instead of being incorporated into the main manuscript file. In addition, some journals require specific wording for these sections, so it is important to check your target journal guidelines carefully.
- Word and character limits - a journal’s guidelines should specify whether there are any length limits for the paper as a whole and/or for any individual section. It is common for titles to be subject to a word or character limit (with or without spaces), and this is especially true for running titles. It is also very common for there to be a strict word limit for abstracts.
- Text appearance - generally speaking, academic journals require the text of a submitted paper to be visually simple and consistent. This means that, in most cases, a single font style, size, and colour should be used throughout the manuscript. In addition, the same margin sizes and line spacing conventions should be applied throughout.
- Spelling convention - there are small differences in US English vs UK English spelling conventions, and most journals specify which version they prefer. In some cases, the choice is left up to the authors, in which case you can use whatever you feel most comfortable with, but keep in mind that it is never appropriate to use a combination of both styles.
- Reference formatting - the formatting of both in-text references and the reference list itself are highly important elements of formatting your paper for submission to a specific target journal. Each journal has its own unique style, and will require that your paper be formatted appropriately, either prior to review or just prior to publication.
- File organisation and format - depending on the journal, you may need to upload your paper as a single file containing the entire text as well as all figures, tables, and supplementary information; or you may need to upload each of these elements separately. Some journals require each figure to be uploaded individually, whereas some will accept a single file containing all of the figures; and some journals require each figure to be accompanied by its legend, whereas some ask for the legends to appear in the main text file, with the figures uploaded separately. In addition, some journals specify whether figures, tables, etc. are uploaded as .doc/.docx or .pdf files.
Journal formatting instructions are highly detailed and can seem challenging to implement, but knowing what to expect before submitting your paper can make the process go more smoothly and ultimately reduce the time to publication.
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