Take Home Points:
- Instructions need to be clear, focused, and as simple as possible.
- Consider a variety of approaches to provide the user with a positive experience and outcome.
- Instructions should be revisited periodically and dated to keep them useful and current.
Instructions can be a valuable resource, particularly if you pay attention to them. Whether you’re trying to replicate a mouthwatering recipe, assemble a holiday toy, or just use that new ‘thing’ that you’ve received, your goals are to do it quickly, do it right, and produce something valued and useful.
Instructions to authors mirror these goals but drafting them can be challenging. These instructions serve differing purposes depending on the stakeholder. For authors, they’re the guidelines for getting their research, via a manuscript, considered and recognized. For the publisher or society sponsoring the publication, instructions to authors can serve as the initial introduction of the organization and/or journal, explaining their stance, via their mission statement. Instructions to authors can also convey who the audience or scope of the journal is, and perhaps even serve as a recruiting tool for membership or subscribership. For the editorial office, instructions to authors can help produce consistent, uniform submissions, facilitating a smoother, perhaps more seamless, handling and evaluation of each submission.
Submission instructions historically have been offered as written documents, traditionally published in a particular issue or location. Today, journals may publish a version of the instructions in print (if they have a print version) and offer a more detailed version of instructions online. The role of the internet as a source for this information seems obvious to some but still may be developing in other regions. With a goal of streamlining and standardizing the format of instructions for both the author and the editorial office, the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) has published a “Quick Check Table” for submissions to provide journals with a template that could be populated with the details appropriate to their own publication. This table was updated in 2023 (in English) but the original 2020 version is available in multiple languages.
Other journals are supplementing their text presentation digitally by providing instruction via YouTube. The JAMA Network exemplifies this method of presentation with their video on “How to Submit your Research Paper to the JAMA Network.” A journal or group may broaden their outreach to authors and utilize multiple platforms. This can expand their access to a possible audience but depends on the resources available to them.
Whatever the method of delivery, when crafting instructions, you want them to follow the principles of Universal Design of Instruction described by Burgstahler (2020), producing instructions that are useable to the largest group possible rather than just to the median. The goal should be to create instructions that are accessible, inclusive, and usable to all stakeholders. While this involves many factors, the primary objective is to achieve a balance between these concepts. To do that, you need to consider the diversity of possible authors, consider providing some flexibility in the initial requirements and provide easily understandable examples illustrating those requirements.
To help a prospective author, the publisher’s role in the instructions should begin with presenting the mission statement and scope of the publication. This could briefly include the general information on the nature of the publication and what types of submissions are being sought. Getting the author to read this information at the outset is important and can help that author submit to an appropriate journal and get their submission considered rather than desk rejected. The more focused the better, so try to call attention to the mission and scope by highlighting it in the layout. This statement could also incorporate limitations, such as if a medical journal does not consider single case reports or a technical journal does not engage in commentary. If the publisher wants to include more detailed information, they should exercise restraint and address this later in the text or perhaps as a supplement to the main instructions.
Authors are looking to the instructions to find a journal’s basics on how to get their paper considered. McMullen and Spurlock, in an ISMTE presentation “Improving Your Instructions to the Authors: Get What You Want the First Time” point out that “Authors want the entire process to be easy.” They are looking for the specific information needed for a successful submission, in the fewest steps necessary. This is especially pertinent if the authors have had their manuscript considered but not accepted, and subsequently need to reformat the paper for their next attempt at publication. To mitigate what can be cumbersome requirements, some journals have adopted a format-free initial submission process. Khan, Montenegro-Montero and Mathelier in an EMBO reports piece discuss the value behind this approach, explaining that it helps put the research first and can speed up the process of consideration. They provide a list of journals that support this type of initial submission. In a similar vein, manuscripts that have been posted to a preprint server (e.g., BioRxiv) can be directly transmitted to some journals, saving authors time and effort in the submission process (see the “FAQ Submission Guide” pages).
Traditional instructions advise authors on the common elements that editors and reviewers are looking for. On their website, the Royal Society of the UK outline typical items applicable to any journal when considering instructions for authors. These include the style adopted by the journal (e.g., Chicago, APA, AMA), formatting criteria (generalized elements such as Introduction, Abstract, Methods, Discussion, and Conclusion, as well as more specific issues such as font type and size, margins, etc.), data presentation (formatting) and availability, figure and table formatting, supplemental materials (allowed or not), permissions and disclosures (documentation necessary).
Contemporary literature, however, shows that a common shortcoming of author instructions is that they’re weighed down by detail. Comprehensive instructions may be useful only for authors whose manuscripts are considered beyond the initial submission process and authors can become frustrated with trying to comply with detailed guidelines. Think simplicity when drafting or evaluating instructions. One should be mindful of a user’s time required to work through the instructions and consider splitting essential requirements from more detailed elements that could be addressed later in the process. Suggest using tables as an organizational framework that more easily depicts the primary requirements. Consider providing templates or access to an online submission system with the submission structure pre-designed. This may ease the process for some authors. The reality is that many authors will not actually “read” the author instructions; instead, they use them as a reference, only looking up specific information they think they need. Knowing this, instructions can be formatted with this in mind.
Simplifying instruction can benefit its accessibility. It can’t be said enough that instructions should be simple and clear. Determine the minimum mandatory requirements for a manuscript to be considered and then clearly delineate those to increase reading potential. Consider providing illustrations of processes. These can be easier to understand and follow, particularly if there’s a language barrier. Providing examples of operations either through figures or text can also be helpful. These should be easy to access, or they won’t be perceived as helpful. Remember that any written instruction should use simplified language and avoid jargon or abbreviations. And if authors are still unsure or have difficulty, providing a help page or link to a help file can reduce time and possible frustration.
Crafting author instructions involves many factors and is not a one-time event. The instructions for a journal should be considered a living document. They should be read and evaluated regularly by the editorial office to make sure the information is current and pertinent. The processes should be periodically tested to understand the author experience firsthand. Consider reviewing the information with all the stakeholders to make sure that the requirements are necessary and still make sense. As technology improves, existing formatting requirements may be rendered obsolete. Make sure the technology integrated into the process is useful. Any links included should be tested to ensure that they’re active and land the user in the appropriate spot.
Tom Lang in his 2020 Editorial in European Science Editing reminds crafters of author instructions to “standardize, minimize and summarize”. Publication is a goal of the research path and success involves not only writing a sound article that adds to the literature—it also needs to be the right form and fit for the readership. Well written instructions will aid the author in achieving that goal.
Conflicts of Interest: