• Manaal Fatima

Article feature: The hidden $1B cost of formatting scientific articles for submission

For anyone who's tried to publish a scientific paper, it's a known fact that the manuscript preparation process is an arduous one, with an equally grueling obstacle course towards the end that you must complete to ensure your article crosses the line with its own volume number, issue number and digital object identifier (DOI). For so long, journal formatting has been a necessarily evil that improved office comradeship, unifying teams in their collective dislike of reducing abstract word counts and reformatting tables.

But a study published last month put a dollar-value on the time spent making non-scientific changes. It costs annually >$550 million worldwide for the first author only, >$1.1 billion if accounting for the whole research team, and ~$200 million in the US alone.

You can read the full article by Jiang et al and review the results for yourself here.

The article reports some interesting findings, and we stacked them against our own data from >40 submission attempts for 20 manuscripts since early last year:

  • The article states that manuscript review takes about 3 months. In our experience, it's taken an average of ~1.5 months and a maximum of 6 months to receive a first response from a journal. First response can be reject with no review, reject after review, or considered for publication with changes required.

  • The article also states that the time from submission to publication is typically 7-9 months. We're currently averaging about 2 months, but up to 8 months from first submission to outcome, which doesn't necessarily mean publication.

  • The article reported a 43% acceptance rate with the first submission attempt, and at 40%, our own experience suggests the same.

If we try to generate a snapshot of the dollar-value on submission efforts in Australia, it looks a little like this:

  • The Excellence in Research for Australia 2018-19 Report tallies 376,337 journal article outputs from a range of fields, including non-scientific research fields.

  • Jiang et al estimate that 2.3 million scientific articles are published each year, which cost research teams $1.1 billion annually

  • If we consider that 376,000+ Australian articles account for 16% of the total output, that equates to roughly $180 million annually in Australia.

Granted, the above figure is our own "back-of-the-envelope" calculation, and the true cost for scientific articles in Australia is probably lower. But there's no denying it represents a sizeable cost, that could be better directed toward real scientific efforts.

While it's clearly evident that the majority of researchers would like to see the submission process improve, getting journals to implement changes remains a real challenge. One of the biggest caveats in a potential reform is this - if the researchers aren't the ones spending 23.8 million hours reformatting, who will be? And what does that mean for the cost of journal subscriptions and article processing fees?

There are some ways to actually reduce the formatting burden, without simply re-distributing it. As the article suggests, format-free initial submissions, a standardised manuscript structure across prominent journals and uniform referencing requirements are all realistic and achievable ways to reduce the manual labour involved.

The impact of these delays and associated labour costs cannot be ignored, and is a poor utilisation of private and public funds. The article uses the the lower end

of time ranges spent on reformatting for their cost estimation, which means that the cumulative magnitude suffered by the scientific community to disseminate their research efforts and findings is crippling. Their time and expertise could be much better spent on generating useful output that can do more, and cost less to the community.