Screw past-tense printer me

a printshop light-tableSo I’m reviewing this manuscript for a journal which shall remain nameless (since I may want to submit something there someday). The author refers to Figure 5, but Figure 5 isn’t on that page, or on the next. No, Figure 5 and all the other figures are hiding at the end of the MS. After much fumbling, I find it. But Figure 5 makes no sense without its caption, which of course is neither on the same page as Figure 5 nor in the main text that first referred to Figure 5. No, the caption is somewhere else in the MS — was that after the references or was it after the appendix?

By the time I’ve finished comparing Figure 5 and its caption with Figure 2 and its caption and what the main text said about it, I’m left with five uneven piles of paper on my coffee table, plus a piece that somehow ended up on the floor. (God only knows where in the MS that came from.) And all I can think is: Why?

(For those of you who’ve never had the joy of writing or reading one of these wretched MSs, this footnote explains what I’m ranting about.[1])

I know the author didn’t want to slice and dice her cohesive paper the way she did. I just finished a paper myself and I sure didn’t want to. (Which is why my co-author did it. Aren’t co-authors wonderful?) I sincerely doubt the editors want to read it this way, any more than I do. Why does this reader-hostile and writer-hostile standard for MSs exist?

Basically, journals are still acting as if every single submission is going to be sent straight to the typesetters tomorrow morning without the slightest revision — even though in the last decade this has happened approximately zero times, even for authors named Chomsky. So why, please tell me, are reviewers at the beginning of the process still being subjected to MS formats whose sole purpose was to make life easier for designers who came in near the end of the process — specifically for designers who no longer actually exist?

I have no grudge against the people whose lives were once made easier by these MS formats. I used to be one myself, back in a decade that shall remain nameless. I’ve worked in a print shop. I’ve worked as a proofreader. I’ve had to make camera-ready pages by pasting up galleys with a light table, a waxer, a T-square, and the generous application of Letraset and line tape. Back in that geological era, if an MS page had both the diagram of a figure and its caption, then in order to send just the diagram half off to the PMT machine, you’d need to slice the paper up with an X-acto knife and pray that the pieces didn’t get lost.

So I fully appreciate how much easier the MS format rules made life for past-tense me. But, really, so what? I mean it. Who cares if past-tense me’s life was easier? My great-grandfather was a printer, my grandfather was a printer, my grandmother was a printer. I think I have all the politically correct cred I need to be allowed to say: Screw past-tense printer me.

Especially since there aren’t any present-tense versions of printer me. When was the last time an Elsevier or an APA Publications employee had to melt a block of wax (for their work)? When was the last time a diagram came to them in anything but an electronic file? I know modern design software can still make it a teeny-tiny pain to click-and-drag figures and captions around inside the main text, so maybe, just maybe, the MS format rules still make a designer’s life slightly easier. But hugely easier and cost-saving, like they did in the Jurassic? Not even close.

The archaic MS format continues to inconvenience everyone who has to write it or read it for content: at least the corresponding author, the editor or assistant editor, and three reviewers. For a journal with a 33% acceptance rate, every manuscript that ends up being slightly more convenient for one designer comes at the cost of more seriously inconveniencing 13 to 15 researchers. When did that become a fair trade? Am I really worth today only 7% of what I was worth in the decade that shall remain nameless? I guess that might still sound like a fair trade if you’re a ruthlessly Scrooge-like publishing company. The one designer whose time is saved is your employee. The 13 to 15 researchers whose time you’ve wasted are volunteers. Hoard all the minutes you pay for, but it’s okay to squander hours of donated time.

Hey, all you journal publishers out there, you seriously need to learn some basics of volunteer management.

Clearly, in order for anything to change, a critical mass of researchers needs to start turning down all review requests from journals whose publishers think our real time is worth less than the fictitious time of people who no longer exist. Let’s all sign a pact right now.

Am I actually going to have the guts to say no the next time an editor e-mails me? Probably not. But I can still dream.

  1. Far too many journals still force their would-be authors to format the manuscripts they submit according to ancient rules: each figure and table has to be on a page of its own at the end, each caption to each figure or table also on a page of its own at the end,[2] and scattered through the text are several notes like “Insert Figure 5 around here.” So reviewers never get to read anything that looks like the eventual journal article will. Instead we get to read the paper in a form that’s close to unreadable. For nigh on twenty years every writer’s computer has been able to “insert Figure 5 here” automatically, but they’re not allowed to, because apparently the peer-review system works better when you force the peers to hunt through pages and insert the figure in their imagination, instead of concentrating on reading.
  2. Some journals think it’s the height of modernity to allow several captions on the same page! Careful, I’m not sure the masses can handle such rapid social upheaval.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Ryan Joy (atxryan)]

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