In scholarly publishing as in life, the most complicated thing might be figuring out how to simplify. For two years, USC Professor Kelvin Davies has quietly been revolutionizing how papers are submitted to academic journals, leaving scientists with more time to devote to actually conducting research.
Davies, vice dean and holder of the James E. Birren Chair in Gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, and professor of molecular and computational biology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has been editor in chief of the biomedical journal Free Radical Biology & Medicine for more than three decades, in which time he’s seen thousands of submissions from researchers. Davies has also been editor of three other biomedical journals and on the editorial board member for dozens of others.
Like most top scholarly journals, the acceptance rates at Free Radical Biology & Medicine are brutal: Only about one in five submitted papers are published, and most are declined right away after a quick glance, the “desk reject” in publishing parlance.
But the journal still demanded a lot of specific formatting in advance of submission — “busywork” that Davies said had nothing to do with the content of the paper and that the editors of the journal spent a lot of time correcting. Authors would toil at formatting an article to a journal’s specifications, only to have to reformat it again if the paper was rejected for resubmission to another publication.
“We’re all scientists. We’ve all felt the frustration as authors of spending an awful lot of time on something that has nothing to do with the science,” said “Sir” Kelvin, who was knighted by the president of France in 2012, in honor of his critical role in uncovering the effects of free radicals and oxidative stress on aging processes.
In 2011, Davies began offering researchers the option of submitting their papers to Free Radical Biology & Medicine with whatever formatting made the most sense to them, so long as they included such crucial information as a title and abstract, methods, results and discussion, references and mandatory disclosures. Free Radical Biology & Medicine is the official journal of both the Society for Free Radical Biology & Medicine, based in the United States, and the European Society for Free Radical Research.
“From the beginning, when we took off our editor caps and put on our author caps, we thought this would be great, and we rather had the idea that other authors would think it was super as well,” Davies said.
The Your Paper, Your Way system devised by Davies, which also includes a more automated citation style, was then expanded to a trial group of 42 journals by Elsevier, the publisher of Free Radical Biology & Medicine and other leading journals such as Cell and The Lancet. The feedback, in an area of publishing traditionally resistant to change, was overwhelmingly positive: not a single piece of negative feedback from authors or reviewers. Most editors said they saw no difference in their workload.
In July, Elsevier announced an expansion of the Your Paper, Your Way system to 800 of its publications, and by the end of the year, it plans to roll out the program across its entire portfolio of 2,300 journals, freeing researchers to spend time on content instead of formatting, before the certainty of acceptance. Once the paper makes it to revision stage, authors are then asked to format for consistency.
“We should be focusing on the quality of science and not the format,” Davies said. “An easier submission process not only saves time and effort but may also allow authors to achieve faster publication speeds. There is no downside to it.”