Let's move on to author guidelines and instructions. Previously we discussed choosing the right journal and making sure that your chosen journal's scope its with the theme of your paper. Now that you've picked a journal, you need to turn your attention to that journal's instructions for prospective authors. Author instructions run the gamut from succinct to overwhelming, but there are always some common things you should keep in mind. Let's look at the top 10 common author guidelines and how to tackle each one.
- Manuscript Type
The very first thing you should look for in your journal's author guidelines is the list of manuscript types. You may have written a great original article, but if it doesn't fit within one of the journal's proscribed submission types, it is unlikely your paper will be accepted. Manuscripts commonly fall into one of these broad categories: original research; case study / case report; review article; editorial / commentary. There are many more manuscript types, and some journals have created unique categories all their own. One thing to note: it seems fewer medical journals are accepting case reports, so you might have to do some digging to find a journal that will take your paper.
- Word Count / Length
Once you've determined which manuscript category under which you will be submitting your paper, you can focus on making your paper fit the guidelines for that particular manuscript type. A big concern is word count and length. If your journal caps original research articles at 2,000 words, don't submit your 5,000 word paper (unless you like rejection)! Some journals may have limits on page numbers, so be mindful of that. Also be aware that word count often does NOT include the title page, abstract, references, or figures. To determine your word count in Microsoft Word, just highlight your text; the number of words appears on the bottom left of the screen.
If you are close in word count to the journals' limit, it can be quite easy to get your word count down. To reduce the number of words, start reading your paper again and cut out unnecessary words like "very," "really," "exceptionally," or "extremely." You would be surprised how often we use these empty adjectives. We also tend to use "and" and "the" more often than needed. Many sentences can also be reworded more succinctly.
Formatting usually means font type and size, margins, headers and footers, etc. Most journals want an Arial or Times New Roman font of 11 or 12-point size. The generally accepted page formatting is 1" margins all around, although some journals ask for 1.5" margins all around. Some journals do not want authors using any endnotes or footnotes generated by Word; stick with a combined list of all of your references at the end of your paper. More on that below.
- Title Page
Journals vary as to what they want on the title page, but most do want you to include a title page. Usually this will include all author names (whether they want authors' degrees and titles varies by journals), the title of the paper, and sometimes the total word count. Note that some journals want you to submit a blinded paper for peer review, so you would not include author names. The title page should be the first page of your manuscript, not a separate document.
Here again journals vary in their preferences for what should be included in the abstract, and abstracts will vary by manuscript type. Generally original research articles will call for a structured abstract with headings such as: Introduction (or Background); Methods; Results; Discussion; Conclusion. The author guidelines will indicate whether to include a structured or unstructured abstract (i.e., no headings). Some journals even want a structured abstract, but with no headings! An important thing to note in the author guidelines is the word length requirement for the abstract. Typically abstracts are no more than 250 words, or thereabouts.
Similar to the structured and unstructured abstract, some journals have requirements for headings and subheadings. They may also have preferences for font size or capitalization of those headings, and whether or not they should be indented.
References are what many authors dread the most! The two most important pieces of advice we can give to all authors are: (1) use EndNote and (2) see a librarian! If you see a librarian early on in your manuscript preparation, we can assist you with getting all of your references into a reference management software (we use EndNote here at UCF COM). Once that initial set up is done, it is so easy to properly cite your references within your manuscript. Does your journal want JAMA style? Done! Did your paper get rejected and now your new journal choice wants Vancouver style? Done!
Note in the author guidelines which citation style the journal prefers. Some journals have their own non-traditional style, like JAMA citation but an alphabetical list of authors instead of a numbered list. Please see a librarian for assistance with something like this. The majority of medical journals use the style guide of the American Medical Association, commonly referred to as "JAMA style."
- Tables & Figures
If you have tables or figures (or images) in your paper, you may have to cut and paste them to the end of your paper, with one table or figure per page. Be sure to label each page with a heading and caption. Note that the tables or figures should appear on the first page after your references. If you have colored tables or figures, there may be an author fee associated with reproducing those in color.
If you used images or figures from another source in your paper, you most definitely need to obtain permission to do so from the copyright holder, if any. This could be an easy process, but could also be a complicated and lengthy one. Our advice is to obtain permission well before you complete your paper and decide to start the journal submission process. Some journals may want to see your written permissions.
- How to Submit
Once you've gone through all of the author guidelines and made sure your paper conforms to the journal's requirements, you need to find out how to submit your paper. Journals are increasingly using online submission systems, where you will need to create an account, log in, and upload all of your documents. You may have to upload images and figures separately; in that case, you will need to save those as separate files.
Hopefully you are not overwhelmed by reading through your journal's author guidelines. At the very least, make sure your abstract word count and total paper word count are within limits, and your references are in the right format.
Next on our guide we'll look at the peer review process.