Help, my manuscript’s been unsubmitted!

You’ve finished your project and written your paper. You’ve researched the best journals in the subject area and know exactly which one you want to publish in. You go through the submission process, take a deep breath, cross everything, and hit that “submit” button. You get an email to confirm that the submission has been successful, you start breathing again, shut down your computer, and go pour yourself a glass of something strong.

The following morning, however, you are greeted with an email saying that your manuscript has been unsubmitted – the formatting’s wrong, you haven’t included an authorship statement, there are too many words in your abstract – and the hope of the previous evening comes crashing down around you. How has this happened? Why has this happened?? What does it mean???

 

First things first: don’t panic.

When a submission is received by a journal, the first thing that happens is that a member of the editorial team – usually an Editorial Assistant or Managing Editor – will check to ensure that it adheres to the rules for that particular journal.

The rules vary considerably from journal to journal. Some are very liberal and, so long as all the important bits have been included (abstract, text, references, etc), then they’ll approve it. Some are very strict and can unsubmit a new submission for as small an error as putting “et al” in the references after five authors instead of four.

 

Is this a sign that my paper’s going to be rejected?!

For most journals, the academic editors will not look at a manuscript until it has been checked and approved by the administrative staff. Unsubmission for corrections is a routine occurrence and will have no impact whatsoever on whether your manuscript goes on to be accepted. So don’t worry!

 

What do you do now?

The first thing to do is to read the email carefully. If any of the instructions or requests are unclear, hit reply and ask the editorial office for clarification. We’re here to help and want to get your manuscript ready for review as swiftly as possible.

We promise that if a journal is asking you to amend something it is generally for good reason, even if that reason is not entirely clear to you. The best thing to do is to simply make the amendments and follow the instructions to resubmit as soon as you are able.

 

Tips to avoid your work being unsubmitted
  1. If you’ve submitted to a journal before and the staff have asked you to amend something, re-read the email and make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many authors don’t do this.
  2. Read the Instructions For Authors carefully and format your manuscript accordingly. It isn’t unheard of for a rule to change and the IFAs to go slightly out of date; but if your manuscript is formatted as described then the chances are it’ll be correct.
  3. Have a look at the latest issue of the journal (either in print or online) and see how the articles are laid out. If they include a Conflict of Interest statement, add a Conflict of Interest statement to your manuscript file. If the references are formatted in Chicago style, format your references in Chicago style. If the Abstract is structured using particular headings, use these headings to structure your Abstract.
In conclusion

Unsubmissions happen all the time and are a routine part of the process. If your manuscript gets unsubmitted, it is nothing to worry about and your research still has every chance of going on to be published, being widely cited, and helping to advance knowledge in your field.

The authorship question

No, we’re not talking Shakespeare here (that’s another topic for another day – and, for that matter, another blog). We’re talking about the surprisingly contentious issue of who gets to be listed as an author on an academic paper.

According to OxfordDictionaries.com, an author is simply “A writer of a book, article, or document.” But does this simplistic definition apply to academia? I recently had a manuscript submitted to a journal I work on where the submitting author insisted that it had over 1,200 authors – using the above criteria, there is no way that anyone could even begin to argue that they all qualified as authors, not unless they took two words each.

 

So how do we define an “author”?

In the modern world of research where academic collaboration is often between teams rather than individuals, it can be surprisingly difficult to decide just who qualifies for that all-important co-author listing.

For example, if a group of five researchers conduct an experiment then two of them go off and write a paper based on the results; it would be highly unfair on the other three if only the two who physically wrote it were acknowledged for the work.

For this reason, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Why does it matter?

In an article published in the Times Higher Education back in 2017, it was revealed that 77% of the respondents to their survey on authorship would support the introduction of mandatory statements on author contribution across the board, a policy which many publishers have now adopted. It was felt that “authors should be required to declare exactly what they contributed to published journal articles in a bid to boost transparency and stamp out authorship “abuse”.”

In order to progress, or even maintain, a career in academia these days, it is important that you are seen to be publishing research in respected journals. This can lead to situations where senior academics insist on being listed as co-authors on their juniors’ work, even when they had little to do with it. On the flip side, it is not uncommon for researchers to name a more prestigious (but uninvolved) colleague as an author to give their work a little more gravitas. We’re sure you’ll agree that neither of these practices are entirely fair.

 

What are editorial teams doing to help?

Authors submitting to online submission systems will be asked to enter contact details for their co-authors during submission. Precisely which details are requested will vary from system to system, but at the very least a name and working email address will be required. This is to ensure that all of the co-authors know that they’ve been listed as co-authors; in other words, the submitting author can’t just start naming well-known academics to make their paper look more appealing to the editor if the well known academics in question are going to be notified!

It is therefore important that we check new submissions to ensure that everyone listed within the manuscript file is also listed on the system – that way we know that we can get in touch with everyone who’s been listed as a co-author and nobody can be slipped in under the radar.

It is also important that we follow up on any “bounced” emails we receive. Generally, when a manuscript is submitted, an email will go out to all co-authors. If an email address isn’t working, the notification will usually arrive at the editorial office. It’s worth following up on – if the submitting author doesn’t have a current email address for one of their co-authors, it does beg the question of how closely they’ve been working together…