Manuscript style- isn't it well past time for inserting figures?

The font geeks are still battling it out and a recent comment on that thread got me thinking about readability. Even with the considerable limitations of Microsoft Word and my own skills with it, I've been able to insert figures more or less where I want them in my grant applications for years. Over a decade.
Most of the grants that I review seem to be able to manage that as well. To place and format the figures within the document text so as to, presumably, ease the job of the reviewer in apprehending the points being made. The point is to facilitate easy reference to the illustrative figure at the appropriate place in the text.
Yet manuscript review is still stuck in the dark ages. Most journal submission procedures I am familiar with still require the figures to be separate documents from the text. The figures are then appended to the back of the file when the online submission engine creates the final pdf.
Why? Why do we do this? Why not allow the authors to format the manuscript in a pdf with the figures inserted as the authors feel best? If necessary high-resolution figures could be required to be appended and the publisher could even require a parallel figure-free copy of the manuscript text for their own typesetting purposes.

15 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    I'd go a step further. Why not review manuscripts in the same form we read published papers? Publishers should provide Word templates you can use to make your submitted manuscript look as you hope it would in the final published version. Two columns of text, figures in the most logical place etc.

  • Pascale says:

    The answer seems to be "because this is the way we do it." If you print out a manuscript and critique it in hard copy, it is nice to have those double-spaced lines for your notes.
    I find it annoying to have to shuffle pages around to find figures. You then have a page from the paper referring to the figure, the caption page, and the figure page(s) that you have to keep track of. At a minimum we should be able to have the damn figure caption immediately under the figure, not on a separate page. That really makes me crazy.

  • DSKS says:

    Perhaps journals feel that they at least have to try and maintain the illusion that they actually provide a needed service in terms of formatting and publishing? 😉
    But really, it's only a small step from JBC's current submission requirements to a situation in which the author essentially performs all the publisher's duties save selecting peer reviewers and hosting the final paper and .pdfs... which, arguably, can't really justify publication fees in the $1000's.
    Hell, give it a few years or so and the journals will probably use a Google Sites-esque program that passes the responsibility for creating the html version of submitted papers to the author as well.

  • LadyDay says:

    Excellent point. I hate having to hunt down the figures and figure legends while reading through the text of a paper. Though, like Pascale, I like the double-spacing of the text for comments.

  • Gummibears says:

    The real reason is purely technical. Journals are printed on paper, and this requires formatting using software that takes into account the technical features of the printing press. MS Word is good enough for your laser printer, but not for professional printing.

  • ecologist says:

    I have long taken to doing things in submitted papers for the convenience of reviewers, that I know will be changed in the final version if it gets accepted. Figures are always accompanied by their legends. I haven't put them into the text, but will probably begin to do so. I usually put a table of contents/outline at the beginning (because LaTeX can do so with a single command). I put a little note "Table of contents provided for convenience of reviewers".
    Once upon a time, figures were submitted as photographic prints, and the captions had to be kept separately. Now, the figures are submitted as files, so there is no reason for journals to pretend that they are separate pieces of paper.

  • Eric Lund says:

    Odyssey @1: Being a LaTeX type I can't answer this about MS Word, but the publisher of the journals I usually publish in provides an option for LaTeX users to produce exactly the kind of output you describe.
    As to the question in the post, most publishers fear (quite reasonably) that the average MS Word user will not handle correctly the transition from double-spaced manuscript to galley format (most if not all of the journals I am familiar with use a two-column format). The double-spaced manuscript style was instituted, as Pascale says, to make it easier for reviewers to make notes on the manuscript for producing the referee report. It's been there since the days when the editor actually mailed a hard copy of the manuscript (one of typically four copies the corresponding author physically mailed to the editor) to the referee, who had to make his notes either on the document itself or on separate sheet(s) of paper--I still do my reviews this way, except that now I download the PDF from the journal's web site and print out the copy myself. I agree with Pascale that it would be nice to at least put figures and their captions on the same page.

  • MRW says:

    Some do. For example, Royal Society of Chemistry journals provide you with a template which uses in-line figures and looks the same as the published papers.
    Makes it a lot easier to see if you're anywhere close to the appropriate number of pages, too. Analytical Chemistry, an American Chemical Society journal had an editorial recently noting that the *average* length of their articles is longer than the *maximum* number of pages given in their submission procedure. Some of it might have to do with the difficulties of getting an accurate page count from their formulas (X words take up Y pages, plus A of a page for large figures, B of a page for large figures, C of a page for tables...). Much easier when you can just plug it into a template and see how long it actually is.

  • Tercel says:

    LaTeX FTW!!!!1eleven

  • Morgan Price says:

    I agree that reviewing papers with the text in one place, the legends in a second place, and the figures in yet a third place is very annoying. Why not let people submit in any format they like and deal with formatting issues after acceptance with a separate round?
    I also think double-spacing is a waste of paper and makes the manuscript harder to read, so I sometimes submit single-spaced, but I got a complaints from a reviewer once.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    The journals I typically submit to require documents to be in their templates, which gives you a pretty document that looks just like a normal journal page. I love it.
    I idly wonder about subconscious favorable bias towards writing that "looks like a journal page" (all ready). Of course, the playing field is level if everybody submits that way, so it's kind of a dead-end musing in my case.

  • Thise says:

    One advantage of having the figures separate is that it's easier to split the text and figures between different printers.
    Hopefully eBook/iPad evolution will soon make printing out anything obsolete.

  • Isis the Scientist says:


  • grumpy says:

    "I idly wonder about subconscious favorable bias towards writing that "looks like a journal page" (all ready)"
    I have this bias for sure--whenever i see a bunch of newbie latex errors (e.g. italicized units) in a m/s I assume the authors are inexperienced and I am more likely to doublecheck things like equations etc that I normally would give the benefit of the doubt.

  • MS says:

    In fact, it's absurd that we have to submit things in Word so that the journal can "reformat" them into pdf. The whole idea of pdf was to be a universal format. We should just be submitting mss in that format to begin with, figures included.
    As to the final publication, that's a different story since printed figures need much higher resolution than those viewed just on screen. But even here it's getting absurd, some journals don't just require high res figures they actually request the authors to do the page layout and submit the figures as they should appear in print. Clearly the journals have had to fire their own layout staff. I've had to learn a lot more than I needed to about Photoshop, not that it's bad but it's time I lose to learning other things that are more scientific.

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