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Making Sense of Instructions for Authors

Congrats! You’re preparing an article for publication! You’ve got exciting findings and can’t wait to share them, but suddenly preparing your article is becoming more of a burden than you expected. Journals all have guidelines on their websites, usually known as Instructions for Authors, but wading through them can be time consuming and confusing, and this makes manuscript preparation more difficult than it should be. So how do you make the most efficient use of these instructions?


What’s your article type?

Most journals publish a range of article types, from short reports and editorials, to full research articles and reviews. Knowing what article type you are aiming to write is the first step to sifting through the up to 10,000 words (!) of some journals Instructions for Authors. Often details on article types is at the top of the Instructions, but if it’s not readily apparent, doing a ‘Find’ search for your article type can speed up finding the information specifically relating to that article type.


Figure out the structure

The standard structure for an original article in most science fields is Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. However, if you’re writing a Review or a Case Report for example, these sections won’t necessarily apply. Also, some journals prefer Methods to be at the end of the paper, while others require certain data or figures to be presented in the Supplementary Material. When assessing the structure of your manuscript, make note of the following items:


  • Title page info: Full names of authors or first initials? How do the journals format affiliations? Whose email addresses are required? Do you need to include a word count on the title page?
  • Abstract style: Structured or unstructured? How many keywords are required? What’s the word limit? Does the journal require an additional ‘Mini abstract’ or a Highlights section?
  • Section order: What sections does the journal require and in what order? If the instructions don’t specify, check sample articles online to see how published examples of your article type are formatted.
  • Reference style: Does the journal prefer numeric (Vancouver) or alphabetical (Harvard) style for the reference list? This will affect how you cite papers within your main text and it can be very time consuming to fix afterwards, so it’s best to check this before you start writing. Consider using a reference manager to help you with this.
  • Figure/table details: Are there any limits on the number of figures or tables you can include? Should they be embedded within the main text, included at the end, or prepared in separate files? Are there fees for color images?


Check for word limits

Word or character limits can appear in a number of places so to save you time later, be sure to check these before you start. Word/character limits may apply to:

  • Titles
  • Running titles
  • Highlights
  • Abstracts
  • Main text
  • Figure legends

This information is easy to miss when you’re checking the main structural points, so do a quick search using the ‘Find’ command for ‘words’, ‘limit’ or ‘length’ to double check you haven’t missed anything.


Don’t forget!

There are some often overlooked items that appear in Instructions for Authors you should always remember to search for. Ethics statements, acknowledgements policies, and conflict of interest statement requirements are usually outlined in the instructions and these are small but important items that may cause your manuscript to be sent back if you don’t include them. You may also want to search for any limit on the number of authors you can include, fees, or forms needed at submission.


Make use of sample articles

One of the most underused tips for understanding what journal editors are looking for in a manuscript is checking sample articles. If the Instructions for Authors are confusing, look at recent free samples or open access articles provided by the journal to see how other manuscripts were structured. You can easily assess this way how strict a journal might be on certain things (e.g. abstract headings and format), and if the style has changed from that outlined in the instructions. If you come across a discrepancy, recent articles are likely to be the most up to date resource for formatting.

Make use of sample articles