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Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make, Part I

Behind the Scenes at JAMA and the Archives Journals:
Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make, Part I

Brenda Gregoline, ELS, manages the copyediting team for 5 of the Archives Journals, and is a member of the committee that writes and updates the AMA Manual of Style. She is a member of the Council of Science Editors and has worked in scientific publishing for nearly 15 years. The AMA Manual of Style is the ultimate go to resource for writing articles as well as understanding ethical standards in medical and scientific publishing, and it is now available online. In this 3-part series, Gregoline reports on the most frequent mistakes authors make when submitting manuscripts to JAMA and the Archives Journals, and lets us in on what drives copyeditors crazy.  Be sure to check back on Monday for the next two weeks for part two and three of this post.

Publishing a new edition of a style manual, particularly a lengthy, detailed manual that covers a ridiculous amount of technical material (Hello, AMA Manual of Style!), is a grueling process. In our case, it involved 10 people meeting for at least an hour every week for more than a year, where we tried not to get into arguments about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. After the meetings there would usually be flurries of e-mails about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. Then we’d all go home and dream about grammar, usage, and the presentation of scientific data. You get the picture.

My point is that the writers of style manuals are often a little, shall we say, too close to the material. In the case of the AMA Manual of Style, we are all editors as well—and it can be hard for us not to roll our eyes when we run into the same problems on manuscript after manuscript. Come on, authors: there’s a whole book on this stuff!

Which, of course, is precisely the problem. There is a whole THOUSAND-PAGE book that tries to encompass all aspects of medical editing. It’s impossible to expect authors to absorb all the information–they’re just trying to get published, and it’s our job to help them. Here, in classic top-10-list reverse order, are the top 10 editorial problems we see in our submitted and accepted manuscripts, compiled by committee and editorialized upon by me. If any authors happen to read this, maybe it will help them avoid the most common errors; if any journal Web site–design people read it, maybe they can grab some ideas for more explicit user interface; and if any copy editors read it, maybe they can enjoy shaking their heads in wry commiseration.

10. Missing or incomplete author forms. Most journals require authors to fill out some forms, usually involving things like copyright transfer, an assertion of responsibility for authorship, and so on. These forms are often filled out incorrectly or incompletely. Following a form’s instructions as to signatures and boxes to check can save significant amounts of time in the publication process.

9. Not explaining “behind the scenes” stuff. Values in a table don’t add up—oh, it’s because of rounding. The curve in this figure doesn’t connect the values listed in the “Results” section—oh, we used data smoothing. This kind of thing can be easily explained in a footnote, but many authors forget to do so because it seems so obvious to them.

8. Making life difficult for the copy editor. Authors and editors have the same goal: a polished, published, accurate manuscript. Sure-fire ways authors can ruin what should be a pleasant working relationship are to suggest that the copy editor is making changes in the manuscript for no reason; calling the copy editor to discuss changes without having read the edited manuscript first (this wastes OODLES of time); and not reading the cover letter that comes with the edited manuscript. This last is particularly charming when the author then calls the copy editor to ask all the questions that are very nicely answered in said cover letter.

Authors and aspiring authors: stay tuned for 7 more!

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4 Responses to “Behind the Scenes at JAMA and the Archives Journals:
Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make, Part I”
  1. Bruce Oksol says:

    I would think a basic in any article on style would be to spell out the acronyms or abbreviations the first time they are used. I may have missed it but unless JAMA and AMA no longer stand for anything but are now the official names (like KFC, MDU, etc), one should spell out the acronyms/abbreviations when first used. I have to assume some non-medical / non-scientific minds might end up here.

  2. [...] see in our submitted and accepted manuscripts, compiled by committee and editorialized upon by me. In Part I we discussed filling out author forms, omitting “behind the scenes” stuff, and generally making [...]

  3. [...] see in our submitted and accepted manuscripts, compiled by committee and editorialized upon by me. In Part I we discussed filling out author forms, omitting “behind the scenes” stuff, and [...]

  4. [...] to JAMA and the Archives Journals, and lets us in on what drives copy editors crazy. Read part one here and part two [...]

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