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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.

Who decides on the rules will also differ; often some will be enforced at the request of the publishers, some might well be due to society regulations, and certain criteria is generally insisted upon by the Editor-in-Chief.

One thing is true pretty much across the board, however, if you’re received an email asking for formatting corrections:

At this point, the academic editors have not yet seen your paper and an unsubmission is not a comment on its scientific merit.

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. In fact, most of the time, the academic editors will not even be aware that an unsubmission has taken place.

So 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 I think I speak for all editorial staff everywhere when I say that we’d rather an author asked us what exactly we mean than resubmit another incorrect manuscript.

Keep in mind 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. For example, strict word limits are often because of historical problems with page budgets. Some editors, who are having to read and assess many new submissions at a time, find it easier if they’re all formatted in a uniform Times New Roman, 12pt, double spaced. Sometimes there’s a tight turn-around time between acceptance and publication so the editorial staff are required to ensure that as many formatting errors are ironed out at submission as possible.

As these rules are there for a reason, arguing with the editorial team is unlikely to make any difference to what is being asked of you. All you are likely to achieve by this is a delay to the assessment of your work and none of us want that.

The best thing to do is to simply make the amendments and follow the instructions to resubmit as soon as you are able.

How to avoid having your work unsubmitted in future

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 regular 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, widely cited, and help advance knowledge in your field.


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