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Formatting and Style

What Does “Format-Free Submission” Really Mean?


Andrés Pagán, Associate Editor

September 2022

Every year millions of articles are published in over 40,000 academic journals. One way that large publishers ensure a consistent presentation across their titles is by using an in-house format for their journals. However, the formatting process can be time consuming for authors, particularly if their paper has been rejected by a journal with a different formatting style. Thus, to streamline the peer review process, many journals now allow authors to upload their papers as “format-free submissions.” Also termed “free format” or “your paper your way,” format-free submissions help authors save time and encourage reviewers to focus on the scientific rigor of the submitted manuscripts.

What is format-free submission?

Format-free submission permits authors to submit their manuscript without having to follow strict typesetting rules or a specific reference style (e.g., Harvard, Vancouver, and APA). Although journals may allow format-free submissions, authors are still expected to provide all information necessary for peer review (e.g., author list and contact information, main text, tables and figures, and references). Furthermore, authors are expected to present the text consistently (e.g., not mix American and British spelling, apply uniform section headings, and select a single font type) and use a uniform referencing style (e.g., author-year, superscripted numbers, or numbers within brackets).

What qualifies (and does not qualify) as format-free submission?

While journals may offer a format-free submission process, this does not mean that the managing editor will allow authors to submit manuscripts that use informal language, ignore journal guidelines, or omit important sections. For instance, journals typically require manuscripts to use concise and appropriate technical writing. Manuscripts must be checked for language and grammatical errors prior to submission; authors are commonly encouraged to have their manuscripts proofread or professionally edited. Moreover, while journals may be flexible with the typesetting and reference style of a manuscript for the initial submission, they may require other aspects to adhere to the journal guidelines. For example, in many cases, it is required that authors comply with strict word/page limits for the overall manuscript, the title, or for the abstract. Additionally, it is common to ask authors to organize their manuscript following a specific structure (e.g., Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion). Journals are increasingly following best practice guidelines in publishing ethics. As such, authors are often required to include statements that address sources of funding, author contributions, and competing interests. Thus, although a journal may allow “format-free submissions,” authors must still adhere to other written journal requirements.

How do I learn if a journal supports a format-free submission process?

While many publishers now offer format-free submissions for many of their titles, authors should not assume they can submit their manuscript as a format-free submission to their target journal. Before submitting a manuscript, authors should closely review their target journal’s guidelines; these should clearly state whether the selected journal allows format-free submission. If not, it is recommended to query the journal’s editorial staff via email.

Format-free submission greatly facilitates the publishing process and is becoming increasingly common among publishers. Nevertheless, a format-free submission process does not grant authors artistic license and authors must ensure their manuscripts are prepared with a consistent structure and uniform reference style.

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