One of the simplest and best ways to help make the results of your research clear to readers is to focus on limiting inconsistencies in the text. These inconsistencies can include, for example, headings, figure references and abbreviation definitions, which can be distracting to readers and may prevent your message from being understood. However, as an author, it can be frustrating and challenging to stay consistent because it seems like there are almost as many styles as there are journals—and you’d be quite right to think so! While some journals may specify details such as the citation, heading, and spelling styles that authors should use, other journals are less clear about such expectations.
For example, most journals prefer “Figure 1” to be capitalized and spelled out, but some journals prefer the use of “Figure 1” in the main text of the article and “Fig. 1” in parentheses or figure captions. However, a small subset of journals prefer the use of “fig. 1” or “figure 1” throughout the article. All of these conventions are clear enough and widely used. But submitting an article that randomly switches between these conventions can look like a lack of care on the part of the author.
Thus, what’s ultimately most important as an author is that when two or more acceptable stylistic conventions exist, you choose one and use it consistently.
Why Consistency Is Important to Reviewers and Editors
Although some authors worry that their writing will sound repetitive, a little bit of repetition is actually helpful for readers. Thus, consistency here refers to using the same terminology and style throughout your manuscript, while providing fresh phrasing can keep the reader’s attention. By maintaining consistency in this way, you allow journals to more easily adapt your article for publication according to their style. Editors will be able to focus on helping improve the content of your article rather than, for example, fixing the spacing around symbols or trying to ensure that words follow American English spelling rather than a mix of British and American spelling.
Reviewers, too, will be more likely to consider the content of the research that you’ve worked so hard to produce rather than being distracted by stylistic concerns or inconsistencies. For instance, abbreviation conventions vary widely. Many journals want abbreviations defined only upon their first use; some want only a list of abbreviations; still others don’t permit abbreviations at all. Reviewers at more general-subject journals, who may be less familiar with your specific topic, may become frustrated when they see only some abbreviations defined or when common abbreviations are defined repeatedly throughout an article. Thus, ensuring a consistent abbreviation style aids in comprehension and clarity.
Finally, consistent usage makes a prospective article look polished, as varying or random usage can be distracting or even confusing. This is a common issue when a paper has multiple authors, so ensuring consistency among different writing styles will ensure a more unified voice and style throughout the manuscript. For example, some authors may capitalize the term “Internet”, while others leave it lowercase (which is the preference of many but not all style guides). Ensuring that this word is consistently lowercase or capitalized improves the readability of your manuscript.
Similarly, ensuring consistent formatting of chemical or isotope formulas and units of measure focuses the reader’s attention on the data and their interpretation. For example, when chemical formulas are not super- and subscripted consistently (e.g., NH4+ vs. NH4+), the reader has to spend extra time deciphering the chemical characteristics or properties, and for complex formulas (e.g., [Fe(OH)H2O)5]2+ vs. [Fe(OH)H2O)5]2+), misinterpretation is possible.
At AJE, we’ve found that most journals prefer consistent usage of any style over a specific style at the submission stage. Thus, to increase the likelihood that you receive useful and meaningful feedback as an author and that journal copyeditors can more easily impose their preferred style, we recommend maintaining as much consistency as possible in the following areas before submitting your manuscript:
- Headings (capitalization, formatting)
- Citations (reference style, placement)
- Punctuation (e.g., terminal commas, mathematical equations)
- Abbreviations and acronyms
- Numbers, units, and figures (e.g., no space between a number and the percent symbol, abbreviated units of time, the capitalization of “Figure” and “Table”)
- Field-specific issues (e.g., gene and protein nomenclature, place names)
For more information on how to ensure consistency in your own writing and for a downloadable checklist, view this article on consistency.