A study has for the first time attempted to assess the cost of that most frustrating of processes – formatting scientific manuscripts for publication.

Using responses to an online survey, Canadian researchers estimate scientists lose 52 hours of the year to formatting, at a cost of $1908 (£1485) – based on a submission rate of four papers a year.

Results from 372 researchers from 41 countries – across the career spectrum – suggest that it took two attempts for manuscripts to be accepted for publication, and that researchers spent a median time of 14 hours formatting each manuscript.

The median annual income of respondents was between $61,000 (£47,480) and $80,999 suggesting formatting per manuscript cost $477 – a price authors have to absorb themselves.

Formatting was defined as total time related to formatting the body of the manuscript, figures, tables, supplementary files and references.

Emily Draper, a lecturer in chemical robotics at the University of Glasgow, doesn’t think the reported figures look unreasonable, but ‘it depends how many times you get rejected – and that happens a lot. Sometimes you’ll spend whole afternoons just reformatting. Sometimes publishers won’t even agree to look at the article unless referencing styles are correct.’ But, she adds, ‘you’re stuck because you want to get your paper published’.

Lead author Allana LeBlanc, who was based at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute when the research was carried out, says the group were spurred to carry out the study after a ‘particularly onerous systematic review that required a lot of attention to hundreds of references. We questioned whether it had any impact on the reading of the science itself.’ Formatting she suggests, ‘shouldn’t matter at the first submission’.

The researchers acknowledge that the data – based on self-reporting – cannot be verified and that some scientists may have over-estimated the time they spent formatting, although outliers were removed. However, they hope the findings will encourage more flexible formatting practices for publications, at least at first submission, and more recognition of the burden of formatting by employers and funding agencies.

‘It’s a funny idea that researchers do the work, format the work, it gets published and then they [the publishers] charge for access,’ LeBlanc says.