Poll on some nitpicky paper style guide questions?

A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points.

A lot of conventions in manuscripts are extremely well set. Like AIMRD (Abstract/Introduction/Methods/Results/Discussion). References go after the discussion and before the appendices. Most journals in ecology use Harvard style citations such as “(Jones 1999)” inline while a few journals with very tight word limits use a Vancouver style (numbers linked to endnotes) (and just to emphasize that this all about conventions there are also Oxford, Chicago, and some weirder ones that are used by convention in different fields).

But there are two areas where I feel conventions are changing. At least I ended up finding myself in disagreement with colleagues and giving conflicting advice to lead authors. So I’m curious what you think on these two issues.

Inline reference to multiple authors

What do you do when you want to use the authors as the subject of a sentence and there are multiple authors. If there is one or two it is easy (again only because a convention has evolved, but it is a well established convention). Namely

“Jones (1999) demonstrated that…” or “Jones and Smith (1999) demonstrated that …”.

But if there are 3+ authors do you say

“Jones et al. (1999) demonstrated that…”


“Jones and colleagues (1999) demonstrated that …”.

The last example is not literal – it could be “Jones and co-workers (1999)” or “Jones and her team (1999)” or “Jones and co-authors” but the point is that in the second convention you do not carry the et al. style from end notes into the main narrative text even though it is slightly longer. Or is et al. in the midst of science prose perfectly OK?

Parentheses within parentheses

With the Harvard style, parentheses are important to denote that a citation is happening, but what if you also want to use parentheses to say something that is, well, parenthetical? Do you nest parentheses or writer a longer and possibly more convoluted syntax to avoid nested parentheses? Or use side-by-side parentheses. There are many permutations of this but one example is:

(A) It is well established that XXXX (although see Jones 1999)


(B) It is well established that XXXX (although see (Jones 1999))

To me this is well established that you should always use (A). Although (B) is becoming increasingly more common as people use citation management software and don’t know how to implement (A) in their citation management software. But what if the parenthetical statement is longer and more complex?

(A) It is generally true that XXXX (but it appears not to be true in birds, Jones 1999, or insects, Smith 2008)


(B) It is generally true that XXXX (but it appears not to be true in birds – Jones 1999 – or insects – Smith 2008)


(C) It is generally true that XXXX (but it appears not to be true in birds or insects)(Jones 1999, Smith 2008)


(D) It is generally true that XXXX (but it appears not to be true in birds (Jones 1999) or insects (Smith 2008))


So what do you think is correct?

Why do you think that? Is the world coming to an end due to all norms of decency disappearing? Should we just go with whatever is easiest to implement?


31 thoughts on “Poll on some nitpicky paper style guide questions?

  1. Brian – you should raise the single most aggravating “convention” (or, really, lack thereof) in publishing: the tremendous variation, from journal to journal, in the format of the bibliography. Seriously, there is NO reason for such divergence except rampant editorial egotism … or for highly inefficient formats. Why not something straightforward and simple, like this for journal articles:

    Jones PK, Smith LO, Dewey TJ. 2010. Cleaning the Augean stables. Incisive Commentaries 37: 1-5.

    This would get rid of a welter of unneeded periods, parentheses, and ampersands. Granted, it might put certain bibliographic programs out of business, but that would be a small price to pay. ;^)

      • If even (say) just the ESA, BES, and ASN got together and agreed one standard, that would already make an appreciable difference, and would create pressure on other society journals to follow suit.

      • Yes, that’s true. As I say, I agree that it would be better to have one format. The format suggested above is similar to that of Springer journals, and I always liked its simplicity. But I would bet others would prefer different formats, and I wonder if the current proliferation stems from editors trying to find the “one best format”.
        More generally, I’m a bit surprised that this doesn’t seem to be subject to some sort of positive frequency dependence where one (arbitrary) format takes over. I guess it’s not like driving on the right-hand side of the road where going against the norm has bad consequences.
        By the way, changing the format is easy with some sort of reference management software (but I don’t suggest that to be a good reason to keep the status quo).

      • I suspect the reason there is not strong selective pressure on this is that for those who use reference manager software, it is a matter of a few clicks to switch. Still seems like a sensible thing to do though.

  2. possibly an old fashioned POV on my part, but I see some of these examples as evidence that authors do not understand how to set-up their bibliographic software correctly – at least that is what happens with my students

  3. Is this where I can also complain that figures and their legends should be put together in manuscripts? I assume this is a ‘typesetting’ issue but it makes it so much harder to review figures.

    • Completely agree. We require that at GEB and it is increasingly becoming the expectation at journals, but not fast enough. In today’s modern typesetting technology it has zero justification. It really more than anything I think is a badge of insiderness to show that you know to separate them, but ironically it is now just unneeded and annoying.

      • I find this so frustrating that I have started turning down review requests from journals who require authors to separate captions from their figures. And I tell the editor that this is why I am turning down the request. If enough of us do this, the practice would go away quickly.

        As per the other stuff, I personally follow convention, but don’t mind seeing the other ways of doing it. In general, for people who run into the parentheses syntax issue a lot, it’s probably a sign that you’re over using parentheses. Another alternative, which I have seen, and prefer to the other unorthodox styles mentioned here, is to use brackets for the parenthetical comment, then parentheses for the references. That visually appears less offensive to me than nested parentheses…

        XXX [but not in birds (Jones 1999), insects (Jacobs 2000), or mollusks (Jibs 2001)]

  4. The poll seems not to be showing up for me, so:
    -I use et al. inline to refer to papers with many authors
    -Re: parentheses within parentheses, I use “(blah blah blah Jones 1999)” or “(blah blah blah Jones [1999])”. Probably because I’m weird and don’t use reference management software. I avoid complicated parenthetical phrasing in my papers; I get them out of my system when blogging. πŸ™‚

    • I guess if I were in a group of academics I would consider it a nerdy insider joke. If I were with “normal” people I would expect to be looked at strangely. Which is why I personally don’t favor using it in prose, even scientific prose. But I seem to be in the minority.

      On a side note, I think the use of et al. in general vernacular (e.g. newspapers) was much more common 50 and 100 years ago. But as the proportion of literate people who know Latin declines, it is becoming much less common is my sense.

      • I guess adding to my discomfort with using it in normal speech is it is an abbreviation. We do use foreign language phrases in everyday English which I guess would make “et alia” OK. But to my knowledge et al. as an abbreviation comes out of bibliography conventions just like ibid. This quote from Merriam Webster Dictionary captures my feelings well:

        “Et al. is most commonly found in scholarly writing, especially when used to avoid having to list a number of different authors in a bibliography or footnote. You can use it when describing the people who came to a dinner party, but it may sound rather odd. Some of the Latin abbreviations found in English have become well-suited to conversational usage (we often hear i.e. used in speech), while others appear out of place. For instance, few people would say “ibid.” (which means “in the same place”) in response to the question “where are my hat and gloves?””

      • Somewhat off topic: People should considering conversationally using “Ibid” more often, as in Good Will Hunting (to mean, “what I just said”) – it’s very funny. That said, the joke rarely lands…

  5. Another alternative for the third poll: It is generally true that XXXX (but it appears not to be true in birds or insects; Jones 1999, Smith 2008)

  6. I’m the report editor at a science institute here in New Zealand, and the amount of time I spend tidying up authors’ references drives me nuts. Even the use of software doesn’t avoid this. Our house style is quite spare and the amount of punctuation used in other styles seems excessive and unnecessary.

  7. So just to summarize it seems like
    1) A large majority prefer “Smith et al. (1999) showed …”. I’m still not sold and will probably continue to swim upstream on this one (per the comment section in response to lowedntheory & the quote from Merriam Webster)
    2) Most people still think simple parenthetical statements should not be nested so prefer “(as shown by Smith 1999)” but a surprising number of people considered nesting (“as shown by (Smith1999))” accepatable – I do fear that we’re watching a trend here. I’m not jumping on this bandwagon.
    3) The opinions were more diverse on the longer parenthetical expressions with nested parenthesis favored by a slight margin but the use of commmas or semicolons or such was equally popular.

    An option I didn’t present was mixing parentheses and brackets as in “(as shown by Smith [1999])” or “[as shown by Smith (1999)]”. The first respect the meaning of parentheses vs brackets in prose. The second respects the order of nesting used in equations. I didn’t include this in the poll so its impossible to tell how it would have rated, but given how many people suggested it I have to think it was reasonably popular. Personally I find this much more acceptable than nested parentheses.

    I’m curious to see how this evolves over the next 10 years.

    • Re: not liking “Smith et al. (1999)” because you’d never say something like “I’m down at the pub with Smith et al.”, I always thought of “Smith et al. (1999)” as referring to the paper, not the authors. That is, you’re using an abbreviated author list as a sort of nickname or shorthand for the paper.

      Analogously, if you were a member of one of those dining clubs that were all the rage in Victorian Britain (like the Glutton Club that Darwin joined at Cambridge, or Thomas Henry Huxley’s X Club), and the leader of the club was named Smith, I could imagine the *club* being called “Smith et al.” In which case it would be perfectly appropriate to say “I’m down at the pub with Smith et al.”

      I expect this argument to convince exactly no one. πŸ™‚

  8. Off topic: It’s interesting (well, interesting to me) that this post drew a reasonably long comment thread, whereas Megan’s much more consequential post yesterday got hardly any comments. But on the other hand, Megan’s post got much more traffic and drew many approving tweets; this post got little social media attention.

    I don’t have any broader point; just musing.

    • Perhaps there wasn’t much to say to Megan’s post except “I agree” which is easily done by social media? But hard to debate parentheses conventions by social media?

  9. Pingback: Defying writing conventions « Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

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