From point 9 of Google's philosophy "You can be serious without a suit". It revolutionised office culture. It helped put the focus on the content of work, rather than needing to wear a suit or formals and a tie to work, just because people assumed it was necessary, but it actually wasn't necessary.

When writing conference papers, I've noticed not just a whole lot of rules, but also the fact that different publishers have different standards, so if my paper gets rejected at one place, I'll have to put a lot of effort to edit it to meet the standards of another journal/conference. I know there are paid software that can do the conversion automatically, but that's a different topic.

Downsides to insisting on a very formal version of a paper:

  • The plethora of rules are daunting for newbies.
  • Rejections based on not conforming to these rules can dampen the spirits of genuine researchers who may just give up on submitting their work.
  • Formatting is a nightmare that consumes a huge amount of time and even experienced researchers hate it when text blocks jump to areas of the paper they didn't intend.
  • The rules and formatting issues actually do distract researchers from the actual content.

I agree that some basic guidelines are required for a paper. For example, the various sections that help a researcher present their thoughts in an organised manner, some basic rules about the allowed list of fonts, the number of pages and image formats allowed. These would be a casual version of a paper, where there are some sensible guidelines, but it does not get daunting, and allows researchers to focus on presenting their research well. But the current extremely formal requirements to follow a certain bibliography style, the two column format etc. are in my opinion, overkill. As long as a paper follows some consistency and is coherently and neatly presented, it should be allowed.

What are the downsides of writing a casual version of a paper? Ultimately, we as a scientific community respect the ideas that are presented. Why be so finicky about the formatting, if it's going to consume a disproportionate amount of time and if it does not really contribute to research?

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    What field are you in? In my experience (in physics), Journals will accept submissions in just about any format for peer review. – mmeent Feb 5 at 7:13
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    @Nav Once a paper is accepted for publication, it will be typeset to the journal's standard. This will be handled primarily by the journal, but they may get back to the authors for some elements (most often figures). – mmeent Feb 5 at 8:52
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    This is exactly what latex templates were made for. If you change to a different journal/conference, you can just replace the style files and 95% of the work is done for you. – Claude Feb 5 at 11:45
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    @Claude: ok that's good. However, as my professor once said: "the formatting itself will drive you crazy". Which I found true, since IEEE has rules about positioning tables etc, and text tends to jump around unpredictably. I know these can be solved with experience, but we either really need a more modern, simplified version of LaTeX or publishers need to relax their standards to a few sensible rules. – Nav Feb 5 at 11:58
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    At the conferences in my field, nobody cares about IEEE's exact rules. The point of using the same template (like IEEE) is to enforce length restrictions, which are supposed to give all authors the same chance of having their work considered, while not putting too much burden on the reviewers. – lighthouse keeper Feb 5 at 12:02

You've actually asked a very relevant question. Simplification and standardisation is indeed what everyone wants, but when the Asch effect tends to institutionalise everyone into a state of learned helplessness, the prevalent opinion will tend to stick to tradition. Moreover, we have a mandatory xkcd for standardisation.

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To answer your question, some of the downsides of a casual style would be:

  1. The lack of consistency could confuse readers. For example, lawyers use the phrase "suo-moto" even though it's not English, for the sake of not creating any ambiguity when referring to an action that someone took on their own cognisance.
  2. Authors could end up unknowingly use an inconsistent style in the same document.
  3. Without a standard set of rules, the reviewers will have some ambiguity on whether certain styles could be allowed or not.
  4. When published along with other papers, there would an aesthetic issue with one paper looking different from another paper.

Apart from these (and a few points others have mentioned in the comments), I don't see any other problems with following a casual style. Scientific research is presented in a certain format for a logical reason. The title and abstract make it easy for people to identify the work and quickly decide if it's worth reading. The introduction presents the gist of the topic and work. The related work section ensures that the author compares the work with other literature. The results and discussion sections ensure the results are articulated well and the conclusion helps summarise the importance of the work. As long as work is presented neatly and scientific ideas are communicated well, there really is nothing wrong with allowing a more casual format which only requires the author to follow some simple logical rules.

In the words of Carl Sagan:

At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes -- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.

This quote is as relevant to research work as it is relevant to the art of presenting research work. It takes courage to question existing practices and it's common to be ridiculed for it. I completely agree that the rules and standards currently created (although for good reason), are indeed cumbersome to researchers worldwide. I've read many such complaints on the internet for many years. I do hope change happens, and I'm glad you asked this question. You aren't the only one who has wondered why research publication couldn't be simpler than this.

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The way you present yourself may not have any bearing on the quality of your work; but the way that you present your work directly speaks to its quality.

I would expect 'typesetting' to be done by the publishing body itself, and not by the author. 'Style' is another matter, though it's fairly straightforward to follow one Style manual or another. If following a Style manual puts you off submitting, then you're in the wrong business! ;-)

Researchers who read articles need to get to the information they need quickly. Some degree of uniformity helps (though of course different countries and publishers all use different styles).

Having whacky fonts, inconsistent or unfamiliar referencing styles will confuse and irritate the reader.

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  • Thank you for replying. I mentioned in my question that the T-Shirt style would have some sensible rules which include a small set of acceptable fonts. The problem is not about following a style manual. It's about the existence of various style manuals, typesetting rules, LaTeX jargon and the difficulties involved in formatting. TeX is ancient, and needs to be simplified. Bibliographies need simplification. These things consume a lot more time than they should. – Nav Feb 5 at 11:48

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