The fine art of journal workflow management
Make sure your peer review system is properly configured for your unique journal workflow. Here’s how to stay on top of your setup to keep things running smoothly
Workflow management – the key to a successful peer review journal! Whether your journal works with two levels of editors or one, whether submissions are pre-screened by a group or individual, whether required forms vary according to submission type – all of this and more affects your journal workflow. The steps for processing manuscripts from journal to journal are unique, and it is important to make sure your peer review system is properly configured to both support your desired workflow and make it as efficient as possible. Keeping the ball rolling at all stages from submission to publication is as important as documenting your steps.
Getting the ball rolling
Journal workflow management begins when the author submits a research article. But right there at the first stage, is your new submission alert set up properly? Does it go to the correct person? A delay of a few hours or days can slow the whole review process, so check to make sure that your peer review system offers an alert and then, verify it is set to go to the first person who should see the manuscript. Ideally the chief journal administrator will receive the email or text message and be able to take a first look at that submission within minutes of receipt. Efficiency at this step is key.
The first catch
It is then the chief journal administrator’s job is to screen the files that have come in. Have the manuscript files been submitted in accordance with the official author guidelines? Does anything need fixing in the uploaded files before the journal can rightfully request that experts use time giving a thoughtful evaluation of this piece of research? Here it is crucial that this first person to see the manuscript also has the ability to suspend the submission where necessary. Authors are humans and humans sometimes make mistakes. Clicking ‘Suspend’ on a new submission should allow for an email to be sent to the author where a necessary correction can be specified. Likewise, the ‘Suspend’ command in a good peer review system should allow for this particular manuscript to be re-sent to the journal without creating a new identifier. This will avoid ‘duplicate submission’ confusion and keep the ball rolling when the edited submission comes back to the journal.
An initial pass
Now what if the files look good? Everything in order? Great. The administrator can then select the appropriate editorial staff member to take the next step. Again, this next person may vary greatly from journal to journal and it is important that your journal management system reflects your own unique practice. In some cases, manuscripts are pre-screened by individual, technical specialists, statisticians or even groups of experts; in other cases, all manuscripts are assigned to the Editor-in-Chief before being assigned to Associate Editors; and still other journals send manuscript directly from administrator to editor/ topic editor, where that might even be the same person. Whatever the case, the workflow permissions and pathways should be properly configured in your peer review system so that all of this is seamlessly supported and documented. Avoid sharing paper copies and sending emails outside of your system. As the industry clamors for transparency in peer review, the proper pathways and the documentation of your journal workflow becomes documentation of the proper and ethical handling of the manuscript itself. Make sure your workflow practice is aligned with and reflected in your system’s settings.
Goal number one
The next step in your journal workflow is the actual review. In most cases, the editor in charge of the manuscript will be requesting that volunteer external reviewers take a look at this piece of research and spend time giving constructive and meaningful feedback. Here it is extremely important that the communication in this part of the workflow is timely, appropriate, and efficient. Check your communication templates. Make sure the language is working for your journal. Edit where necessary and fix time parameters so that reminders do not go out too frequently and annoy your ad honorem reviewers. Also, be sure to block availability for reviewers who have communicated sabbatical plans. Essentially, do everything you can to double-check that you treat your reviewers well. If the settings in the ‘review’ section have not been touched since the journal was first set up, spend some minutes verifying that all is as it should be.
Once the reviews are in, it’s time to make a decision. Again, pathways for the decision-making workflow must be configured correctly and documented within the system. Is this manuscript decided upon after a recommendation from Associate Editor to Editor-in-Chief or is the Associate Editor the final decision-maker? Who sends the decision email to the author(s) and is this visible in the correspondence history? If a revision is suggested, and your practice is to involve the same reviewers with revisions, will the system automatically add them to the resubmission reviewer list to save time for the inviting editor? Journal workflow is equal to journal settings and configuration. Taking the time to adjust the settings in your peer review system to match your current journal workflow practice does pay off. This will avoid confusion, aid in proper documentation, and speed up the time to publication.
In the end, your journal workflow should be supported by, made more efficient by and also documented by the very configuration of your peer review/journal management system. If your system does not support your workflow, contact your provider and request adjustments. These days, all modern peer review system providers can tailor workflow to the needs of the journal. Having a user-friendly system where it is realistic to make these changes yourself, however, is also a great advantage for the journal administrator. If you do not have a peer review system as yet, perhaps it is time to consider. Most assessments would suggest that the initial investment is worth it if your journal expects over 30 submissions per year. If you are in the market, be aware that some service providers offer a free trial of their peer review system which can be useful for stakeholder decision-making.
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