What makes a journal author-centric
In the academic publishing world, the pressure authors face to publish in high–impact-factor journals is discussed widely. What is seldom appreciated is that those very journals are also on the lookout for high-quality submissions: after all, high impact factors can be sustained only by publishing articles that readers consider worthy of citing. And in this competition to attract high-quality submissions, journals need to make themselves particularly author-friendly through a smooth submission process, a rigorous but fair review process, and, most importantly, fast turnaround times. This post suggests some ways journals can achieve these objectives.
Clear statement of scope and readership
The most frequent reason why manuscripts are “desk-rejected,” or summarily turned down even without a review, is a mismatch between what the journal wants and what the author offers. Most journals specialize in a particular discipline and therefore need to define their scope clearly for prospective authors by not only stating the topics they cover but also listing other topics that are outside their scope. Equally important, they must also define the profile of readers they hope to serve and the level and the type of submissions: original research that advances theory or applied research that fosters good practice or case studies that show how a particular instance of a problem was handled, and so on.
Multidisciplinary journals also need to define their readers particularly clearly. For instance, journals such as Nature or Science are multidisciplinary in that they publish cutting-edge research on many and diverse fields and yet each article is clearly meant for specialists in that field and certainly not for the general reader (although the journal may also publish brief accounts of such research for non-specialist readers). Publications such as Scientific American, on the other hand, are also multidisciplinary, but each contribution is meant to be accessible to the general reader.
Brief and reasonable instructions to authors
Although it is in the interest of the authors to study their chosen journal’s instructions to authors and to follow them, the submissions of authors do not always comply with all of them, presumably because the instructions are sometimes too long, elaborate, and trivial—with many written, I suspect, by copy editors for their fellow copy editors. For example, it would not be surprising if an author missed checking whether a figure caption ends with a period or not or whether the table numbers appear in bold, especially since they may have focused their attention on more crucial matters, such as conformance with the journal’s ethical guidelines or the stipulated word limit.
Increasingly, journals are being more lenient in such matters and tell authors that they need to care about precise formatting and other points related to style only when submitting the final version of an accepted manuscript. The initial submission should be reasonably consistent, but the focus at that stage will be on the content, the science, the substance, and not the style.
Hassle-free workflow and formalities
A published paper is the product of work put in by authors and journals. For authors, uploading a manuscript is the culmination of work that may have started months and even years ago, involving hours spent in the field and in the laboratory to run the experiment, analyzing the results, and writing it up in the form of a research paper—often in a language that is not their first language. For the journal, the work begins after the author’s submission: managing the workflow, peer review, correspondence with the author, copy editing and typesetting, and so on.
To ensure seamless progression of work from the author to the journal, it is important for journals to make the process of uploading submissions as simple and efficient as possible. It should be made clear early on what files the authors are expected to upload: a word processor file or files (with separate files for tables or figures or a single file and, if a single file, whether the tables and figures should be in a particular position within the text or appended at the end of the main text), a file in PDF, any undertakings and certificates, cover letter, keywords, and so on.
Equally important, the process should end with a clear message to the effect that the upload has been successful (if that is the case) or specific messages about what is lacking and the actions required to set the matter right.
Helpful and prompt communication with authors
Once the paper is uploaded, the wait begins for authors, and the process, for journals. Typically, the journal begins with a quick check to make sure the contents are complete, any undertakings and other documentations are in order, and that the manuscript is within the scope of the journal and meets the required quality standards in terms of language and formatting. If the manuscript clears this qualifying round, the next step is to find suitable reviewers or referees; if not, it is desk rejection for the author—and that needs to be communicated to the author as soon as possible, so that the manuscript may be submitted to another journal. With manuscripts that clear the first round, it is also good idea to let the author know that the manuscript will soon be sent out for review and once it is sent out, that it is indeed under review.
It is not unusual for peer review to take a long time; what is important is that just as the journal will send timely reminders to reviewers, so should it inform the author that the manuscript is still under review. Again, the reviewers’ comments should be sent to the authors as soon as possible and, if the reviewers have recommended rejection, that decision should also be communicated swiftly.
In other words, an author-friendly journal is proactive in communicating with its authors. It is frustrating for authors to receive a quick acknowledgement and then—nothing, for weeks on end. It is especially painful for authors to wait for months only to have their submission desk-rejected. It is not so much the rejection as the delay that authors find frustrating.
Put simply, author-centric journals are considerate to their authors and realize that the manuscripts entrusted to them are the fruit of hard labor—representing investment of substantial resources of talent, money, time, and material resources. And therefore, they aim to adopt practices and processes that reflect this thoughtfulness and make authors’ publication journeys as smooth as possible.
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