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For scholars, submitting a manuscript to an academic journal is somewhat like a trust fall exercise. After spending months, maybe even years, carefully crafting a paper and then selecting a journal to pursue publication in, scholars must let their manuscript metaphorically “fall” into the arms of that journal with hopes that it will be caught by the editors and carefully handled during peer review.

Okay, this may be a bit of an exaggerated metaphor… but you get where we’re going here.

It’s the job of academic journals to ensure that authors feel supported throughout the submission experience. Yet, many journal teams are so focused on the internal mechanics of their editorial and publishing processes that they fail to look at things from the submissions side. As a result, they can remain unaware of areas of their submission experience that may be frustrating authors and testing their trust in the publication, which could, over time, turn off authors from working with the journal (not a situation you want to have!).

In this post, we look at 3 areas of the submission experience that can test authors’ trust in your journal and how to address them.

Unclear manuscript preparation instructions

You don’t want to start testing authors’ trust before they’ve even gotten their manuscript to your journal! Yet, this can easily be the case if your journal does not have clear manuscript preparation instructions. Keeping with our introductory metaphor– the first part of any good trust fall is getting lined up to be caught. Manuscript preparation is when authors get their submission in position. They want to be confident that they’ve been given a fair shot at review without having their paper desk rejected because of a manuscript formatting step that wasn’t made obvious.

There’s nothing that frustrates authors more than not being able to find straight guidelines on how to prepare a manuscript submission. Among common sources of frustration are having to hunt for manuscript formatting guidelines on a journal’s website only to find scattered information, struggling to visualize and follow written formatting instructions, and encountering conflicting information within journal instructions. The more scattered or complex your manuscript formatting guidelines are the more likely authors will be to question the information provided in them. This could turn away authors from submitting to your journal or result in unnecessary email chains between your editors and authors who are trying to get answers to questions they can’t easily find on your website.

Journals should aim to make their manuscript guidelines easily accessible and digestible, ideally including formatting examples where possible to alleviate areas of confusion and help authors feel confident that they’re preparing their manuscript in the proper way. Among best practices journals should follow are:

  • Having a dedicated page for submission instructions
  • Using charts and headers to break up information
  • Linking to example manuscripts and reference styles (authors won’t know if you want manuscripts formatted differently than final articles)
  • Including information on the placement of key elements (e.g., figures, figure legends, tables, conflicts of interest, funding, and ethics statements)
  • Providing explicit permission requirements so nothing comes as a surprise to authors

Of course, even with the most well-thought-out instructions, some authors will still have questions about manuscript preparation. Your journal website should include clear instructions for contacting your editors so authors know they have a place to go when in doubt. Ideally, include a person’s contact information on your website instead of just a link to a generic contact form or journal email. Authors want to know that their emails are going to real people, not into the void!

Clunky submission experiences

When an author submits their manuscript to your journal, they’re “making the fall” so to speak. Once they hit that submit button they want assurance that their paper will be caught by your editorial team and processed efficiently. One of the worst questions for an author to be left with after submitting their manuscript is - “did the journal actually get my paper?” Unfortunately, many submission systems leave authors wondering this.

Authors’ trust in your submission system can get tested pretty early on, particularly if they find the submission account set up process unclear or if they experience hiccups while processing their submission. If authors can’t figure out how to use your submission system or if it’s tripping up and causing authors to lose their work and have to redo it, then you’re not making a good first impression on authors or earning their trust.

Another common source of anxiety for authors is when journals use submission systems that don’t allow for human interaction. Journals that use submission systems that only use automated emails without a mechanism for one-to-one communication can be highly frustrating for all actors involved, with editors having to send automated emails and then later sift through a journal email inbox to look for responses from authors. In this scenario, author emails can fall through the cracks, and when emails go unanswered it puts a bad taste in authors’ mouths making them question if any emails they send will be seen at all.

Building in points in the submission and peer review process to send personal communication can help assuage authors’ concerns that their emails may be going into a void and to assure authors that any automated updates they receive are in fact accurately reflecting your journals’ workflow. Editors sending simple updates after authors take an action, like saying “Thank you for making these revisions your manuscript will now go through a final round of peer review” can go a long way to assure authors that their submission is moving along. Ideally, journal editors should be able to do this right from their peer review system. For example, Scholastica has a Discussions feature that editors and authors can use to easily communicate with each other right in the system.

Unnecessary bottlenecks between peer review and publication

Once their manuscript is under review, a common source of frustration among authors is unnecessary hold ups in peer review and publishing. Some common causes of this are editors not making decisions on manuscripts in a timely manner, reviewers not being responsive, and production delays that hold up the publication of an article.

The best way you can know if your journal is causing such bottlenecks is to look at the numbers. Ideally, your journal should track internal performance metrics in order to be able to spot and evaluate bottlenecks in your processes. The main metrics you’ll want to focus on are:

  • Articles per editor and time to decision by editor
  • Reviewer performance stats, including responsiveness and time to review
  • The average amount of time it takes your journal to publish accepted articles

You should be sensitive to any numbers that seem problematic and address them to ensure editors are able to handle their assignments without losing track of things, that you’re not using reviewers prone to cause delays, and that you’re publishing articles in a timely manner.

Also, it’s a good idea to look at your average revise and resubmission cycle - this may be done anecdotally by checking a few sample submissions. If your manuscripts are going through more than 3 rounds of review, consider how you can eliminate unnecessary rounds. Wendy Belcher, the former managing editor of Aztlán Journal of Chicano Studies, gave some great advice on this in a past blog post.

With regard to your journal’s average time to publication – you’ll want to consider whether there are any aspects of your publishing process that are causing unnecessary delays in the release of articles. One vestige of print publishing that many journals have perpetuated online, which can cause lengthy delays in publication and frustrate authors, is issue-based publishing. Journals may wait weeks, months, or even years to publish a paper for it to be a part of an issue. This can leave authors feeling pretty anxious wondering when their article will actually be available!

While compiling articles into issues was necessary for print publishing, as it wouldn’t be practical to print and distribute articles individually, in online publishing the wait time journals have between accepting articles and publishing them in issues is generally self-imposed. For authors, waiting and wondering when an article they labored over will go out and be able to start making an impact is a big turn off. So if you can avoid waiting to publish articles in issues and instead publish articles on a rolling basis you can vastly improve the experience of authors working with your journal and build up trust.

We hope you find these tips helpful! Are there other aspects of the publishing process that you think can commonly test authors’ trust in journals? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section or on Twitter!