Image Credit: rawpixel on Unsplash
Image Credit: rawpixel on Unsplash

While no two scholarly journal submissions are the same, manuscript peer review is a pretty predictable process. There’s always reviewers to invite, review assignment check-ins to send, and manuscript decisions and revision requests to be made. Often, editors will find themselves doing recurring tasks in each of these areas, such as typing up nearly identical reminder emails to reviewers or moving manuscript-related emails between inbox files to keep them organized. Such seemingly small tasks can add up to a lot of busy work. That’s why it’s important to be cognizant of repetitive editorial steps and to identify ways to work more effectively.

This blog post is all about saving time! We’re looking at some questions your editorial team should ask to tell if your peer review system is as efficient as it could be, as well as some of the most common areas where editorial teams get caught up in manual work and how you can use organization and automation to avoid them. Greater productivity awaits—let’s get started!

Are authors and reviewers able to easily navigate your peer review system?

This first question is a big one! Peer review by nature is a cooperative process. Your editors aren’t working in a vacuum making manuscript decisions. Rather, they’re dependent on authors to submit their papers, and revisions as needed, and on reviewers to submit referee reports. So the efficiency of your peer review process depends almost as much on authors and reviewers as your editors. If your journal editors are spending what seems like an inordinate amount of time fielding the same few author or reviewer queries or chasing authors and reviewers for information, you need to get to the root of those issues so you can avoid them entirely. Encourage editors to take note of common sources of confusion and make time to discuss them at regular operational audit meetings.

Some areas to focus on include your journal’s:

  • Author and reviewer guidelines - make sure they are easily accessible on your journal website and simple to follow. As a general rule, remember, big blocks of text often lead to missed steps! Try to break up information by topic area and consider creating author or reviewer checklists that map out what to include in a manuscript or review feedback form step by step.
  • Manuscript submission forms and review feedback forms - Are authors or reviewers skipping steps or leaving fields blank that they shouldn’t be? Make sure your peer review system is set up to require necessary information and guide authors and reviewers through a series of logical steps for submitting manuscripts and feedback.
  • Confirmation pages and emails - one of the biggest pet peeves for authors and reviewers is going through the steps to submit a manuscript or referee report and then being unsure of whether their submission went through. You can save authors and reviewers a lot of stress and cut back on status inquiry emails by ensuring that your peer review system displays clear confirmation messages after users complete an action and by setting up automated confirmation emails for manuscript and reviewer feedback submissions.

You may find that areas of author or reviewer confusion are a bit more technical, such as struggling to access or navigate your peer review system. Some points of confusion may be easily solvable, such as authors mistakenly submitting manuscripts to your journal via email when they should be using your peer review system. In this case, you may just need to add a more prominent “submit” link to your author guidelines page so authors know where they need to go. Other challenges may be more difficult for your team to address, such as authors or reviewers finding your peer review system difficult to navigate once logged in. In this case, you’ll need to consider your configuration options and weigh the time costs of trying to update your current system versus looking for software that’s better suited for your needs.

Does selecting relevant reviewers take longer than it should?

There’s no getting around it, in some disciplines finding new peer reviewers can be a struggle and take up a lot of editorial time. However, selecting referees from your current reviewer database and sending them referee requests is something you should be able to do in a few clicks. A lot of wasted peer review time can stem from hunting through complex spreadsheets or systems to find peer reviewers. Here keeping consistent and clean reviewer data is key! Make sure you’re tracking the following reviewer data:

  • Areas of expertise: you can do this in Scholastica by assigning tags to reviewers
  • Performance stats including average days to complete a review
  • Pending invitations and late reviews
  • Number of invitations received and reviews completed

The above stats will help you easily know which reviewers are most likely available for new assignments, which tend to work the fastest, and what their areas of expertise are. Keep in mind that much of this can be automated via peer review software. Your peer review system should be tracking reviewer performance for you and it should make it easy for you to filter reviewers by the areas of expertise you assign to them so you’re not having to manually record referee stats or hunt through long lists of data.

Are you wasting time drafting nearly identical emails or digging for buried emails?

Another area that can take up a ton of editorial time is peer review emails. Editors can spend hours drafting nearly identical emails to authors and reviewers and trying to keep emails organized between inbox folders. Ideally, you should be able to manage all manuscript correspondences from your peer review system and let it do the legwork of keeping messages organized by manuscript for you, so you’re not having to manually move messages between folders. In Scholastica, Discussion messages make it easy to keep all peer review communication next to the manuscript it’s about.

You can also use peer review software like Scholastica to create templates for recurring emails that include merge tags for the recipient’s name and the name of the manuscript you’re writing about to save you time. Format your templates to include the information you always need to have, depending on the communication you’re sending, and to include customization opportunities throughout to personalize your correspondences. Some email templates you can make to save time include:

  • Manuscript acceptance letter
  • Desk rejection letter
  • Manuscript rejection letter following peer review
  • Revise and resubmit request
  • Referee request

You can find draft email templates that you can customize to fit your journal’s needs here.

Can you quickly get an overview of where editorial tasks stand and how your team is performing?

Finally, another area where many journals struggle with efficiency is allocating editorial work and knowing where manuscripts stand. If you’re primarily using email to assign and follow up on editorial tasks you’re likely losing a lot of time. Aim to instead use a designated task management system. Journals that use Scholastica’s peer review software can use our Todos feature to assign and check in on editorial work. From the Scholastica Manuscript’s table you can also easily filter manuscripts to see if they’re assigned to an editor and make assignments as needed.

In addition to using task management tools to easily allocate work among your team, it’s a good idea to track journal analytics so you can easily tell how your team is doing. Key performance indicators include:

  • Number of manuscripts assigned to each editor
  • Editor assignment speed
  • Time to decision by editor and for the journal as a whole

Use these data points to see how your editors are performing individually and as a team in order to keep everyone on track. Ensure that manuscript assignment allocation is fair and that everyone is working to meet agreed-upon deadlines.

We hope these questions will serve as useful guides to evaluate your current peer review process and hopefully find some ways to cut back on manual work and save time. If you have any questions or ideas to add please let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @scholasticahq!.

Tales from the Trenches