Image Credit: Stephen G. on Unsplash

In two weeks, the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) will host its 16th general assembly and conference, a hybrid virtual and in-person event being held in beautiful Valencia Spain the 24th-26th of June. This year’s conference theme, “The manuscript journey: the editors’ perspective,” explores ways editors can support authors throughout the various stages of manuscript development to promote smoother submissions and peer review processes.

We caught up with Joan Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet Psychiatry and Chair of the EASE Program Committee to learn more about the conference and EASE’s latest member resources. Check out the full conversation in the interview below.

If you’re just learning about the EASE Conference there’s still time to register for this year’s events, and no need to plan a last minute trip to Spain (though that’s certainly a potential perk!). You can register to attend the conference virtually here.

Q&A with Joan Marsh

Can you share a bit about this year’s EASE conference theme and how you chose it?

JM: I was inspired to suggest this year’s theme from how I think about the stages of manuscript handling. When I started editing, we had paper manuscripts sent to us by post in big brown envelopes, and we edited them and posted them back. In many ways, I still envisage a manuscript traveling around the world from the research lab, to the editorial office, to the journal, and then to libraries and readers, even if it now flies as a PDF instead of a physical copy. So in that sense, I see it as a journey.

At my first EASE conference in 1989, one of the sessions I especially enjoyed was on teaching authors to write better. As editors, we often focus on what we see as the bad habits of authors. If we’re not careful, we can become quite negative and make generalizations like authors never read the Information for Authors page or do this or that properly. At that time, I think we all thought — well, what are we going to do about that? So at the following conference, we had a session on teaching scientific writing to authors. And that kicked off more interest in editor perspectives on improving the author experience.

I’ve done a lot over the years around supporting authors with research writing — and it’s something many of our editors at The Lancet now do. I want to inspire others to do the same. So it seemed natural to pick that topic up again this year and expand upon it by looking at the whole manuscript journey.

For this year’s conference, we also deliberately chose to use the term “the manuscript” and not “the paper” in the title. The conference will be more about journal papers, because that’s the focus of most of our members, but the bulk of what we’re talking about we hope will also be applicable to preprints and their journey, books and book chapters, and even PhD theses.

What aspects of the manuscript journey are you covering at this year’s conference?

JM: We start with how editors can help authors write their manuscripts to improve their chances of getting through editorial assessment and peer review. Ana Marušić, Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Global Health, has done a huge amount educating editors in Croatia and globally. She’s going to talk about how to train editors to train authors.

As editors, we often go to our communities to recruit manuscripts for journals or book projects. We go to conferences, whether virtually or in person. And we have access to authors who will listen to us. So this is an area ripe with potential. At EASE, we’d like to help editors start stepping up to do more, like reaching out to scientific conferences and saying can we help your authors to get their manuscripts in better shape before submission so that it’s easier for everybody. It’s less work for the editors, it’s less work for peer reviewers, and it’s less work for the authors.

The next step is Information for Authors. Of course, every journal has Information for Authors, and we all tread this fine line between wanting to tell them everything we’d like them to do and trying to keep instructions short and sweet to ensure authors actually read them. EASE has a quick Information for Authors checklist focusing on the key things to include that editors can look to as a starting point. At the conference, Tom Lang, Principal of Tom Lang Communications & Training International, will look at the instructions from the author’s perspective and consider how to make the manuscript preparation, submittal, and publication processes easier to complete.

As editors, there’s a lot we can do to help make authors’ lives easier even beyond our Information for Authors. In a later session, we’re looking at innovations from editors to help authors with manuscript submissions. One of those is format-free submission. Traditionally, submission instructions had to include details such as font size or page size. But we can do that formatting with DTDs now, so authors don’t have to worry about it. There are various initiatives from different publishers and service providers around format-free submissions, which will be discussed by Michael Willis from Wiley.

We’re also going to talk about cascades or article transfers. We do this within The Lancet family, and it’s something many other journals do that helps authors find a home for their papers. Of course, publishers also have a vested interest because they want good submissions to stay in their extended journal family rather than go to another publisher’s journals. This happens mainly before peer review, but some occurs after peer review, which raises questions such as — can you take the peer reviews with you? Are those peer reviews then identified? The concept of cascades is quite a new innovation that started picking up within the last five years, and it’s going to be much bigger in the next five years. It’s a service to authors in many ways, and as publishers we can share our experiences to identify ways to keep improving that system.

Finally, two of the sessions that I think are the most novel are on determining whether manuscripts should go out for peer review and then re-assessing them after peer review. Generally, most editors have no training on this. We often start editorial discussions in the context of peer review because it is our bread and butter. But actually, as editors, our first decision is whether to send a manuscript out for peer review or not. Obviously, the more accurately we can make that decision, the less burden we put on our peer reviewers. Because if we send everything for peer review, we exacerbate the situation of not having enough peer reviewers. As editors, we should know if a manuscript is on-topic for our journal and if it’s generally up to standard before seeking reviewers. We won’t get it right every time, but if we can make the process more efficient, it will help alleviate bottlenecks to getting good timely peer reviews, which I think is what most editors would say is their biggest challenge.

Then, once you have your peer reviewers’ comments, you have to evaluate those recommendations, make a decision, communicate with the authors, and assess authors’ responses. So again, it’s absolute bread and butter work for editors but something most have to learn on the job. We might even use some of the materials from the conference to develop written guides for editors.

Can you share a bit about the aims and scope of the EASE conference more broadly and its evolution up to this point?

JM: We used to hold a conference every three years, then moved to every two years, and then ended up having one a year since 2020 because of COVID-19. We were supposed to go to Valencia in 2020, but obviously, we had to cancel, and we switched to our first virtual conference. That was a one-day event because, like so many, we made a late shift. Last year, we planned an online-only conference run more like our traditional one over a couple of days. And this year, we’re going hybrid with virtual and in-person attendance options.

Like many scientific organizations, we appreciate the benefits of offering a virtual conference option. It’s much more equitable. We can have people attending who may not have been able to afford to come, like students and people from lower-income countries. And virtual attendance may be more convenient for those with children to tend to at home and people with disabilities, among others. There are a range of reasons why traveling to conferences is difficult for people, on top of time and expense. So we’re trying to keep the virtual option open. But we do also know that we need opportunities to meet in person too.

Editing is quite a solitary career. Especially now, even if you work in a big office, which I do, so many of us don’t go in anymore that we’re all becoming more like freelancers, working in isolation. Even if you work for a large publisher, it’s good to see what other publishers and journals are doing. And the great thing about EASE is it’s not a competitive environment. Although we work for different people, and might work for competing journals, you’re not really seeing your direct competitors.

At the EASE conference, you meet people from the life sciences, medical sciences, ecology, social sciences, and even water management, among other disciplines. So you can discuss ideas about improving the journal or the publishing process from a more neutral perspective without worrying about competition. It’s a very informal environment. The editors are all very chatty, we’re all very friendly, and it’s always a lovely time. I think I’ve been to every EASE conference since 1989, and I love them.

EASE offers a lot of hands-on conference sessions as well as member resources. Is providing tactical support a focus area for you?

JM: I think it’s because most of our members are in manuscript handling and running journals rather than setting policy at publishers. So we try to feature more pragmatic talks and resources for them. For example, one of the sessions I’m chairing will have short (10-minute) presentations with several from The Lancet about in-house processes we’ve developed. These are not necessarily radical, but helpful step-by-step processes to ensure editors don’t forget anything, such as our workflow for figure permissions. I think those are the types of practical tools editors are looking for.

Looking to the future, what steps are you taking at EASE to keep building a community for editors via the annual conference and beyond?

JM: We have various forums for people to exchange ideas that we’re constantly cultivating. We have our formal publications — The EASE Digest, an in-house magazine, and European Science Editing, which has academic research papers and practical how-to pieces. Those are the two more traditional routes for sharing ideas. We also have the EASE Forum, an old-fashioned listserv for people to have discussions and ask questions. The people who go on that are very active, so if you have a problem that needs solving, they will chat away and help you out. Then we have our training webinars and, of course, the conference.

Recently, something new that we’ve also been doing is hosting virtual EASE social get-togethers using a platform called Gather Town. We’ve done a few so far that were all themed to start with so people could come up with conversation ideas. So we might say come to talk about sex and gender in publishing or preprints. With Gather Town, you can wander the virtual meeting room and chat with whoever you bump into, more like an in-person event. We try to ensure that our training events always have time for networking and discussion, and we’re trying to make that possible both in person and in our increasingly virtual world. We’re also just about to have an online training event for early-career professionals in conjunction with the conference. It’s a “meet the editors” session targeted at young researchers or anyone looking to get into publishing that will get into the nuts and bolts of what different types of editors do.

We’re encouraging globalization by liaising with established networks of editors in other regions and countries. And where there is no local network, editors can use being an EASE chapter to start one and build a community from the ground up if they want. We’re very keen on sharing resources and tailoring them to be offered in different languages and formats that are culturally appropriate. And we’re inviting others to bring ideas to us to share. We see ourselves in the future as a dynamic European association and umbrella for associations globally through our chapter scheme for sharing best practices and encouraging networking.