Image Credit: Damian Zaleski on Unsplash
Image Credit: Damian Zaleski on Unsplash

What exactly does academic journal production entail? The term can be somewhat ambiguous to editors as it often depends on the publication. And, since production is a transitional point at many journals, where one editor or group of editors who handle peer review tasks pass accepted manuscripts to another editor or group of editors who handle publishing tasks, after that handoff point production can become a grey area for editors not directly involved.

While every editor may not be involved in production steps, it’s important that all editors understand the phases of their journal’s production process and how they relate to peer review. If your journal lacks clear alignment between peer review and production, you may end up with gaps in your editorial workflows that could result in publication delays.

In this post, we’re breaking down the different phases of production common to most journals and how they can impact all aspects of your publication. As noted, the phases of production can vary from journal to journal. If your journal does not follow one of the steps listed below - for example, arXiv journals likely won’t do typesetting - feel free to skip to the next point. But do read about the production steps your journal has and consider areas you may need to build upon.

Phase 1: Copyediting

The first phase of production at most academic journals is copyediting accepted manuscripts. This process is generally pretty straightforward. Manuscripts require final grammar and formatting review. This is also one of the areas where coordination between peer review and publishing is most important. Journals can significantly cut down on copyediting time by having editors take steps to get manuscripts as publication-ready as possible throughout peer review.

Ways editors handling peer review can help get manuscripts ready for publication include:

  • Iterating on manuscript formatting guidelines to make them clearer and consequently improve author compliance
  • Notifying authors about technical errors as part of peer review (for example, if their article citations aren’t formatted properly)
  • Communicating production next steps to authors of accepted manuscripts so they know from the start how copyedits will be handled and when to expect to review their final article proof

Copyediting can be one of the more labor-intensive aspects of journal management, but when editors pool together the work can often be spread out relatively easily among available resources. You can also work with your editors to find a third party to assist in copyediting, whether it’s a service provider or network of volunteers. Many journals have saved production time and costs by enlisting graduate students to handle copyediting and technical checks, which is a great way for grad students to learn more about journal publishing.

Phase 2: Layout/typesetting and proof review

The next part of the production process at most journals is article layout and typesetting. This entails formatting manuscripts into either or both PDF and HTML articles, as well as creating machine-readable XML metadata files to submit to discovery services. From there, typeset articles move to proof review so authors and editors can do final checks. While the typesetting and proofing process are often treated as separate from peer review, there are many areas where the processes overlap that all of your editors should be thinking about.

How can you improve typesetting at your journal from the peer review side? As with copyediting, one of the best ways to get manuscripts closer to production is to give authors clear formatting guidelines. If you need tables in certain file types or images in certain sizes etc. make sure authors know those details so they can get everything ready prior to production.

Journals can reduce the number of manuscript formatting steps their authors and editors have to take by adopting code-based production processes where manuscripts are converted into machine-readable files, and PDF/HTML article formats are created from there. For example, Scholastica offers a digital-first production service that uses advanced software to generate PDF, HTML, and full-text JATS XML articles simultaneously from original DOCX or LaTeX manuscripts and accompanying files with no pre-formatting steps needed.

Another way journals can reduce work and time associated with producing articles is by cutting down on handoff steps between peer review and publishing. Publishing teams can lose time and introduce room for error when they have disjointed peer review and publishing processes, where they have to download peer-reviewed manuscripts from one place, send them somewhere else for layout/typesetting, and somewhere else to publish. Conversely, using centralized peer review and publishing tools can save teams headaches and a lot of time. For example, Scholastica’s production service integrates with our peer review and publishing software so editors can handle all of their journal needs in one place.

In addition to concerns about workflow efficiency, all editors should care about how their journal articles are typeset from a visibility and discoverability standpoint. If your journal doesn’t yet format articles in HTML and XML, it’s something your team should have on its radar for future improvements. HTML articles are easier for readers to access from mobile devices and more search-engine friendly than print-based PDFs, and XML article files are required for inclusion in many scholarly indexes. Producing your articles in these formats can greatly improve their accessibility, discoverability, and reach.

Phase 3: Online publishing

Once your manuscripts have been typeset, it’s time to get them out to readers. Your online publishing steps are an area your whole team should be concerned about because time to publication is a deciding factor for many authors when choosing which journal to submit to. If you can show a fast time to publication, you’ll make your journal more attractive to authors. Ultimately, for most journals, publishing hold ups tend to come from technical struggles. If your website requires code to make updates, it will likely mean that only one of your editors can post articles or that you’ll need to work with an outside web developer. This will tag on time to your process and potential frustration. For example, seemingly minor article updates such as changing a metadata field or putting an article into a category on your website can become major headaches if they require custom code. For these reasons, if your editorial team is not especially technically savvy look for platforms that you can easily manage. For example, Scholastica’s open access publishing platform includes an easy-to-edit journal website template.

Phase 4: Indexing

The fourth and, at most journals, the final phase of production is indexing. Journals can submit their published articles to relevant scholarly indexes and discovery services such as DOAJ or PubMed to help scholars find them. Depending on your journal’s discipline, your indexing needs will vary. There are many index types to consider! One thing to keep in mind for indexing is that many platforms will require or prefer that article details be delivered in XML format. All of your editors will care about getting your articles in front of more readers so this is an area where, as mentioned previously, your entire team should be thinking towards the future.

Putting it all together

While journal production may seem worlds away from peer review, in reality, all of your editorial workflows impact each other. Getting all of your editors on the same page in terms of how you handle production, where you can optimize your peer review process to save time down the line, and what aspects of publishing you’ll need to focus on in the future to improve your publishing outcomes can have big impacts on your journal overall.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but your production editors should also be aware of the stages of your peer review process. But that’s for another blog post!

Definitive Guide to Publishing