The mechanics of your academic journal’s peer review process affect a lot more than how your editors manage journal work. How you handle peer review will determine authors’ and reviewers’ opinions about working with your journal and impact the reputation of your publication. Ideally, peer review should be centralized and have clear stages, but for many journals this isn’t the case. Often journals make peer review harder than it needs to be, either due to overly complex processes or lack of organization.
From disorganized journal data to scattered communication, there are a lot of traps journals can fall into that complicate peer review. As a general rule, if part of your peer review process feels cumbersome that’s a sign that you should give it a second look. Push yourself and your editorial team to ask questions like: Do we need so many peer review steps? Is there a better place to store our data? Are we tracking the right performance indicators? You’ll likely find that there are areas of your peer review process that don’t have to be so complex, with fixes that are easier than you think.
Below are 3 ways your journal may be making peer review harder than it needs to be:
One of the biggest factors in developing a streamlined peer review process is tracking key journal data to have a handle on the health of your publication. Journals should track:
- Editor performance indicators: assignment speed, time to decision, acceptance and rejection rate
- Reviewer performance indicators: pending invitations, late reviews, average time to complete a review
- Overall publication data: submissions received, ratio of accepts and rejects, time to decision
- Manuscript management data: date manuscript was received, assigned editor, number of reviewers assigned, manuscripts by type
The first issue for many journals when it comes to publication data is simply not tracking these data points. Don’t base your publication decisions off of gut assumptions or anecdotal evidence. While it may feel like your rate of accepted review assignments is holding strong or your team is making decisions as quickly as possible, when you dig deeper and look at the data you may find that you’re off the mark. You need data to assess editorial team productivity, who your most reliable reviewers are, how often you’re inviting the same reviewers, and if you’re getting decisions to authors on time, among other key journal factors so you can spot problem areas and address them. If you aren’t yet tracking data you’ll want to start either in your peer review system or manually via spreadsheets.
Keep in mind that, when dealing with data, automation is your friend. It will save you from wasting time on data updates and reduce the likelihood of errors.
If your journal is already tracking the above peer review data, kudos! Now the question is - are you using it correctly? If you rarely look at your journal data and get a headache when you do that’s a problem. Data is only as useful as it’s application. For most journals that are failing to apply data insights to improve their workflows, the issue is often how the data is stored. Two of the biggest culprits of difficult data are:
1. Disorganized data: If you’re trying to keep data organized in 10 different spreadsheets you can imagine that things will start to get tricky. It can be especially problematic if those spreadsheets have co-dependencies that require you to update the same information in multiple places. In this scenario things can quickly get misaligned and trying to backtrack and fix data reporting errors can be near impossible at times. You’ll want to get your data better organized ASAP, which you can do in a couple of ways.
The easiest long-term fix to ensure organized and accurate journal data storage is to adopt a system that handles it for you. Peer review software like Scholastica can give you the tools you need to manage peer review more effectively and serve as a central database for journal data, automatically collecting and updating key metrics and submission information so you don’t have to log things like every manuscript or reviewer assignment in a spreadsheet. As your rate of annual submissions grows, having tools to eliminate manual peer review work will become vital. You should consider whether your journal management technology will be able to scale with your journal and stay abreast of other options to ensure you’re using the best system for your needs.
If you aren’t ready for peer review software just yet, you can still improve your data organization, it will just take some manual work. If you plan to stick to using spreadsheets, try to get all of your key data into one or two documents with tabs. If you’re using regular Excel sheets, also consider transitioning to Google Drive, a free cloud-based file storage system with group editing functionality. With Google Drive you won’t have to worry about sending updated files back and forth between editors. When organizing manuscripts manually, you’ll likely want to keep them in folders by type for easy access to specific submissions. If this is the case for your journal, set a schedule to regularly check your folders for misplaced files (it happens more than you think!).
2. Dirty data: This is a biggie! You don’t want to have a situation where you’re forgetting to add data to your system, failing to organize your data consistently, or letting incorrect data linger and cause confusion. If you have a peer review management system you’re a step ahead here because it will do most of the data organization and maintenance work for you. But you still need to be proactive. Some steps to prevent dirty data that all journals should be taking include:
- Checking for duplicate contacts in your database or inactive email addresses (look for bounced emails!) and cleaning that data
- Establishing naming conventions for data, such as labeling all revise and resubmit manuscripts in the same way (e.g. pick Revise and Resubmit or R&R and stick to it)
- Importing new data into your system as needed, such as adding reviewers that you invited to do an assignment via email
Another area many journals struggle with that can complicate peer review is not establishing set peer review stages and cutoff points for each stage. Your journal should have established editorial processes that apply to all manuscripts. Make sure you have clear answers to questions like:
- Who vets incoming submissions?
- Who is able to desk reject and under what circumstances?
- Who coordinates author correspondences - does each author work with one editor or multiple editors?
- How many referees should be assigned to each manuscript?
- How many rounds of revise and resubmit are permitted for each manuscript?
- What limitations are put on new rounds of revision?
Many journals keep their editorial process too flexible leaving it up to editors to make decisions like how many reviewers a manuscript should be assigned to or how many rounds of revise and resubmit it should go through without a cutoff point. This can lead to uncertainty among editors creating more back-and-forth in decision making, which can drag out peer review. This is primarily a concern when it comes to revise and resubmits. Your journal should establish a set limit on revision rounds to ensure decision are made in a reasonable amount of time.
Finally, a big issue for many journals can be having too many steps in peer review - think having 4 editors vet a manuscript instead of 2 or spending hours organizing manuscript communication via email folders when you could be using a peer review system that organizes communication for you. The best way to spot unnecessary steps in peer review is to write up a high-level outline of your editorial process and review it to look for any areas where bottlenecks are occurring. Common peer review bottlenecks include:
- Too many reviewers are being assigned to each manuscript
- Extensive technical edits before a manuscript has been sent out for review (authors are receiving lengthy revisions to make before their manuscript has been considered by reviewers)
- No process for quickly flagging manuscripts that aren’t a fit for the journal
- Lack of clearly defined team member roles leading to confusion about who should handle certain situations
- Editors spending too much time trying to organize folders for emails and manuscripts (which can also lead to things slipping through the cracks)
The root causes of unnecessary steps in peer review are often lack of clearly defined stages in review and trying to keep track of information stored in too many places. Aim to have clear editorial procedures and to centralize your editorial work to avoid added steps and confusion.
There will likely always be opportunities to make your peer review process easier if you look for them. Keep a close eye on your journal performance and be sure to conduct regular operational audits. A few minutes spent checking your performance can save hours in the long run!