Image Credit: Anton Shuvalov
Image Credit: Anton Shuvalov

As scholarly journals seek to offer authors increasingly competitive publishing timeframes, getting new articles and issues out can feel like a race to the finish. For some journal teams, the race is a relay, starting with peer review editors, who then pass the baton to designated production editors or services for the last leg of the publishing journey. For others, it’s a marathon, with one core group of editors managing peer review and the entire production process from copyediting to typesetting to proof review.

Workflow particulars aside, all journals share the goal of meeting production deadlines and publishing articles as quickly as possible so they can be read, cited, and start accruing impact sooner. And in the process, all journals face similar hurdles (see what we did there?). Among the primary production workflow challenges journals face are getting caught up in back-and-forth edits with authors, chasing after missing manuscript details, and spending copious amounts of time on article formatting.

At times, production holdups will be out of your hands. But, you can still take steps to try and avoid such situations. In this blog post, we share seven ways to streamline your journal production process so you’re more likely to hit target publication dates and even exceed them. Let’s get to it!

1. Shore up your production schedule

The first step to streamlining your journal production process is shoring up your production schedule where needed.

You may be thinking, we already have a production schedule. But how solid is it?

If the time it takes you to produce new articles is somewhat up in the air, depending on how long each stage of copyediting and proofing takes, you’re likely not managing production as effectively as you could be. Your production schedule should not only consist of a list of steps to take but also deadlines for editors and authors to meet.

Production schedules with firm deadlines are necessary to keep editors on track and to give authors definitive answers to questions like, “when will I receive a proof of my article?” and so on.

To start, outline the stages of your production process. For most journals, this will include:

  • Copyediting phase 1 (followed by any subsequent copyediting phases)
  • Article layout/formatting and typesetting
  • Citation normalization (i.e., citation checks and conversions to journal style as needed)
  • Metadata creation/XML tagging (if not automated and/or covered in a previous step)
  • First proof check (internal)
  • First proof check (author)
  • Last proof check (internal)
  • Final proof sent to the corresponding author
  • Article published

From there, be sure to allot a set number of days for each stage of journal production, aiming for no more than ten. For example, you might decide that all phase one copy edits must be complete within one week of assigning a manuscript to a copyeditor. Once your journal has established production deadlines, apply them to every accepted manuscript.

Be sure to also communicate relevant due dates to authors early in the production process. For some authors, the proof review stage can seem like an opportunity to start tweaking the copy or structure of their manuscript. Establishing clear (and preferably short) proof review stages will help authors stay on task and keep edits within an acceptable scope (more on keeping authors on track below).

2. Let authors know exactly what you’ll need from them early on

Just as all journals should include peer review policies on their website to let authors know how their peer review process is structured, all journals should also provide authors with basic information about their publishing process. Letting authors know what to expect if they receive an acceptance letter can help everyone save a lot of time later on.

While journals can wait until accepting manuscripts to share specific details about their production process, such as proof review due dates, some production-related information should be communicated upfront. Namely, this includes:

  • Journal copyright policies and if/how authors should select their preferred copyright license (e.g., CC BY)
  • Any publication fees you charge (e.g., if there’s an Article Processing Charge for making articles fully open access)
  • Any author statements you require (e.g., a declaration of authorship and conflict of interest statement)

All of the above are essential pieces of information authors should be made aware of as part of the submission process. Journals should include this information on their website somewhere within or easily navigable from their Information For Authors page and collect as many necessary author agreements as they can during manuscript submission.

From there, you may want to communicate additional production next steps to authors of accepted manuscripts via email, or you may decide to include more detailed production information on your journal website. For example, Oxford Academic has a “Final steps to publication“ page that outlines its production process, including an overview of how to select a copyright license and the press’ policies around making changes to published articles. There is no right way to communicate your journal’s production process. All that matters is that you provide authors with the information needed to keep manuscripts flowing at each stage.

In your communication to authors, be sure to set clear expectations around their role in proof review and the scope for acceptable edits, specifying that elective rewrites will not be accepted. As noted, you should also give authors a set number of days to review their proof and submit any comments or requested changes to prevent publication delays.

3. Look for ways to cut down article typesetting time

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty of article production, starting with what’s historically been the most labor-intensive aspect — typesetting manuscripts into necessary article formats. The current best practice is to typeset articles in mobile-friendly HTML for online readers, PDF for printing, and XML for archiving and indexing formatted in the JATS standard (a.k.a. Journal Article Tag Suite, which is the official DTD markup language for scholarly articles). We discuss the benefits of producing articles in machine-readable formats for abstracting and indexing in this blog post.

Journals can choose to handle typesetting in-house or work with a publisher partner or service provider that manages it for them. Typesetting articles in-house is generally the most time-consuming option, as it will require your team to do a fair amount of manual work. Whereas working with a publisher partner or vendor can free up editorial time. That said, not all outsourced journal production processes are equal or necessarily faster. If your articles are being formatted into PDFs in one word processing system and then converted into XML and/or HTML separately, whether your editors or an external publisher/service are doing the work, you’re still likely losing time.

Today, such multi-step production processes are no longer necessary. The advent of digital publishing has paved the way for single-source production, wherein multiple article formats are generated from a single code-based file. In addition to significantly cutting down article formatting time, single-source production processes speed up proofing because source file edits automatically apply to all article outputs, eliminating version control concerns.

Most publishers and editors first encounter the concept of single-source production in the context of XML-first publishing workflows where manuscripts are converted to XML upon or shortly after submission. Then, special content editors or templates are used to turn the XML into PDF and/or HTML. For small publishers without in-house XML experts or the budget to purchase special WYSIWYG XML editing tools, such workflows may seem unattainable. But XML-first isn’t the only single-source production option, nor does single-source production have to be more expensive (in fact, it can help you cut costs!).

At Scholastica, we’ve developed a digital-first production process that generates PDF, HTML, and full-text XML articles from original unformatted DOCX or LaTeX manuscripts and accompanying files quickly and affordably with no pre-formatting steps on the part of editors or authors. You can learn more about our digital-first production service and why we’re taking a different approach to single-source article production in this interview with Scholastica’s CTO, Cory Schires.

4. Eliminate unneccessary manuscript formatting steps for authors

Building off the previous section, adopting a digital-first production process can also significantly reduce manuscript formatting steps for authors. If you are taking a digital-first approach to article production, don’t forget to update your submission guidelines accordingly to eliminate any unnecessary formatting guidelines. For example, there’s likely no need for authors to worry about checking that their manuscripts follow journal typography conventions or trying to perfectly size and format tables to fit manuscript pages if that can all happen automatically during code conversion. Another time-consuming step for authors that digital-first production processes can automate is formatting citations to fit the journal’s preferred style.

For example, Scholastica’s digital-first production service can automatically convert manuscript references into all major citation styles (e.g., APA to MLA), and we programmatically format tables to fit article pages. Authors need only include tables as editable cell-based objects in the proper location of their article text, and our team takes care of the rest, sizing them accordingly.

5. Bridge gaps between peer review and production

A big part of streamlining your journal production process is looking for ways to bridge gaps between peer review and production — this includes gaps between your peer review and production workflows and the tools and systems you’re using.

Let’s start with workflow gaps. A common cause for production delays is editors having to wait for authors to send additional manuscript details and files once their submission is accepted. In many cases, journals can save time by collecting all the information and agreements they need from authors during peer review. For example, journals can update their submission forms to include fields for the metadata elements they need from authors, such as ORCID ids. Additionally, editors can start requesting necessary author statements or permissions for copyrighted materials used in papers as part of peer review rather than waiting until a manuscript is accepted.

Once manuscripts are accepted, if you have a handoff between peer review and production editors, your peer review editors should ensure that production editors have all the information they need before passing the metaphorical baton. Peer review editors should provide detailed production specifications for each article, like the article type, issue assignment, and order of supplementary materials. Schedule time for your different teams to meet and discuss if and where you may be able to make article handoffs smoother.

Now let’s move to production bottlenecks caused by gaps between journal tools and systems. For example, if your journal editors are manually moving articles between discrete peer review, production, and hosting software, file versioning and handoffs are likely eating up a good deal of your time.

So they don’t have to upload articles to different systems at each stage of the publishing process, journals should seek to integrate their peer review and publishing software and services wherever possible. For example, journals can integrate Scholastica’s modular journal management tools and services to peer review, typeset, and even publish articles in one place. Using Scholastica, information gathered during peer review, including all article-level metadata, is retained when manuscripts move to our production service and our open access publishing platform, should a journal choose to use it. Scholastica’s production service can also be integrated with other hosting platforms like Silverchair.

6. Keep metadata flowing from the point of submission

As you work to bridge gaps between your peer review and production workflows and tools, a key factor to consider is how your article-level metadata is flowing between people and systems. Collecting the metadata elements you need from authors when they submit manuscripts will save you time and headaches trying to chase down missing information down the line. But don’t stop there.

Aim to automate metadata production in industry-standard JATS XML, so your editors don’t have to worry about manual XML tagging or validation checks (as noted, adopting a single-source production process can help with this). From there, consider all the places you have to send journal metadata and seek to automate those deposits. For example, having new articles sent to archives and indexes via an API connection will be much faster than filling out metadata entry forms or making manual FTP deposits. Here software and services can also help. For example, Scholastica’s fully-OA hosting platform includes integrations with Crossref’s content registration service, the Portico dark archive, and various indexes like DOAJ and PubMed Central. Journals can turn on those integrations in a few clicks, and once enabled, they’ll take care of sending archives and indexes all the information they need in the background with no work on the part of editors.

7. Try following a rolling publishing model

Finally, another way for journals to speed up production processes and reduce their time to publication is to follow a rolling publishing model. In rolling publishing, rather than waiting to compile manuscripts into an issue, journals move manuscripts into production as soon as they’re accepted and publish them online as soon as they’re ready.

Articles published on a rolling basis can be compiled into issues retroactively for citation purposes. For example, Survey Practice, the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s e-journal, publishes all of its articles on a rolling basis and then applies them to annual issues. Publishing articles on a rolling basis can help your team break up production work and avoid developing a backlog of articles to be published.

We hope you find these production tips helpful! Do you have any suggestions to add or questions? You can share your thoughts in the comments section or tweet us at @scholasticahq!

Update Note: This post was originally published on August 06, 2018, and updated on August 4, 2022.

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