Operating academic journals entails publication planning on multiple levels. From the trenches of day-to-day editorial planning to conducting operational audits to check the health of peer review and publishing processes, much of journal planning requires gazing inward and adjusting workflows as needed to keep everything running smoothly. However, amid such tactical decisions, it’s also important for journals not to lose sight of the big picture of their publication. It’s important for those directing individual journals or a journals program to ask - what are we working towards? Where do we currently fit into the landscape of journals in our discipline and where do we hope to go?
Determining the answers to these types of questions is where strategic planning comes into play. Strategic planning for journals involves making high-level decisions around the vision and mission of a journal or journals program as well as looking ahead to wider-sweeping changes you may need to make to accommodate the needs of researchers such as updating your open access policies or adopting an open data system. Journal strategic planning can touch on internal publication workings but should always be centered on achieving broader publication goals rather than refining individual processes.
Dana Compton, Senior Consulting Associate at KWF Consulting, works with journal organizations of all sizes, including many scholarly society publishing teams, to help them improve their processes from the editorial level up to strategic planning. Compton will be moderating “Don’t Plan to Fail!: Getting the Most out of Journal Strategic Planning,” a session on strategic planning best practices, at the Council of Science Editors Meeting, with esteemed speakers Karen King, Vice President for Publications at the American Society for Nutrition; Ashley Petrylak, Senior Publisher at Oxford University Press; and Joshua Weikersheimer, Director of Scientific Publications for the American Society for Clinical Pathology. In the interview below she shares an overview of why strategic planning is so important for journals and advice on what to cover in your next strategic planning meeting.
DC: I think it’s important for any publication regardless of size; maybe even more so for smaller organizations because resources are limited. How will one ensure that they’re using their resources towards the most appropriate goals? For example, smaller societies can use strategic planning as an opportunity to look at evidence to understand what their membership wants, what their author base wants, and what their readership wants. From there they can figure out “here’s where we are today” and decide “here’s where we need to go next.” The components of the strategic plan can be fairly light weight things to do. Every strategic planning session isn’t meant to be a publication overhaul. It’s more about having an idea of “where do we want to be in the next three years?”, and then maybe “where do we want to be in five years?”, and “what actions are we going to take to get there?”. Knowing your priorities now and down the line can help you decide how to best use your resources and what you need to do right now to eventually get where you want to go. Strategic planning will help you use your time and money most efficiently.
DC: Ideally you would want to have an official strategic planning session at least annually, with all the right stakeholders. But you’d still want to continually assess how you are doing against the plan, perhaps by looking at your financials or your publication statistics month-by-month or quarter-by-quarter, and identifying available resources and where to put them. In terms of an official session to look retrospectively at what you’ve accomplished, what is on the horizon, and how close you are to meeting goals, annually is often sufficient. By all means, if you can afford to do it more often, do!
Who’s involved in these meetings is really journal- and organization-dependent, but typically they involve your editor-in-chief (and that editor may have deputy or associate editors that he or she wishes to involve), representatives from your journal or publications committee (if your organization has one - certainly a big share of that committee is society leadership), your publisher (if you have a publishing partner), your executive and managing editors, publications director, marketing director, and other key staff or leadership who have real insights into where the publication should be going. It’s important to involve everyone who will be working towards the plan up front so that they understand the goals and have a stake in the decision making process, and to give ownership and accountability over their role and contribution to the goals.
DC: Depending on whether you’re just starting out or you’ve done a few of these and are assessing both past and future, your approach might be different. For an initial strategic planning meeting perhaps you’re just establishing “where are we today?”, identifying “where do we want to be?”, and setting in stone a few easy-to-achieve action items. Hopefully you’ve done some market research or have gathered market intelligence to know where you fit into the competitive landscape, what perceptions your audience has of your title, and what they want. Understanding the current situation is a crucial first step. Then you can have a discussion about vision, short- and long-term goals, and where your strengths lie vs. where improvement can be made. I think for journals a good way to drill down can be to look at each of the functional areas (i.e., editorial or production and technology) and define 3-5 goals.
For future meetings pull up your established strategic plan to see: “here’s what we talked about last year, here’s what we’ve accomplished in the intervening time” and ask “are the agreed goals still pertinent?” Adapting is a part of planning as well. You can’t make a plan for the coming five years and assume that nothing’s going to change in that time - technology is advancing so quickly, funding and data requirements continually change, the institutional marketplace is shifting. These all need to be taken into account. So constantly looking and adapting, and then at the end asking “what are the key points we need to deal with on an immediate basis and what’s further out?” and reassessing how far you’ve come and what your next steps should be. Determine what metrics you’ll review to gauge success, and what sort of progress you want to see by the time you’re all sitting down together again.
DC: On the editorial side, a focus on author and reviewer satisfaction, and methods to drive high-quality submissions and maximize impact are top of mind. Certainly, open data and data accessibility and reproducibility are also high priority.
DC: Follow through is perhaps the hardest part, so it’s important to make sure at the end of the meeting that everything that’s a priority has a person attached to it. This can also help prevent you from biting off more than you can chew - if there aren’t enough resources, the timeframe may need to be extended, or lower priority items may need to be put on hold. Somebody should feel ownership over every goal and action item that comes out of the meeting so that at the end you don’t all go back to your offices and say “hmm, I sure hope somebody takes care of that!”
In terms of setting measurable thresholds, if your goal is to increase submissions by 3% and you have identified four potential initiatives during the meeting to do so, then at the next meeting you’ll want to recap what you’ve tried and look at your submission numbers - how successful were the initiatives that you undertook? Knowing which metrics and data points you’ll look at is key. Make sure you don’t just set goals but also set a prioritized plan to implement and measure your results.