Establishing an online editorial and publishing system: One-year experience with the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences
First Monday

Establishing an online editorial and publishing system: One-year experience with the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences by Mahmoud Saghaei



Abstract
Although numerous published materials recommend journals to become online, few of them mention the transitional period, and to our knowledge none of them propose a rational evidence based approach to overcome the difficulties inherent in this time period. Studying the experiences of different journals during their transition into online business may help to delineate prominent factors affecting the whole process and its final outcome. In this article the story of a particular medial journal (Journal of Research in Medical Sciences) to change into an online practice is presented hoping to share experiences with other journals around the world.

Contents

Introduction
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Although being thrust forcibly and suddenly into an online editorial management and publishing system may lead to tremendous experiences theoretically, it is hardly applicable and usually irrational [1]. Migrating to an online practice requires passing gradually through an intermediate transitional period under most circumstances. This intermediate transitional period must be thoroughly planned in advance to reduce the likelihood of failure [2]. A rational way seems to be a step–by–step approach with each step comprised of a planned action followed by analyzing the results, and necessary modification of the next steps in light of experiences obtained from previous steps [3]. During this transitional period the whole system evolves gradually from a pure paper–based system to a full online based one. The details of planning for this migration may vary for different journals with differing backgrounds and economical models, and it is hard to propose a unique approach applicable to every journal. Studying the experiences of different journals during their transition into online formats may help to delineate prominent factors affecting the whole process and its final outcome. In this article the story of the transformation of a particular medial journal (Journal of Research in Medical Sciences) into an online form is presented hoping to share experiences with other journals around the world.

Journal description

The Journal of Research in Medical Sciences (JRMS) is a general medical journal with an international editorial board. The bulk of input to this journal originates mainly from regional authors and a few international contributions. JRMS was published in Persian from 1996 to 2003 with English abstracts. In 2004 the journal switched completely into the English language with approximately half of the editorial team consisting of international experts in different medical subspecialties.

Scholarly publishing in Iran: Journals in the local language

Scholarly publishing in Iran mainly comprised journals in the local language. Most of them only publish printed versions; therefore they are hardly visible internationally. Every university has several journals published in the native language. These journals are mainly funded by the universities and they rarely have independent economic flow. The main reason of publishing these local language journals is for promotional purposes of individuals and universities. These journals are evaluated annually by some governmental organizations according to some arbitrary rules. There are two major governmental bodies responsible for journal supervision, one for medical journals [4], Medical Sciences Journals Commission (MSJC), and the other one for non–medical journals, Higher Education Journals Commission (HEJC). During annual evaluation if the journal obtains the sufficient score, it may be classified as a ‘Research Scientific’ journal which can be used by universities for academic promotion. In other words, the university audit committees which are responsible for academic promotion are forced to recognize only these approved journals as a valuable document for promotion [5]. Therefore the journal itself is more important than the content of articles. Indeed little attention is paid to the contents of articles and whether they are peer reviewed. So the primary concern of the local authors is to submit papers to these approved journals. The editors of these journals are rarely familiar with professional and technical editorship. They are mainly chosen among the academic members of universities who have a few international publications or have some statistical/epidemiological background.

Scholarly publishing in Iran: English language journals

For the English language journals the story is somewhat different. MSJC and to some extent HEJC have strict rules for scholarly journals published in English. According to these governmental bodies English publishing journals must be related to only one subspecialty discipline and this rule applies to both the title and contents of the journal. In other terms MSJC and HEJC hardly recognize scholarly journals with general titles (Sciences, for example) which publish articles related to many subspecialties. In addition to this restriction, the commissions rarely approve more than one journal nationwide in each subspecialty field and the majority of these approved subspecialty journals reside in the capital of the country, with titles starting with “Iranian Journal of ... .” Therefore other English journals can not compete with these central journals in terms of commission support and article input. In addition the audit committees in universities do not accept the articles from these non–approved English journals as creditable for promotion. Universities themselves rarely support these non–approved English journals. Therefore the majority of these English journals cannot survive unless they turn to international readership and authorship. To be recognized internationally they must adapt to professional editorship, that is, to process papers in time according to a well–defined and efficient algorithm and following the standards of peer reviewing, copyediting, layout editing, proofreading, and publication. In addition these journals must use international referees and should be visible to international readers and authors. This model is rarely followed by local English journals. Majority of them are still paper–based and may only have a simple homepage only to introduce the journal and editorial team. Few of them run fully online. Therefore the majority of local English language journals may not be visible outside the country; hence they cannot receive international readers and authors. On the other hand transition into online practice for these journals, requires first that they be familiar with contemporary topics regarding online editorial management and publishing, and second the availability of efficient local or international software system for online practice. Due to lack of knowledge of the issue of online editorial management, the editors of these national journals requested the local software producing agencies to build something to manage their activities online. Since neither were these local software engineers familiar with the principles of editorial management software, nor the editors were able to give them efficient technical information on the subject, they were not able to make an acceptable package. Therefore the problem was difficulty of communication between software engineers and editorial staff. In addition, these local developers were not supported enough by organizations, and usually self motivation was the most important factor which tended to hold them in position. Many software projects were granted but terminated prematurely or abandoned shortly after installation of software on a server, due to inability to deal with the editorial problems. Commercial editorial management Web services, in addition to being expensive, hesitated to give services to journals from a third–world country with economical and political problems. Therefore the advent of Open Journal Systems (OJS) may be considered a big chance for these local English journals to proceed with online management, to become internationally visible and to promote to the level of an international journal.

Work flow during paper–based period

As illustrated in Figure 1 the paper–based system of this journal was a mixture of peer review and editorial meeting oriented systems. Submitted papers were queued for the initial evaluation and possible early rejection in the editorial meeting. If the paper survived this evaluation, the meeting would nominate some internal and external reviewers for the paper. There was no role as “section editor” and nearly all tasks were performed by assistant editor and rarely by editor–in–chief. After the completion of a minimum number of reviews, the paper and reviews were queued for an obligatory editorial meeting decision. In this system, although the referees helped in outlining the pitfalls and merits of the papers, almost always it was the editorial meeting that decided on the paper. The author’s revision was presented in the meeting, too. Upon acceptance, the paper was placed in the editing queue and after copy–editing the paper was finally proofread mainly by the editor and went into the publishing queue.

 

Figure 1: Flowchart diagram of workflow of Journal of Research in Medical Sciences during paper-based period

Figure 1: Flowchart diagram of workflow of Journal of Research in Medical Sciences during paper–based period.

 

Main disadvantages of paper–based system

Apart from numerous disadvantages inherent in such systems, the following problems should be pointed out:

  1. Difficulty in tracking the current status of the papers;
  2. Long delays in the article processing time;
  3. High rate of inaccuracies, inadvertent articles interference and loss of some articles or reviews;
  4. Inefficient editorial workload with the consequence of fatigue and errors.

With the advents of online editorial management systems, it became increasingly evident that paper–based systems such as ours were not efficient to handle the editorial workload and were not further tolerable by the users of the systems specially the authors. Numerous recommendations and pressures motivated the editorial members sufficiently to migrate to an online management system.

Software trial and error period

During this period which lasted about two years many projects on preparing editorial management software were started and terminated prematurely due to poor quality and inefficient control. Most of these were written by a software engineer relatively unfamiliar with the editorial process of journals. Searches for a commercial editorial management Web service were disappointing due to cost or failure to meet required conditions. During this time period the editorial workflow was performed in the traditional paper–based fashion.

Selection of Open Journal Systems (OJS)

OJS was unknown in Iran until late 2005. Unfortunately Internet searches for such terms as “editorial management software,” did not result in OJS, rather commercial software with unknown functionality. The main limiting factor was economic, not only for the software but also for additional software and hardware requirements (operating system, databases, or certain frameworks within a given operating system). In addition to economics, almost all of these commercial options included Web services with high registration and maintenance fees. Usually these services were not enthusiastic about working with a customer from the third world. Our first encounter with OJS was accidental through an investigation of a so–called “journal system software” produced by a local programmer. This programmer declared that he has made use of open source software, but had dramatically modified it. Closer inspection of the work revealed that the modification was one of extensive trimming and truncating, rather than any substantial addition, to the software. In fact some useful (even essential) functionality (like copy–editing, proof–reading, etc.) had been removed. This discovery led us to research for OJS in its unmodified form from PKP. After a short study, it was evident that OJS was our solution. Few in Iran trust open source software and no one believes in any relationship between open source software and open science. Up to that time we had compiled a comprehensive list of required functionalities for editorial management software. Comparing OJS with this list, it was evident that OJS was ideal for our use. After some consultation with university officials on the practicality of installing OJS, we decided to convert our journal to OJS.

Editorial work–flow modification

We decided to make our editorial processes and roles relatively compatible with the defined roles in OJS. Some members of the editorial team were appointed as section editors. Papers no longer had to be presented and reviewed at an editorial meeting. Editorial decisions about a given paper were made by section editors using the referees’ points of view as a guide. Section editors were permitted to contact authors themselves. Some of them hesitated to contact authors personally, so they preferred to send their decision to the editor, who corresponded with authors. Other section editors willingly communicated with authors and signed letters regarding editorial decisions themselves. If the section editors needed editorial assistance, they might present a given paper in an editorial meeting. Hence a new function for editorial meetings was created, to decide about papers gaining insufficient reviews after elapsing a threshold time of three months. This strategy was needed to clear a long list of articles already in queue. All of these modifications were performed in preparation for a safe and clean migration to an online system and also to make full use of the software’s capabilities, even optional ones. This decision was taken and came into practice and continued for about four months before the system was switched to full online management. To have a competent online team, we added new members, skilled in online communication, to editorial board. During this time the system was still paper–based in terms of paper submission.

Staff education before migration

OJS was installed and run on local computers for educational and investigation purposes. For a period of one month, editorial office staff were taught to work with OJS, using some hypothetical data. In addition, some workshops were held for authors and reviewers with participants from different local universities.

Start of hybrid system

After the successful installation of OJS on the university server and prior to a public announcement, we decided to operate a paper and online hybrid system for at least two months. First the data of journal, section editors, reviewers, copy editors, and layout editors were entered in the system. After two weeks nearly all data required to begin a functional online system were entered. During this time period, new articles ready for review were fed into the OJS system and assigned to a section editor. After reviewers were nominated by the section editors, reviewers were then selected by the online system. Reviewers’ accounts were created and review materials were posted to the reviewers as before by ordinary mail and the returned responses were entered into the system. Again the decision of section editors together with necessary revision notes were entered and at the same time sent to authors. All this were done exactly as in a real online system except for skipping the ‘send e–mail’ pages by clicking the ‘skip e–mail’ buttons. Section editors or the editorial staff were the only real users of the system at this time. During this period the workload of the editorial office nearly doubled, as predicted. Editorial office staff were divided into two parts: those responsible for the traditional paper–based system and those entering data into the online system.

Going public

The new online system was publicly announced in first half of February 2006; a deadline for discontinuing article receipt by any route other than online was set and publicly announced as well. The first real–world users of our system were authors and readers. We ran a total of five university workshops for local authors and reviewers. In addition two workshops were carried out for editorial members as potential section editors. Editorial meetings were equipped with Internet access and video presentations to present articles within the context of OJS. Finally reviewers were added. We anticipated some problems with external reviewers as they are not physically available for direct face–to–face sessions. The problem was partially solved by placing illustrative instruction files in English and in local languages on the Web site and by sending e–mail to users to download and read. In addition to these files we prepared and distributed printed catalogs for reviewers.

Present state of the journal

Currently the journal has a pool of more than four hundred reviewers, nearly one–third of whom are active and responsive. Except for occasional trivial errors, section editors have become familiarized with the system. Presently editorial meetings with live video presentations of data from within OJS are used mainly to make editorial decisions on those articles which have based a threshold of three months after submission.

Output of the online system

Total submissions increased dramatically in the first online year compared to the preceding year. For the first time in the history of the journal some international papers appeared. Lag time for review and publication of papers decreased significantly. Comparison of the first online year with data from the preceding year is presented in Table 1.

 

Table 1: Comparison of journal statistics during the first online year with the preceding year.
 Last paper–based yearFirst online year
Submissions186312
International submissions011
Peer reviewed73 (<40%)180 (>57%)
Accepted35 (48%)85 (47%)
Declined19 (26%)58 (32%)
Undecided113 (>60%)132 (42%)
Days to review272±9773±24
Days to publish183±7031±13
Delay in publication (days)6013

 

 

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Discussion

This article describes the details of a transitional period for a university medical journal. The validity of the whole process may not be ascertained without taking the following into account: editorial background, economic support and user experiences. Usually a third world journal, specially in the field of medicine, may not have much chance of receiving international submissions without being read and reviewed outside its region and devoting extra editorial time and effort. Without an online editorial management system, it is very difficult to share in the production of scientific information and to be visible internationally. Authors trust the editorial processes of a journal when they submit their work for review but human errors are inevitable. These errors can be minimized with proper software and training of editorial staff. Our approach is simply step–by–step learning. This requires comprehensive team work, workshops, and guidelines (in English and local languages). Although many software systems may be efficiently used for editorial management and publication, OJS is unique in its professionality, efficiency, applicability, and potential for localization. OJS’ professionalism is not hidden from the user interface which makes it slightly more complex. OJS is optimized in a way to show maximum transparency with minimal complexity.

 

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Conclusion

Based on the experiences of the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences a migration of a paper–based editorial system to online should be started with a minimum group of users with other roles proxied. A possible sequence for opening roles may first involve authors, then section editors followed by reviewers. We recommend using a hybrid editorial system during this phase provided there are sufficient resources on hand because the editorial work load may nearly double during the transitional period. Finally editorial professionalism is a vital requirement in migration to an online system. End of article

 

About the author

Mahmoud Saghaei is a professor in the Department of Anesthesia at the Faculty of Medicine, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran. Currently he is the editor of Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, a bimonthly journal publishing papers related to clinical medicine (http://journals.mui.ac.ir/index.php/jrms).
E–mail: saghaei [at] med [dot] mui [dot] ac [dot] ir

 

Notes

1. B. Rous, 1999. “How to succeed in online markets: ACM: A case study,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, volume 4, mumber 4 (June), http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/04-04/rous.html.

2. J. Kavanagh, 2000. “Project Sick–list,” Computer Bulletin, volume 42, number 2, pp. 24–26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/combul/42.2.24

3. Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons. Committee of Public Accounts, 2000. Improving the delivery of Government IT projects: First report, together with the proceedings of the Committee relating to the report. London: Stationery Office.

4. Iranian Medical Sciences Journals Commission, at http://www.commission.hbi.ir/approval/approval.htm.

5. Medical Sciences Journals Commission documentary, at http://www.commission.hbi.ir/approval/approval.htm.

 


 

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Establishing an online editorial and publishing system: One–year experience with the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences
First Monday, Volume 12 Number 10 - 1 October 2007
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1983/1858





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