Using Journal Timing Charts to Improve Manuscript Flow: Part 1

Fast Facts:

Timing charts can be used to improve the manuscript flow of submissions for your journal. While the overall statistics of time to initial decision or time to final decision give insight into how the journal is performing relative to previous years, they are often not detailed enough help a journal identify areas where changes need to be made.

Looking at the timing for various Editor in Chief (EIC) functions is a reasonable starting point. The time from EIC assignment to getting an editor in place for a new submission is one of the timing charts that will interest most journals. If the Editor in Chief makes the final decision on submissions, the timing of this step also gives insight into areas where improvements might be possible.

Using Journal Timing Charts to Improve Manuscript Flow

January 19, 2022

By: Sherrie Hill and Kristen Overstreet

It’s time to consider what types of information we will present to our boards at upcoming editorial board meetings. Two charts that are usually included are time to initial decision and time to final decision. These excellent charts give insight into the performance of a journal over a certain time period. Our editorial boards often ask, “How can we improve these times?”

In order to answer their question, we must first understand our data. Thus, let’s first consider the time to initial decision chart. In this chart, we are looking at the time from submission of a manuscript to the time an Editor makes a decision. During this time frame, the submission may be handled by the editorial office, the Editor-in-Chief, an associate editor and/or a section editor and/or a methods editor and or a statistical editor, and by peer reviewers. There are many components in the time to initial decision. For a journal to make a significant improvement in their time to initial decision, a breakdown by stage must be examined.

Example Peer Review Workflow

In our example peer review workflow, the editorial office staff performs a technical check on submissions to ensure they are ready for peer review (and we will assume the manuscripts pass all checks throughout the process) and then assigns them to one of four Editors-in-Chief (EICs). The EICs review the manuscripts to ensure they fit the scope of the journal and meet a general quality bar for scientific rigor and communication and then assign them to other editors.  The other editors (associate or section editors [subject matter experts] or methods or statistical editors) review the manuscripts and then assign peer reviewers.  The peer reviewers review the manuscripts and then submit their evaluations. The associate or section editors review the peer reviewers’ evaluations and make recommendations to the EICs.  The EICs then make decisions on the manuscripts.

Data Analysis

In our time to initial decision chart (above), there is not much change in the time to initial decision for 2020 as compared to 2019.  These data would suggest that not much changed in the journal’s peer review process in those years.  To make sure that is true, we should look at the timing of each of the steps between initial submission and initial decision.

First, let’s look at the time the manuscript spends with the Editor-in-Chief, which occurs at two stages:  (1) EIC assigns another Editor and (2) Editor submits their recommendation until the EIC’s initial decision on the manuscript. (The letter notifying the author of the decision may or may not be part of this step. Some processes have the letter stop in the Editorial Office for review before being sent on to the author.  That time would be counted against the Editorial Office and not the EIC.)

Both charts above show that our EICs took longer to assign another Editor and make an initial decision in 2020 than they did in 2019. To gain more insight into what might be happening, we will break down the 2020 data by EIC.

These charts show that we have had a staff change between 2019 and 2020.  This journal lost EIC Bowling in 2020, who appeared to be a very efficient EIC in 2019. Apparently, they were comfortable knowing to which of the editors they would assign new submissions and trusted the judgement of their editors, based on their quick times for both assignment and decision.

There is also a new EIC, Editor Miller in 2020, who is slower than most of the other EICs.  This is not uncommon when a person is new to the role.  If Miller’s timing continues to lag behind the other EICs, some additional training may be required. Travers’ and Pen’s performance has remained fairly constant between the years; however, there is a significant difference in Rawling’s performance.  This may be due to a change in work habits, the EIC taking on new roles at the journal, having an increased number of assignments, etc. Since there is such a significant change, it would warrant investigating the situation. Did all of this EIC’s manuscripts move more slowly than those handled by other EICs or were there a few manuscripts that were significantly different such that they negatively impacted the mean (average) timing?  This analysis can be done by reviewing the notes and email history in your submission system.

Looking at the Editor-in-Chief performance can be the first step in uncovering underlying problems that may be affecting your journal’s time to initial decision.  In our next post, we will look at several Editor and Peer Review timing charts, which can give further insight into the flow of manuscripts through your journal.

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