It is now conference season, which for me means lots and lots of editorial board meetings. The next swing comes in the fall when the fiscal year comes to a close. With 35 journals in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishing program, it can be difficult to provide attention to each and every one. A handful of journals have their editorial board meetings at our headquarters and others meet at conferences or not at all.
The agenda for any given editorial board meeting is fairly standard: a review of the latest journal statistics, a discussion about Impact Factors, brainstorming about new special issues, and evaluating possible new editorial board members. I have to admit that I do hear myself saying the same things over and over again. That said, I always take away new information from each meeting.
So after attending about 45 editorial board meetings and dozens of conference calls in the last three and a half years, I have learned a lot about what makes them successful from the publisher perspective. It should be noted that ASCE is a society publisher with all volunteer editors.
We provide a lot of reports to our editors on an ongoing basis. None of the editors should be surprised by the reports we provide for the editorial board meetings; however, we are often surprised at the questions that come up. Using terminology that is unfamiliar to volunteer editors or providing sweeping stats out of context can raise a lot of questions.
Given the number of journals we have, we are often asked how Journal X stacks up against other ASCE journals. We have the “big sheet” report that we provide. This report shows 5 years of statistics for each journal and includes submissions, published papers, acceptance rates, and Impact Factors. The report groups journals by frequency and shows averages for monthly, bimonthly, and quarterly journals. The rest of the report includes current turn-around time averages for each journal, editor term information, and page budgets. I refer to this sheet, of which there are about 5 copies floating around on my desk, several times a day.
There are some real benefits to providing this report to each editorial board. First, the editors get to see where they stack up. They might ask what they are doing wrong if their review time is slower than the average. They might pat themselves on the back for having a larger than average submission increase. Either way, they know where they stack up within the ASCE portfolio. This is important as several of our journals have overlapping scopes and actually compete against each other.
The second benefit of providing this report to editors is that they get a better understanding of how large the program is and how much slack to give staff. Yes, I said it. Sometimes I have to pull out the “you’re not the only fish in our pond” card. While I want every journal to feel special and loved, we do not allow a lot of customized workflows. The success of our program depends heavily on standardization across all journals.
The report that gives us the most traction is our Editor and Reviewer Performance Report. This report, updated twice a year, gives the editors a better idea of where the time goes in the review process. We show them how long it takes for staff to process a new submission, how long it takes a chief editor to act on a paper, how long the editors take to assign reviewers, how long the reviewers take, and how long it takes all editors along the chain to act once reviews are received. Basically, we took the “time to first decision” stat and made it more granular.
Providing the performance report to the board at their meeting makes for some very interesting conversation. Even those journals doing well will ask us how they can improve. Mostly though, the report brings about frank discussions about their pain points. Here are three examples:
Journal 1: Board members noticed that papers were stuck with the chief editor. He wasn’t assigning papers to his associate editors at all. As the journal workload increased, the system was being choked. At the board meeting, the associate editors asked the editor to define their role and to start assigning them papers to usher through review. The following year, the reports showed that the editor did assign papers down the chain and the turn-around time improved.
Journal 2: Again, board members noticed that papers were taking a while to get in the hands of reviewers. The chief editor explained how he managed the workflow, which entailed batching papers to the associate editors. The associate editors shared that they would rather get papers assigned to them one by one rather than have five show-up at once. This was a valuable discussion for the board to have.
Journal 3: ASCE had traditionally allowed reviewers 45 days to review a new submission. The reports showed that the reviewers, on average, complete the reviews on time. In fact, the reviewers were completing the reviews shortly after we sent a pre-reminder that the review is about to be due. Armed with this information, the journal has shortened the amount of time given to reviewers and we have not received any complaints.
The beauty of having the statistics at the meeting is that the volunteers can see the problems and present their own solutions. This goes a lot further than staff telling them what they are doing wrong.
Editorial board meetings are like mini focus groups. You hear about what is going on at the universities, what hot topics are bubbling up in the field, and what the pain points are for authors, reviewers and editors. These meetings are also an opportunity to ask about the competition and to ask about features or services that others are offering and see which the editors think are worthwhile.
Editorial boards are also invested groups that feel comfortable sharing honest opinions. Taking ten minutes out of the meeting to show them a new online feature in development or getting feedback on new product development is well worth the time.
Asking the editors about marketing related efforts is also advantageous. Should we highlight the fact that we don’t charge submission fees or page charges? Do authors and readers care about where the journal is indexed? Should we provide more information about license options? Marketing copy space is tight and knowing what the top three bullet points are for a potential author is important.
New product ideas can also come from these meetings. An editor may mention that Journal X is getting a lot of papers on a single topic area. Two weeks later, an editor with Journal Y may report the same thing. This revelation may lead to discussions about a spin-off journal.
We share a lot of “industry” news with the editorial boards. We want them to know what is going on in scholarly publishing but we also want them to know that we are on top of the things that worry them at night. Some of their concerns center around funding mandates for public access to content and data; plagiarism detection and what we need to do about it; and ethics issues in general. Whether we are proactive (putting these things on their agenda) or reactive (answering questions at the meeting), my goal is to leave them feeling like we have it under control—meaning, we are well versed on the issues and we have a plan in place for addressing their concerns. Nothing makes a volunteer happier than telling them staff will do the worrying for them.
Introducing the editorial boards to larger issues in scholarly publishing opens the door to a lot more questions. It can turn into a Jeopardy round of rapid fire questions on a whole host of topics.
Editorial board members are the volunteer power users of the manuscript submission system. Every meeting includes an update on new features or reminders. This typically leads to some workflow discussions. “I would really love to see a link on this page that does x,” we might hear. I would say that 75% of the time, what they are asking for exists and they just don’t know how to do it. Another 10% of the time, what they are asking for is possible, but we have not configured it that way and so it’s an easy change. The remaining 15% of the time, editors ask for functionality that does not exist. This provides a basis for our “wish list” for the submission vendor.
Even though the editors have power user status, they don’t always take the time to read the instructions or learn the system…and they should not have to! I think that most editorial board members leave our meetings having learned a new shortcut or tip for using the submission system more efficiently.
There are a lot of other topics that are important and useful at editorial board meetings that I have not included here. Different societies and publishers will also have a different dynamic or expectations of their editors and board members. We (staff) don’t make it to every editorial board meeting every year. By participating often enough, board members at least feel a stronger connection to the publications division and the society.
I do have some advice, not that you asked for it, about managing your editorial board meetings:
- Have staff attend meetings as often as feasible.
- Put something on every agenda. Our editors make up their own agendas but we typically put one or two things on their agenda. Quick updates about mandates, data sharing tools, ethics issues, etc., go a long way to show that you are on top of things.
- Really think about the reports you share. If there are reports that are not engaging, don’t spend time on them. Ask board members if new, different, more granular information would be helpful.
- Say “no” if the editorial board makes requests that you know cannot be filled. Say “maybe” to things you will actually consider but need to get more information about. Say “yes” to the easy stuff and anything that will improve the process.
- Be realistic with deadlines and capability. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you will start implementing something new but not until next week, next quarter, next year.
- Be honest with the board. If someone actually asks how they could do better, tell them!
Most importantly, thank the editorial board members often and sincerely. Journal programs are very important to societies. The volunteer editors need to feel lots of love and appreciation. If editors are not being compensated, this is especially important. It’s an important job for the society and the profession being served. Make sure they know that you realize this.