As the person responsible for the editorial portion of peer review for my organization, which happens to have a journal that specializes in viruses – the COVID-19 outbreak has rocked the journals department world!

Initially, I found it exciting to be at the forefront of a topic taking the world by storm, being attuned every day to not just any evolutions of the disease, but adhering to rapidly changing surveillance and surrounding regulation requirements for the virus. And while our communications team has been the external force driving media coverage and external outreach on the disease, it has been the journals team working hard internally to ensure rapid publication of anything related to the virus itself. There has been so much we have needed to put into place internally for our editorial team. Everything has had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible to accommodate the rapidly growing pandemic. With daily updates driving constant changes to our workflow, it has all been rather maddening. As we have ramped up our workflows to survive this current epidemic, I thought I’d share a few considerations that might help your editorial teams to survive this and any other outbreak.

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Shifting Naming Conventions & Taxonomy

I’ll start this section with the question, “What’s in a name?”  Well, when it comes to a sudden increase in the activity of an outbreak, there happens to be a lot in a name. Day one of our editorial workflow updates we were referring to the most recent virus outbreak originally known as the Wuhan virus as “2019 novel coronavirus”; and in nearly a weeks’ time it had been reclassified as “coronavirus disease,” or, COVID-19 by the WHO. While COVID-19 is the taxonomy that is used when communicating with the public, that naming designation is not intended to be a replacement for the official name of the virus as agreed by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. For our editorial team, this difference in taxonomy for the virus and the disease it causes has meant an increased understanding of guidelines for naming new diseases so that we are properly communicating with members of our community.

During an outbreak, editorial teams should understand the variety of reasons taxonomists may need to change the name of an organism, especially prior to setting up any communication with their community.  Names may change because the knowledge has grown, which happens to be the case with the current outbreak.  Another significant reason for changes in naming is due to a change in knowledge with the understanding of the relationship of the species. There may be different reasons for name changes within your area, but overall editorial teams should have at least a general understanding of the set of rules that govern naming conventions.

Ultimately, when updating letter templates, sending email notifications or flagging manuscripts for expedited review, be sure that the names you choose to use reflect the knowledge and understanding of the taxonomy.

Communication To: Author; Editor; Reviewer; Staff

Editorial teams should keep in mind that the name they choose to use in notifications or other forms of communications may vary depending on the recipient of the message. As discussed a bit earlier, our communications team was the group responsible for external communication on the disease to society members and the public. However, it was the journal’s team responsibility to ensure rapid publication of anything related to the virus itself and of subsequent notifications. This included all communication to our authors, editors, reviewers, and staff relating to any publication or workflow changes. There were specific considerations to make as it related to each group, and as a result, we found ourselves needing to create different statements to communicate the same message.

Authors needed to be made aware of the need to send their research to government agencies. For example, the WHO required that everything related to the virus is made available to them. We had to then create a new letter template to authors which explained the regulations and asked for their consent. With this group, communication had to be as informative as possible.

Editors needed to be made aware of the requirements for the authors’ research. They also needed to be reassured that we’re up-to-date on all regulations and requirements of their research. Additionally, we made two big asks of them:  The first ask was expedited review for any papers related to the virus, which meant that they would need to adhere to the shortest turnaround time possible. For a few submissions, that actually meant a week or less. And the second ask we made was to review a series of previous submissions and confirm whether they should be made available to WHO. With this group, we had to make sure our communications not just informed, but were also assuring and supportive.

Reviewers, like the editors, needed to be made aware again of the requirements of the authors and of the big ask from our editors. Similarly, we requested that reviewers expect to work with an expedited timeframe. Additionally, we had to notify them briefly of government requirements and ensure that we were up-to-date on requirements and regulations. Again our communications, therefore, had to be informative and assuring.

Lastly, the staff needed to be made aware of a number of things. In addition to notifying them about all the requirements of the authors, editors, and reviewers, staff needed to understand how quickly we needed to move and how nimble we needed to be planning in the space of uncertainty. Making sure that we were all on the same page was critical to survival.

Speed

You will need to move quickly! As someone who dreams of riding a Lamborghini around the autobahn, speed is something I enjoy. However, in the editorial space, as with most of the scholarly publishing,  speed is something we struggle to achieve. During an outbreak scholarly publishers will need to step outside their comfort zone of standard turnaround times and focus on the required output to survive. For our journals department that meant updating our expedited review workflow, including adding new system flagging features. It also required that we work more closely with production to truly streamline our publication process to be most efficient. And not just the standard efficiency we are always working to achieve, rather an extreme efficiency. Our journals team had to be pushed harder than normal to get the job done as fast as possible; which for our team meant we had to communicate more frequently, correct mistakes immediately, and accept imperfection more often.

Another fortunate result in stepping outside of our standards is seeing just how efficient we can be, which will likely help to improve our regular processes. As Angela suggested in her post linked above, there are bound to be inevitable questions about why rapid publication can happen in a crisis and not at other times. But those changes will need to be evaluated after the crisis has subsided to determine if long-term sustainability is possible. For my department, we were able to identify within our workflow a few quality check adjustments that were not necessary, and will likely be removed completely. The need to move faster helped my department to realize inefficiencies that otherwise may not have surfaced. On one hand, this recent outbreak revealed historical workflow constraints, and on the flip side, the outbreak helped to highlight areas where we rock, which was an incredible team booster during a time of crisis and chaos.

End – Stopping Survival Mode

We’re not at the end of our current outbreak, so perhaps I’ll offer more advice at that time, but for now I suggest that you begin with the end in mind as with any other challenge. Again, with no concrete end appointed, you should equip your editorial team to be prepared. Preparation for my department has meant keeping everyone aware of the increased understanding and knowledge around the virus and subsequent disease, being open to frequently changing workflows to accommodate new needs, and also being ready to work in a different way.

This is a time when you should over-communicate. Let staff and your community know what you know as soon as you are made aware. It will help to reduce inconsistencies and misunderstandings during a time of chaos. Be prepared to be flexible with the work and working environment, which might include working remotely if needed. When setting up your team for remote work, be sure that they have proper tools and resources, that all team members understand proper online communication etiquette and ensure you don’t begin to settle into habits of disengagement. You will also likely need to adjust your workflows frequently during a crisis, so in addition to monitoring your communication, be open to modifications. Think of an outbreak as a time to fine-tune your processes, procedures, and protocols.

Discussion

3 Thoughts on "Editorially Surviving an Outbreak"

Fascinating insights, thank you Jasmine! I had just learned about (and was struggling to get my head around) the distinction between SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, and anxious about using them correctly / credibly, so your discussion about nomenclature really chimed with me and the link to the WHO page about that was super helpful!

Jasmine, thank you for this. It is very good. The actual steps to take when working through a crisis are instructive. I totally agree with your comment about “overcommunicating.” And not just during a crisis!

Jasmine, an excellent and informative read. Great insight for those in STM who are not directly involved in the editorial process.

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