D.J. McPhee
3 April 2024
Posted inOperational Tasks Post authorD.J. McPhee

Improving Workflow for Your Journal

Improving workflow can sometimes feel like an abstract concept. We understand that it is necessary, but it can be hard to visualize the impact of certain decisions.

For example, does it matter if you save two minutes on something? Does it matter if you save ten minutes? How about twenty? What impact does improving the workflow in one department have versus another department?

There are many questions that any journal publisher could ask themselves on this topic. The most important question is a simple one, however; “how can my journal be more efficient?”

Why does improving workflow matter?

Broadly speaking, efficiency can be critical parts of success and money. The adage of “time is money” is true in many ways, and the more you can get done in a smaller amount of time can have a vast impact on many different parts of your company. But these ideas continue to be somewhat abstract. Here, we’ll go into a bit more detail on how improving workflow can have tangible impacts on your journal, it’s reputation, and it’s success. This success can also translate into money and further growth, which then can further affect reputation, and this cycle of growth continues.

What are the different ways to improve workflows?

In this article, we’ll look at two primary ways to improve workflows:

  1. Task automation or simplification;
  2. Adding or removing processes.

There are many ways to improve workflow in many situations, but the all start with these foundations.

Automating or simplifying processes to improve workflow

When you have a process to improve, regardless of whether it is English editing, layout, peer review, or clocking in and out for the day, the core is almost always the same. You can improve your workflow by automating something, or you can simplify the process.

What is automation? Simply, the use of technology to accomplish a task with minimal human inputs. For example, suppose that you are using an Excel spreadsheet to track what English editors are editing what documents. Suppose also, that you also need to track how many words that document has.

This process might take 30 seconds to input the information for an editor. But if you have ten editors, each doing five papers, this is almost half an hour of time. In a week this is two and a half hours of updating a document. If you have a journal management system, this sort of task can be automated to the point where only minor changes need to be made from time to time (an incorrect word count, for example).

Thirty seconds of time saved can mean dozens of hours saved in the end.

Simplifying processes vs. automating processes

Another option that exists is to simplify existing processes. This is a little bit different from automating them, but there is some overlap. In a lot of cases, one of the best ways to simplify is to automate. However, this is not always the case. Some tasks simply cannot be simply handed off to technology.

Take Editing a document. English editing has long been touted as a task that AI would be able to do one day. But so far, this has been challenging. This is a task that is suited to people and when people are involved, there can sometimes be overly complicated ways of doing things.

English editors have had a tool available to them for decades that has helped to improve their workflow: the spellchecker. But when it comes to simplifying processes, English editing doesn’t seem to have much space for simplification, right? The truth is that almost any department can be simplified, even if it’s in minor ways. But those minor things can really add up over time. Remember, running a journal is always about the long game, and this is no different.

Consider the titles of manuscripts. Manuscripts use title case for many parts of the document, but title case doesn’t need to be done by both the layout department and the editors. Removing the need to check this particular thing makes an editor’s job (a little bit) easier. Removing this is an example of how altering a process as a whole to simplify it can help.

Adding or removing processes to improve workflow

It might seem counterintuitive that adding something to a process would make it easier. After all, you’re just adding another step, right? Imagine the following example:

You have a four stage submission process. The steps in this process are:

“review of document” —> “layout of document” —> “approval of document” —> “peer check of document”.

Don’t worry if these don’t immediately make sense. The four stages are just a representation of a general process.

When you receive a document, you need to review it. Then layout needs to be done.  After layout is finished, it needs manager approval. After that, and finally, it is sent for a final peer check where a final approval is given. If any of the first three parts are missed, final approval cannot be given. The document has to be returned to you for it to be completed properly. This results in unnecessary delays. So, how can we improve this process?

The addition of a checklist to this workflow can vastly improve the efficiency and eliminate a lot of wasted time. The new process might look like this:

“review of document” —> “layout of document” —> “approval of document” —> “complete checklist” —> “peer check of document”.

The addition of the checklist now ensures that the last stage should occur without unnecessary delays.

How does this affect your bottom line?

If your journal isn’t making money, it won’t survive for long. There are many positive reasons that you might have in running a journal, but at the end of the day, you need to pay salaries.

We have written about the overhead costs associated with your journal, as well as the importance of generating income before, but let’s go over a few of the general points.

Your business has a series of costs that are unavoidable and that you have no choice but to cover. Examples of this include salaries, rent, and other critical elements of your journal’s infrastructure, like hosting and IT. There are other costs that your business can incur, but that you can avoid (or maybe save on). This sort of cost might be spending on conferences, travel, and other things that you might need to spend money on, but that have variable prices.

Simplifying your workflow can lead to a reduction in certain costs. This can also include some costs that you might have assumed are impossible to change. If you have a member of your team who is spending their full week working on specific projects, and new projects arise, you might be inclined to think  you need to hire another person to cover this. But what if extensive elements of your employee’s schedule can be automated, leaving them more time to work on new projects? Improving a workflow can (and often does) have a direct impact on your bottom line.

What areas of your journal’s workflow can you optimize?

Which parts of your journal should you optimize is a bit of a tricky question. The short answer is “everything”. The long answer is more nuanced. Not all optimization needs to be done immediately, and sometimes you might want to focus on specific parts of the workflow for any number of reasons. As an example, you might not necessarily need to (or care to) optimize the English editing process. There are many reasons why you might want to do this, but very few of them are mandatory.

English editing is largely a process that is handed off to editors, who have their own methods to optimize the workflow, but whether an editor takes an hour or two to edit a manuscript may not matter to you. Especially if the English editor is a freelance editor. You pay the same rate for the task, regardless of how long it takes (unless you pay an hourly rate).

Tracking English editors, however, is a highly optimizable series of tasks. Optimizing this workflow can save you dozens if not hundreds of hours over the course of 6-12 months. But knowing which tasks should be looked at first can be challenging to figure out.

Start at the beginning of your process

Logically, the most sensible place to start might be at the beginning of the publication process. Consider that this stage of publication is where the most time can be lost in back-and-forth communications. How can you simplify the submissions process? Improving the submission workflow can often be quite easy, and one of the most critical tools at your disposal to do this is your staff. They will be able to identify where they feel the submission process is falling short. They know when things take longer than they should, or when processes seem unrealistic.

Ask your staff, “how can we improve the workflow,” they will definitely have answers for you.

Break up processes into smaller component parts

Breaking up a process into smaller parts is a good way to start finding if processes can be improved. For example, “the submission process” encompasses many different stages, and it can be challenging to identify them effectively. But looking at individual components, for example, peer review or screening processes, can be a very good way to find ways to improve the workflow.

In future articles, we’ll tackle these individual parts and discuss ways to improve them.

Improving workflows is an ongoing process

Trying to do too many things at once can over-complicate things that don’t need to be complicated. As such, it’s important to remember that there is no real deadline that need to be met when it comes to optimization. When you improve the workflow in one department, there will be immediate benefits for them—but this doesn’t necessarily affect another department.

Optimizing the submission process won’t necessarily improve the English editing stage.

Improving the layout department’s processes won’t help the peer review stage in a meaningful way.

There are certainly some broad actions that can have vast impacts on many different elements though. Implementing a journal management system, for example, can help several different departments immediately, and result in lower costs to you and your business. These sorts of journal management systems are not able to help to optimize every step of your publishing process, so communication with your staff is critical to your success.

D.J. McPhee
3 April 2024
Posted inOperational Tasks
Post author D.J. McPhee
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