If there is a truism in scholarly journals publishing, ‘the content makes the journal’ must be a prime candidate. The number and quality of published articles determines who reads the journal and how much they use and cite its content. This in turn determines metrics such as the (in)famous impact factor.
Many journals focus on trying to increase their impact factor, but this is putting the cart before the horse. The impact factor reflects the number of citations to content published in the preceding two years as a proportion of all content published in the journal in that time period. As such, a journal’s impact factor will likely rise if the quality of its content improves – or becomes more interesting to more readers – and thus leads to more citations.
Ultimately, it is the Editor who applies the criteria for publication and makes the final decision to accept or reject a submitted manuscript. The consistent and defendable application of those criteria is vital. However, even before the final decision, there are several simple steps that Editors can take to improve their journal’s quality.
The first and by far the most important area on which to focus is the content itself. Instead of relying solely on submitted manuscripts, solicit content through careful commissioning in hot topics from notable researchers. Hold annual or biennial Editorial Board meetings to prepare a list of the best work being done in your field – and then target those topics and authors. Develop relevant new article types, and plan and execute their regular publication. Commission Special Issues once or twice a year; such curated collections on a single topic are a great way to encourage authors to submit to journals that they might not otherwise consider. Of course, all manuscripts should go through the journal’s clearly defined and applied peer review processes.
The second area on which to focus is the structure and architecture of the journal itself. Ensure that the title and scope are descriptive, intuitive and interesting to potential authors and readers. Restrictions such as a taxon, disease or regional focus will not necessarily pose a challenge if the scope clearly and comprehensively states what manuscripts – covering which topics and in what format – are welcome. Authors are more easily persuaded to submit their manuscript when it is clear that their research area fits the journal’s scope.
Encourage authors to submit their best work by projecting clear indicators of journal quality. On the print and online versions of the journal, list the names and affiliations (or contact details) of key staff such as the Editor and Editorial Board members. Ensure that policies on the criteria for publication and on publication ethics are explicitly stated – and follow them at all times. Join reputable organisations such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) to bolster the journal’s commitment to quality. Pay attention to spelling and grammar – small mistakes can reflect badly on the journal’s quality.
The third area is the journal’s network of contacts, which is shaped in large part by the Editor. Good Editors develop their networks. Grow your pool of potential reviewers: in addition to finding more varied expertise, you will increase your pool of potential authors. Support authors where possible by providing constructive feedback and advice: in addition to promoting their development as scientists, you may encourage them to submit their best work in the future.
The Editor’s job need not finish once the content is published. Improving awareness of an article is one step towards improving its usage (and thus citation). Find ways to support authors to promote their work – through press releases, social media channels and the journal’s own extensive network. This may require liaison with the journal’s publisher or owner, who may be better equipped to offer these services.
A good Editor innovates, initiates, cajoles, chases, emboldens, enlivens and ultimately determines a journal’s journey. An Editor has the power to proactively shape the direction of the journal rather than react to what manuscripts are submitted. The journal’s impact factor will likely increase as a result, but more importantly, the journal will become a stronger, more vital resource for authors and readers.
Authors: Dugald McGlashan and Caroline Hadley