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Improving Manuscript Transfers for Authors

The webinar addressed challenges in manuscript transfers and proposed solutions to enhance the author experience, emphasizing transparency, communication, and standardized policies. See below for a comprehensive blog post summarizing the webinar and exploring the discussed topics.

Event duration March 26, 2024
Event location Copenhagen, Denmark

Improving manuscript transfers for authors 

Our 2024 webinar series started with a fantastic discussion about improving manuscript transfers. All three speakers generously shared everything they have learned so far. James Butcher from Journalology explained why manuscript transfers are increasing in popularity, and Melissa Patterson from AIP Publishing and Catherine Goodman from ACS (American Chemical Society) explored the author's journey and the importance of finding the right home for every manuscript. 

We are delighted that our audience was as interested in this topic as we are at ChronosHub. There were so many questions, we didn't have time to answer them all! As a thank you to our attendees, we've included some of the questions we didn't have the chance to answer at the end of this post, with thoughtful replies from our panelists. 

What are manuscript transfers?

ChronosHub's Head of Publisher Relations, Romy Beard, kicked things off by taking us through the basics of manuscript transfers. If you come from book publishing, it may not be a familiar term, and this is because manuscript transfers are specific to journal publishing. The term describes how an author is offered the option to transfer the submitted manuscript from one journal to another. Generally, the transfer will take place within the journal portfolio of one publisher. However, later in the webinar, our panelists discussed the possibility of manuscript transfer across publishers. 

During peer review or submission, a manuscript transfer is often labeled as 'reject with transfer.' The decision to transfer can happen at the editorial review stage or after peer review. A manuscript can be transferred because it doesn't fit the journal's scope, or the quality doesn't match its standards. The option to transfer can be made by editorial teams or by the authors themselves, and this question of: 'Who gets to decide?' really fueled the debate in the second half of the webinar, which saw significant interaction from our assembled audience. 

When the publisher drives the manuscript transfer, the author will be offered a transfer to one or more journals, usually recommended by an editor, and it is up to the author to accept. If the author is in charge, they usually switch journals at initial submission or after they receive a 'reject with transfer' from their journal of choice. When the author drives the transfer, it would be up to the editorial staff to accept the transfer request and get the ball rolling. Hopefully, Romy's concise intro to manuscript transfers has given you a good basis for the rest of the discussion we are about to cover! 

Open access strikes again

Now that we've got the basics locked in, we need to talk about why manuscript transfers are growing in popularity. Luckily for us, James proposed an interesting hypothesis. It might not be a surprise, but open access is mixed up in this. Since OA (Open Access) came on the scene, journals and publishers have been trying to balance the need for open science while maintaining revenue outside traditional subscription models. Yes, we have covered that evergreen topic in many of our previous webinars! In this case, revenue per published article is a key metric involved in the discussion around manuscript transfers.  

James used the following hypothetical example to get our heads around the numbers. Suppose the revenue per published article under the institutional subscription model is $8,000 per article, and the revenue per published article under the APC (Article Processing Charge) model is $4,000 per article. In that case, the most straightforward equation is that an APC (article processing charge) funded journal needs to publish twice as many articles to maintain the same revenue level as a subscription journal. This simplified example hints at why transfers are increasingly important to publishers as OA grows. 

A transfer cascade or lateral transfer?

We should pause here and make clear that James stressed that this was not about profit margins but about ensuring publishers have the resilience to transition to full OA. Previously, James spent 15 years at Nature Publishing Group and Springer Nature, so he shared a diagram of a 'transfer cascade' pyramid for their journal portfolio. Nature, a flagship journal, was at the top of the pyramid, and Scientific Reports was at the bottom. A key differentiation between the journals was acceptance rates and price. We could see that Nature has an acceptance rate of 8% and Scientific Reports 60%.  

Authors are free to choose a journal to submit to within the Springer Nature portfolio. However, if a manuscript is labeled 'reject with transfer,' the author has the option to submit to another journal further down the pyramid, where the chance of acceptance increases. If managed well from an editorial and workflow perspective, the author can still find the right home for their manuscript. For the publisher, it means they can spread the cost of transitioning to OA across titles and maintain article acceptances. 

The transfer cascade model is not without critique. Melissa and Catherine raised the issue that AIP's and ACS's transfer approaches need to be more hierarchical. AIP is trying to move away from cascading and towards a lateral way of transferring papers by focusing on scope. A lateral way of transferring papers is more about the manuscript's topic rather than where a journal sits within a perceived hierarchy. They both believe the focus on scope is better for the editors and authors.  

Manuscript transfers in practice

Now that we've covered much background information, it's time to uncover how this works in practice. Although we briefly touched upon it earlier, let us take a closer look at how things operate at AIP. Melissa introduced their philosophy of finding the 'best possible home' for an author's article. In reality, this means making transfers across titles easy and seamless, with article information and reviews automatically sent to the following journal. Through the peer review system, editors can offer guaranteed peer review or provisional acceptance for papers undergoing transfer. 

Melissa raised the excellent point that authors have already chosen AIP as their publisher when they submit. To help support authors with this preference, AIP has a broad-scope journal, AIP Advances, for which all editors can directly accept papers. Finally, and this will become a vital part of the proceeding discussion, editors are encouraged to collaborate across titles to find the best home for the paper. 

Editors are key

A core part of making the transfer process work successfully for AIP has been listening to editors. Melissa spoke about setting up a transfer program advisory board that can collect and communicate feedback from editors, and the transfer team regularly attends associate editor meetings across all their journals to answer any questions. The biggest challenge Melissa reflects on is educating editors on how best to direct a paper to the right journal topically, so they have undertaken scope education as part of their ongoing training for editors. This increases the success of the lateral transfer model. 

Catherine echoed much of what Melissa outlined. ACS has a selection of journals that offer a broad subject area. They provide the publisher-driven model, as described by Romy, where editors can offer one to three alternatives to a manuscript. Just like at AIP, ACS editors were keen to offer authors the best home for their manuscripts, whether through consulting across the different journals or using various tools available to them. 

ACS has around 900 editors, a team that often changes. So, the challenge is helping these editors keep on top of the scope of the other ACS journals as scientific disciplines inevitably change. ACS tracks KPIs regarding transfers to support editors to make decisions so editors can see what is being transferred where and the success rates. AIP keeps editors in a positive feedback loop, so they know they have helped to get a paper published using manuscript transfer. This encourages the editors to stay engaged with the transfer process. 

At ACS, there is an ongoing focus on balancing editorial independence and helping authors find a home for their manuscripts. This discussion got Catherine and James thinking through the million-dollar question: 'Should editorial independence trump what is best for authors?' A tricky question! Again, editorial involvement and education about the publisher's other titles really help align editorial standards and author expectations.  

Changing the perception of rejection  

All three presentations by our panelists focused on what editors can do to support manuscript transfers. A significant challenge with author-led transfers is impact factor shopping, which the industry is trying to move away from. Catherine noted that when authors attempt to transfer to a journal because of impact factors, they are unsuccessful because the manuscript does not match the journal's scope. ACS did have an author transfer feature enabled, but it was not as successful as editor-guided transfers. 

Overall, the panel agreed that it is important to remove frustration and uncertainty from receiving a rejection. Romy questioned how the terminology around rejections could be made less negative. Is there a more positive way to phrase rejections? ACS is currently reviewing how they communicate with authors. Rather than sending a straight-up rejection, ACS is considering sending authors a recommendation for a journal that best suits their paper. 

Transferring across publishers 

So, what did the panel think of transfers across publishers? It is possible, but it is a manual process, and that costs money. Romy asked Melissa about the recent announcement about the coalition between IOP, AIP, and APS. If there is an ongoing collaboration, would it be possible to transfer between the three physics publishers in the future?  

Melissa admitted that right now, it is an open question. The coalition shows that the three publishers share like-minded goals and want to focus on serving their research communities. Maybe they will eventually align and standardize their ways of working! This could mean standardizing submission formats, so it is easier to resubmit across the publishers. Does it mean that if AIP rejects an article, they recommend an APS or IOP journal instead? That's unclear at this point. It could be possible to enable transfers across the three publishers, but they haven't started those conversations yet.  

Are transfers just a way to get more APC revenue? 

Toward the end of the webinar, Romy posed a controversial question! There have been accusations made by authors and libraries that transfers are just another way to get APC money. Is there any truth to this?  

Catherine was straight in with a response. ACS Omega is a gold OA journal, so an APC will apply if a manuscript is accepted. However, it is made very clear in communication to authors that an APC applies to this journal. She raised the point that transparency is essential, especially as the transition to OA is underway. OA journals exist because they are part of this transition, so authors have reliable OA options. So, it is not a cynical money grab! 

Romy agreed on the transparency point. If authors know the terms upfront, they will avoid concluding that the decision to transfer a manuscript is motivated by money. It is tricky to manage all of this, especially if some journals are covered by publishing agreements and some are not. But again, the panel agreed that having the terms available before the manuscript is transferred goes a long way to embed trust in the process.  

Creating trust in the transfer process  

Toward the end of the hour, an attendee asked the panel a great question about negative bias in the peer review process. Does the panel have experience with authors who feel they have experienced negative bias? So, if the authors see that the article has already been rejected, how likely are they to resubmit if they don't trust the editors? And if they decide to resubmit, is it better to transfer to make a fresh submission? 

The editors will be informed either way for AIP because their system connects across journals and recognizes if it's a resubmission. Opting for the transfer process will enhance the author's experience by allowing for a comprehensive discussion on why the paper is suitable for transfer. At ACS, the editors, who are trained Ph.D. scientists, follow a robust process. Hence, the process is to be trusted due to their expertise. Manuscripts will be transferred with careful thought and diligence. 

Catherine suggested that a publisher could ask authors their journal preferences upfront to give them a greater sense of agency. The author can provide a second or third choice if the manuscript is rejected. It's not a positive thing to ask at the time of submission, but it is realistic. AIP is trialing this so authors can select a second-choice journal if their first journal of choice rejects the paper. 

At this point, the panel started to wrap up. The key takeaways to improve manuscript transfers were empowering editors to make appropriate recommendations, focusing on finding the best home for a manuscript, and making the entire process transparent, from peer review to acceptance likelihood and any fees that may occur if the article is accepted. We've included answers to the questions we needed more time to answer below! 

Your questions 

Time for Q&A round two! 

Can Catherine briefly expand on the tools and metrics ACS editors use to guide decisions?   

"A few examples: we have an AI tool that can recommend journals that would be a good fit for scope once an editor has decided not to pursue the paper at their home journal. 

We use a 'rejected article tracker' tool from a third party that shows where papers rejected from one journal eventually got published. This can help us observe crosstalk and identify new transfer pathways that should be initiated.  

We also aggregate metrics across each journal (not revealing the fate of any one paper, obviously) to see how frequently authors take up offers and how often those papers are accepted, so if there are specific transfer pathways that seem very successful or unsuccessful, editors can offer more transfers to 'successful' journals or have conversations with editors at 'unsuccessful' journals to determine if there are mismatches in expectations, etc." (CG) 

What tips do you have for streamlining submission questions and requirements across large portfolios?  

"Only collect the most basic information needed for the first decision. Collect everything else that is required at acceptance for each journal. Use one standard form across all journals by building consensus." (RB) 

"Focus on the information that's essential across journals (ethics, COIs, etc.)." (JB) 

"Agreed with the above! Also, if editors can see that letting go of some of the initial checks will lead to great papers coming in, that can help to move things forward." (CG) 

If the goal is to find the "best home" for an author's work, and that best home for the author's article does not relate to the impact factor, what are the things that define that for the author? 

"We covered this to some degree in the webinar, I think. Author surveys suggest that fast publication times are especially important (which is one reason why MDPI has been so successful). No one wants to wait three months to receive a rejection letter." (JB)  

"I think that the best fit for 'my research and article visibility' have, repeatedly, been some of the top reasons for an author to submit to a journal. I think publishers should demonstrate that an author's peers will read the article." (MP) 

"In addition to the above excellent points, I think one of the challenges of this whole process is that different authors value different things, so publishers feel like they must be all things to all people." (CG) 

For journals without in-house editors, how do you recommend working with a large editorial board to improve the editor's understanding of transfers?  

"Fewer editors, who handle more papers, may be needed here. Editors are unlikely to change their behavior unless they consistently engage in the process. Perhaps split the editorial board so that some editors handle editors, and some are advisors." (JB)  

"I think I touched on this during the webinar: constant communication around the value of transfer (to our Editors as part of their role) and creating smaller groups amongst Editors of journals where transfers are more likely to occur is important. Even if they don't see many candidates for transfers, they should still be aware of the process and how their journal fits in." (MP) 

"It's hard to imagine a journal where an editor only handles a few papers yearly! But even in that case, having transfers as a clear option when editors are selecting their decision and keeping lines of communication open can go a long way." (CG) 

What tools do publishers use to connect their editors together? 

"I suspect mainly email/video calls. More and more publishing systems have ways for editors to talk within the system if they need help or guidance on a specific manuscript." (CG) 



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