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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2015 / Winter 2016)

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Cover, page 15 of 28


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Navigating Online Publishing Systems

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University

In gatherings of those who work in education, one of the issues that is sure to spark some heated interchanges involves adventures in research, writing, and publishing. In one recent writing retreat, faculty talked about their methods for research and writing; they talked about “junk” publishers to avoid; they talked about the inanity of some reviewer and editor feedback, and they talked about how grueling this publishing process can be with different rounds of rejections before the occasional acceptance. (Acceptance rates for manuscripts may be very low, as low as a percent of a percent.)

While editors, publishers, and conference organizers work hard to elicit manuscripts on the one hand, they are also upholding tough standards for publication acceptance. Researchers and writers are caught between investing a lot of “blood, sweat and tears,” grant funding, reputation, and effort to research and write an original work…and selecting a prestigious publication (with an empirically objective high ranking and / or "eigenfactor," a measure of influence via citation networks) that will not reject them. Researchers are bound to rules preventing them from submitting a work to multiple publications at the same time (no multiple submissions), and whomever has the manuscript at any one time has the right of first refusal. At the same time, a manuscript’s value is aging out of potential relevance as time passes. Finally, researchers are only people, and human will is somewhat fragile. With a sufficient number of rejections, most people will shut down and stop trying. These dynamics are fairly common in the academic environment. 

Figure 1:  Role-based Interactions on Online Publishing Systems 

Technology and the Academic Publishing Process

If an individual had some interest in publishing, the author(s) would work on the manuscript and images, submit the work via email or an online form, receive a critique, and resubmit all the materials in finalized form usually via email or something like a cloud-based shared space (like DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or others).

The work would appear in the professional journal or book; less formally, there would be works on blogs, newsletters, or campus repositories. Now, for those engaged in writing for publication, the workflow for publishing includes much more engagement with online systems.

Option 1: Submittal via email, processing via project management apps, and editor as nexus. One of the throwback methods is Option 1. In this scenario, a writer contacts the editor (or editorial team) working on a particular journal issue or book publication. The editor works with the individual or research / writing team to get a work in shape. Then, a draft of the work is submitted to the editor, who strips out all identifying information (for the double-blind peer review). The anonymized work is distributed to a group of reviewers (with differing areas of specialization) through a project management application online along with a review form tailored to the publication. (More on manuscript review forms follows in the Sidebar:  "Ensuring Manuscript Quality".) All the feedback is collected by the editor, who re-packages the feedback in a succinct and anonymized form (to protect the reviewers). Based on the reviewer feedback and the editor’s professional judgment, the work will be accepted outright, accepted conditionally with suggestions for revision, declined but with suggestions for revisions and a suggestion to resubmit and to go through the process anew, or declined outright (without any invitation to resubmit). In some cases, it is in the editor’s purview to accept a feature work outright, without going through the peer review process (which can be very tough, particularly as the numbers of reviewers increases).

A variation on this involves open review. Here, the editors of a text create folders for the various draft chapters on Google Drive and invite all contributors to critique each other’s works.  Any "intelligent task routing" may be done by email in an informal way.  Comments reveal the identities of the reviewers. Those who receive feedback from an individual could return the favor and comment on the others’ work. The editors could control access by controlling the invites; they could control the actual contents by rolling back changes if they decided a revision was not appropriate or a comment was not constructive. 

Figure 2:  Screenshot of a Book Project on Google Drive (Redacted) 

Option 2: Access to the whole publishing platform (with limited rights or with system versioning capabilities). One approach involves giving writers access to the whole system used in the publication. This might be a WordPress site. This might be a content management system. This might be a hosted publishing system, like Scalar. In such cases, users may be signed in with contributor-level role-based access. This enables them to upload their text and imagery and then enable others to review and edit their work. Nothing goes public without editorial oversight. For contributors who may not be comfortable working in the publishing platform, an editor or other member may stand in the gap and upload the text and imagery. The original contributor may be given access to a pre-release “dev” (developer) version of the publication through a protected URL that is not available to a person without account-level access, or the work may be viewable through a soft-launch viewing (with the actual publication unpublished but the URL publicly findable and viewable). 

Figure 3:  A WordPress Dashboard (Redacted) 

Option 3: Access to a dedicated publishing system. The process that has come to the fore and seems to be most common now involves the use of dedicated publishing systems. These dedicated systems may be either programmed by the publishing company’s own developers or created by a third-party commercial company, with unique parts customized for a particular use. Such systems enable unique features for people for differing roles.
  • For researchers and writers, they access the system to submit their manuscript, receive constructive and critical feedback, submit their finalized drafts, submit their finalized imagery, and learn the final decisions related to their work. Some of the benefits to this system are that they enable a one-stop place to access everything. Also, there may be automated tools that may enhance the work, such as a feature to count how many figures are referred to in a text and then to ensure that that same number are uploaded. 
  • For peer reviewers, they access the system to read draft work, submit their feedback, and interact with editors around the submitted work. 
  • For editors, they access the system to receive draft manuscripts, coordinate double blind peer review, communicate with researchers and writers, automate plagiarism checks and automated citation checks (against known indexes of journal and book citations), and finalize the manuscript for processing by the publishing companies (who have staff to handle the typography, layout, production, marketing and publicity, sales, and other aspects). 
  • For those involved in journal or book production (particularly for publications that have both physical print and electronic versions), they access a publishing system’s resources in order to process the layout and other work on other systems. 
  • For publishers, they use the book systems to streamline the workflow.  The goal is to create better quality books with reasonable expense in a very competitive market.  They also use the book systems to maintain records, which are analyzed for business intelligence (BI) and decisions. 
These systems encompass a wide range of work processes, but they are not used to the exclusion of email, cloud file sharing, or other tools. These are complementary to other communications modalities.  

Figure 4:  IGI-Global Book Submission System (Redacted)  / Used by Permission

Such systems fall on a continuum of intuitiveness based on the user interface design. There are some with very clear sequences of work and next steps; these allow sufficient decision-making for each of the individuals based on their necessary access but no more. Others may be less obvious, particularly for researchers and writers without a lot of online experience. It helps to have a clear sequence of work, without resorting to a lot of hidden dropdown menus. 

Figure 5:  A Five-Step Chapter Submittal Process on the IGI-Global Book Platform (Used by Permission) 

Further, it helps to have a system that describes what is happening beyond the researcher / writer’s sight—so he, she, or they understand what is occurring and when they should expect feedback. It helps for those submitting work to replace a file. It helps to have a reasonable upper limit to image sizes at the high end of resolution, so sufficient print publishing quality may be achieved. It would help to have a human touch for those who are not comfortable with such online submittal systems because there are very good researchers and writers who have not yet acclimated to online spaces, and it would be a shame to lose their work to time by not including them (with some basic support). 

Figure 6:  A View of Current Chapters (Used by Permission)


Ensuring Manuscript Quality

For those new to publishing, what editors and publishers want may be a mystery. For those who have been publishing for a long time, what a particular editor and a particular publisher wants may still be mysterious. That is not to say that there are not ways of knowing what a publisher wants. It helps to read a number of issues of the target publication in order to understand the topics and writings that pass muster. It helps to read the “call for proposals” or other elicitations to researchers. Also, researchers would do well to get a sense of the editors, their backgrounds, and their track records, because editors are human, and they are informed by their own training, professions, and experiences.

Manuscript Review “Forms” for Peer (and Editorial) Feedback

A generic checklist of contents for publications specializing in educational technology might include some of the following questions (for reviewers to consider):
  • Is the title accurate to the submitted paper or chapter? 
  • Is the abstract accurate to the submitted paper or chapter? 
  • Is the topic relevant to the field (theoretically? practically?)? 
  • Is the topic timely? 
  • Is the topic handled in an innovative or original way by the researcher? 
  • Is the literature review thorough and comprehensive? 
  • Is the methodology for the research clearly described? Are there any gaps in the descriptions of the research? 
  • Is the research methodology sound? 
  • Has the research been conducted ethically, according to extant professional standards (such as for human subjects review)? 
  • Are the research data clearly presented? Clearly and logically interpreted? 
  • Are there un-addressed anomalies in the data? 
  • Are the visuals (especially data visualizations) relevant? Are they clearly described? 
  • Has the researcher / researcher team interpreted the findings in logically sound ways? 
  • Have a range of possible interpretations been considered? 
  • In the discussion section, are there a range of possible applications of the research? Are the applications practical / cost-effective / transferable to different contexts / scalable? 
  • Do the authors offer strong insights for potential future (related) research? Are the recommendations for future research relevant and practicable?
  • Is the writing accessible and clear? If not, how may the writing be improved? 
  • Is the paper presented in a way that aligns with the standards and modalities of the publication? (For example, in an electronic publication, sometimes, multimedia is expected. In some academic publications, full datasets are expected if they are used in a publication.) 
  • Does the author(s) show an understanding of the publication and its objectives?
  • Does the author(s) show an understanding of the readers of the publication and their needs? 
The questions are used to elicit analytical thinking about the draft, and at every turn, reviewers are asked to give examples of their observations and to make granular and constructive suggestions for improvement. Many online review systems require line number and page references for easy findability.

A summary ranking. Most systems involve some ranking of the submitted draft. Some use coarse (vs. granular) assessments to summarize a stance: like / dislike binaries, accept – in-between – reject, or some numerical ranking (such as on a continuum). These may be submitted before the list of questions or after (depending on the forms).

A reviewer self-evaluation of his / her levels of expertise (“humble is good”). Most reviewers are there by invitation-only and based on their own areas of expertise. Many of the better review systems ask a reviewer what his or her level of expertise is related to the particular draft—which helps the editor (or editorial team) establish a kind of confidence level by which to understand the reviewer comments. It is also helpful to remind reviewers that while they may be highly expert in their area, they may be only partial experts in other areas—and they would be wise to couch their comments as such.

Most forms enable accessing the manuscript online but also downloading for off-line review and critique. (Reviewers have to be highly professional in how they handle the downloaded drafts, with full confidentiality.) Evaluations may be started, saved, and submitted later. In the best systems, reviewers are notified of the final decisions and are given access to the verbatim comments to the original authors. In the optimal systems, reviewers are given access to a second round of reviews if an author or authoring team has revised a work based on the reviewers’ comments (with reviewer access to their own prior comments to refresh their memory).

Most draft manuscripts will not meet quality standards in every element listed above, but if they are not irretrievably broken, some manuscripts will pass initial muster, and they may ultimately be considered for publication.  

Automated Checks of Originality

For those who aspire to publish in the academic literature, it may help to know that their manuscripts often not only have to pass human muster but have to pass automated plagiarism tests based on stylometry, the metrics of style, if you will. (This is especially so after the scandalous finding that computer-generated papers made it into various data repositories. Richard Van Noorden wrote about this in “Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers” an issue of Nature.  A creative tool for creating computer science research papers, SCIgen, was created by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and this was used to create some of the faked works. Indeed, this tool outputs formatted nonsense papers replete with graphs, charts, data visualizations, and research citations, with just a few button presses.)  Stylometry measures various quantitative features of manuscripts to extract a unique fingerprint for authorship. The more writings are out in the world, the more information there is about the particular author's style. There are a number of free tools that enable stylometry analysis, including a package in R.

There are automated forms of content analysis as well, which extract content focuses from text corpuses, which can highlight typical areas of focus. Over the lifetime of research and writing, researchers tend to cover a few areas of interest in depth.  It would be anomalous for an individual to have widely disparate areas of expertise simply because the cost of  acquisition of expertise is often very high. 



Sharing research is an important part of academia and of the professional development and growth of researchers. When designed well, online publishing systems are fairly important to smooth the workflow and to ensure that relevant research finds an audience and a solid place in the research literature. However, many researchers are intimidated by online book publishing systems.  These may be academics who are not comfortable with technologies. These may be those from academic environments in which technologies are not so common.  Indeed, some researchers are fully comfortable staying with email and sharing zipped files of digital contents.

For those who edit texts, online publishing systems can be an important tool for organizing a manuscript or journal and for  managing complexity.  After all, a text is comprised of literally thousands of moving parts. This means that it is in their interest to help researchers navigate any hurdles they may encounter in online publishing systems; otherwise, they will lose talent and works that may never reach a wider audience. 

The affordances of online publishing systems mean that they are evolving and are here to stay.  Academics who want to engage in their respective fields would do well to explore these sites and become more familiar with using them effectively--if they want to contribute to the research literature. 

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  She reviews manuscripts for a number of publications and publishers.  

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