In January 2015, we wrote about exciting developments at PLOS specifically designed to improve the author and community experience. The changes begun at the end of 2014 included a redesign of our PDF layout into a clean, single column design, reconstructing many of our workflows, implementing continuous publication, and transitioning to a new composition vendor to convert accepted author manuscripts into XML and PDF formats used for online publication. Now, six months later, we want to provide a status update on those projects and also let you know of still more initiatives planned for 2015-2016.
Single Column PDF Design
At the end of 2014 we introduced a new single column PDF design that enabled a more efficient composition process, while simultaneously improving readability on the variety of devices used by the research community. From November to January PLOS rolled out the design across all seven of the PLOS journals. During this time we received excellent feedback from our author and reader community that greatly helped fine tune the formatting rules used to automate the creation of the PDFs; many thanks to our community for the input.
New Workflows, New Vendors
While rolling out the PDF design, we simultaneously changed a number of workflows and vendors behind the scenes, including a successful transition to a new composition vendor, Apex CoVantage. We firmly believed these actions would improve our quality assurance and typesetting processes, increase overall publishing efficiency across all seven of our journals, decrease time to publication, and ultimately provide a better experience for authors publishing in a PLOS journal. After six months, we are seeing very clear signs of progress. But progress did not come easily – or quickly.
In January we noted that all of these changes – each one time sensitive and critical to improving the publication process – would affect our speed to publication and publication volumes in the short term. They did. As we started publishing in 2015, we saw the overall number of published items decrease in January and February (average per month of about 1,400) as compared to our normal monthly publication volume (2014 average per month of about 2,800). By the end of June, however, we had published a total of 17,044 items, bringing our average per month back up to a bit more more than 2,800.
We predicted readers and authors might notice a slowdown. They did. We sincerely apologize to those authors who experienced delays during this transition. We gratefully acknowledge the patience of our community, and particularly our authors, during this period. We learned some important lessons which will help us minimize these kinds of problems in the future as we continue to improve our systems and processes.
Promising Preliminary Results
We also owe thanks to all our vendors for their patience and hard work. The results we have started to see from this combined effort are quite exciting. The predicted gains in speed, efficiency, and quality are now being realized. The backlogs that were created as we transitioned early in the year are all gone. While it’s still early days, our preliminary data show a reduction in the time from acceptance to publication of 40-50% for three of our four community journals as compared to 2014 (April through June comparison). The fourth journal, PLOS Computational Biology had a major workflow change, wherein we added a step for author proofs. That initially resulted in some delays, but that timing has now recovered to 2014 levels. PLOS ONE, because of its volume, has improved more slowly, but we are seeing steady progress.
Initial quality indications are also quite strong. While it’s still a bit too soon for a full analysis, preliminary data indicate that the number of author requests for corrections coming in post-publication have dropped off by about 50%.
Throughout this time submissions from authors have remained strong across all seven of our journals.
Additional Changes to Come
We promised authors a tool to provide feedback and help with figure preparation, and currently that tool is actively being tested and refined and should be available sometime later this year. Additional workflow changes are in the works that will help pave the way for author proofs for PLOS Pathogens, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, and PLOS Genetics in the coming months.
In addition, we continue to work on many improvements to our internal workflows and processes that will make them even more efficient. While many of these improvements are not visible to authors, they are helping us achieve a path to publication that’s as smooth and swift as possible.
Looking Farther Ahead
The PLOS mission is to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. One area of publishing in desperate need of transformation involves the systems used for submission and peer review. PLOS is currently hard at work designing and building a new manuscript authoring and submission system called ApertaTM. At its core this new PLOS editorial environment brings simplicity to the submission and peer review process by providing advanced task-management technology and a vastly improved user interface, which will enhance the publishing experience for our community of authors, editors, and reviewers. Stay tuned for more information on Aperta in the coming months.
PLOS remains committed to transparency in the publishing process, and we will continue to provide progress updates on our many exciting developments. Thanks for your continued support of PLOS journals and the Open Access movement.