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A progress report
In March 2004 we wrote about OEM and its progress.1 We highlighted some of the successes of the Journal, including the variety and quality of content, the development of its website, its increasing international reach, and the ever-growing number of submissions. We also warned of some of the challenges, including the need to set a stricter rejection rate, and shared some our ambitions including the desire to render quicker decisions to authors, to reduce publication delays, and to promote a forum of discussion and debate.
One year into the tenure of the new editorial team (11 months allowing for the production cycle) it seems timely to give a progress report. The key messages, in so far as we can judge, are: “moving usefully forwards”, “building momentum”, and “always more to do”!
As foreshadowed last time, acceptance rates have fallen from 40% to 29% for all articles and 24% for peer-review primary research papers. This move was forced on us by the 60% increase in submissions in 2003 compared with 2001.
As hoped then, we have managed the extra workload while reducing our response times to authors. Table 1 shows how the average time from submission to first decision has been reduced since 2003 by 36% for all papers and 16% for reviewed papers, and even more dramatically since 2002. The interval from final acceptance to publication had risen to nine months as a result of rejection rates failing to keep pace with submission rates, but this has also begun to fall towards its long term average of four months or so. How has this been achieved?
Paradoxically, the impetus comes mainly from an extra step in the system of copy flow between submission and initial review. A sifting committee now renders a quick decision on rapidly rejected manuscripts. This system, which is commonly exercised by other journals including the BMJ and the Lancet, holds several advantages in comparison with former arrangements (under which most papers were reviewed before appearing on the editor’s desk). Firstly, for unsuccessful authors a much quicker decision can be rendered, enabling them to take their chances elsewhere; secondly, a tighter control can be exercised on acceptance rates; thirdly, the deliberations of the committee have made it easier to define editorial policy and apply consistent standards; and fourthly, the committee has been able to add its own constructive comments to those of the reviewers to improve manuscripts. The committee also takes the final decision on revisions, armed with comments from referees and associate editors.
Although the trends in table 1 are encouraging, we continue to recognise the need to drive down response times and to investigate instances of exceptional delay for the lessons that can be learned. Progress will be harder from this point as some sources of delay, notably in soliciting and receiving expert reviews, are difficult to address. But we remain alert to opportunities to expedite decision making and improve the currency of newly published material.
Another facet of the Journal that has developed nicely over the last year is its website (http://oem.bmjjournals.com). In September 2004 a major revamp went live with new guidelines for authors and reviewers, a clearer statement of the Journal’s editorial policy, and links to several key items on publication ethics (for example, our stance on duplicate publications, plagiarism, ethical approval, and conflicts of interest). To make the Journal user-friendly for prospective authors, material was also added on the Editor’s tips for getting published as well as advice on sought-after article types and guidance on the scope of frequently accepted papers.
For readers, the online services now include e-correspondence, interactive educational MCQs, citation tracking, and e-mail alerts to new content of interest, as well as links to the extensive resources of the BMJ Publishing Group.
And for the research community, some new bridges have been built. The electronic pages of the November 2004 issue of OEM included all abstracts from the 17th International Symposium on Epidemiology in Occupational Health from the 2004 Melbourne Meeting. This is a signal, if one is needed, of the Journal’s desire to achieve a closer partnership with our colleagues in research. Journals like OEM exist to promote the public health and good occupational and environmental health practice, of course; but they do so through the specialised medium of enabling the research community to exchange high quality information, new discoveries, and ideas in an accredited and peer-reviewed forum. There is an inherent and natural symbiosis here: many of our authors are readers and vice versa; and services to one group often represent services to the other. In a small specialty, close collaboration is both necessary and rewarding. Readers can expect to see further evidence of partnership working over the coming years.
Mark Tobin, former editor of the successful American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine has proposed several criteria for assessing the performance of a medical journal,2 including the number of manuscripts submitted per year, publication lag, and response times, the ability to embrace advances in technology, engagement with the readership and research community, care to ensure the integrity of the literature, and rigorous and fair processes for independent peer-review. By his challenging but well considered standards we are “moving usefully forwards”.
A progress report
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