Solution Corner

Moving to a Commercial ManuscriptTracking System

All editorial offices must track manuscripts as they come in, move through peer review, and make their way to publication. Depending on the volume of papers involved, that may require some basic ad hoc tracking procedures at one extreme to full-blown megafunctional commercial systems at the other. At some point, many societies or publishers that might have initially built their own tracking systems recognize that the need for maintenance and rapid development of new and more powerful capabilities requires retiring an old system and moving to an off-the-shelf solution. What has been your organization’s experience in dealing with the question of whether and when to make such a leap, and what are the pitfalls and payoffs of going with the status quo or making the decision to go with an outside tracking system?

The first two responses below discuss the motivation for moving to a commercial manuscript-tracking system, and the third goes into more detail about things to consider in making a selection and what should be expected with respect to the transition to an off-the-shelf system.

Every organization is different, but the migration from a rudimentary tracking system developed in house to a sophisticated commercial system is, generally speaking, a question not of “whether” but of “when”. For those making the switch, the timing of the move is critical, given that the transition will probably be challenging no matter which outside system is chosen.


In our case, the decision to move to an online-based manuscript-tracking system was made mainly to make reviewing papers easier for our peer reviewers. The reviewer receives an e-mail with the review request and a link to the site where the task can be either accepted or declined. An increase in manuscript volume also contributed to the decision, in that editors found mailing or e-mailing reviews too time consuming. Initially, much data entry and reviewer account setup needed to be done, but once that was completed, we found the application easy to use and straightforward.

I’ve been using this system for 5 years to manage articles for WOUNDS, a peerreviewed advanced–wound-care journal. WOUNDS has 40-plus peer-review board members and receives an average of 80 articles a year. The off-the-shelf system streamlines the peer-review process and is useful for compiling and tracking manuscript data (categories of submissions, reviewer turnaround times, numbers of manuscripts accepted and rejected, time to publication, and so on). The system pays for itself in the time it saves editors (and reviewers) and in the useful data and reports that it produces.

Michael McGovern
Managing Editor, WOUNDS
HMP Communications

The New England Journal of Medicine moved from a home-built online submission and peer-review system to a commercial system 2 years ago. Our previous system had been custom built in 1990 in a computer language that is no longer supported; it had been retrofitted several times and was held together with baling wire. We explored the possibility of building a new system to replace it, and in fact made one failed attempt, but eventually we decided to go with a commercial system.

The major advantage of commercial systems is that they come with many bells and whistles. The other good news is that you don’t control the system; someone else maintains the servers and worries about up-time and bug fixes.

The bad news is that you don’t control the system. You are at the mercy of someone else’s development path and someone else’s priorities. For journals with a lot of resources and with staff accustomed to having things they way they want them, it can be a difficult transition. For journals that cannot afford to build their own systems, a commercial system grants them access to others’ ideas and resources.

How much you will get out of one of these commercial systems will reflect the time, energy, and money you put into it. I’d encourage you to read the release notes each time to find out what the system will do (even when you already have it!) and to use them to solve your problems rather than create them. Even though we were moving from online system to online system, the transition was a wrench, particularly for our editors. Most of the time, we are happy with the decision we made.

Pam Miller
Assistant to Editor-in-Chief
New England Journal of Medicine

This is not an exhaustive list, but there are several things your publication(s) should be aware of as you migrate to an online manuscript-submission and peer-review system. First, determine how the system allows authors to register in the system and submit their manuscripts. Keep in mind that authors may submit manuscripts in different file formats and that most vendors offer systems that will convert manuscript files to PDF. There are numerous reasons to use PDF files for the versions seen by editors and reviewers, but one of the most important is that PDF readers can be obtained free whether you have a PC, love a Mac, or use Linux. Many manuscripts may be uploaded as Word documents, but Word is not free—something easily forgotten by those of us whose institutions or employers purchased the version that we use.

Be sure to determine whether the system accommodates your current workflow. Although it seems perfectly natural to those who’ve historically contributed to your peer-review process, often after years of experience with it, many publications have distinctive steps, such as use of multiple types of reviewers (including technical or statistical reviewers). Make certain that the system can accommodate your current workflow unless you are planning to evaluate all the steps in your workflow and possibly eliminate some. If you do end up changing your workflow, be prepared to say why you changed it, because users are likely to ask.

Find out in advance how technical someone in your office will need to be to administer the system. Some publications may not have multiple editorial-office staff and would prefer that a vendor configure the system for them. Others love the ability to turn features on and off. Just make sure that whoever is tasked with configuring the system or requesting changes understands that changes in settings may have unintended consequences from time to time. The administrator needs to be able to answer any questions spurred by configuration changes.

Make sure that you know how to acquire any reports you will need. Most online peer-review systems let you run a number of standard reports that are included with the system. If those won’t meet your needs, be sure that you know it far in advance of any deadline or editorial-board meeting at which you typically distribute such reporting.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for information from other publications or your editorial board. They are likely to have experience with a variety of online peerreview systems and can help you to determine what will best meet your needs.

Anna Jester
Product Manager
Allen Press, Inc