From submission to sharing: the life cycle of an article

Understand the different steps of the publication process by following an article through its life cycle

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When an author decides to submit a manuscript forpublication, that manuscript begins its life cycle, going through many phasesas it is checked, refined and adjusted. Here we follow an article through itslife cycle, to understand the different steps of the publication process andsee how they contribute to ensuring an article is scientifically rigorous andaccurately presented.

Phase 1: Conceptionand birth

The article is conceived in the author’s lab book, but itreally comes to life once the author has written the manuscript. The fledglingarticle has been read by co-authors and supervisors, and it has been tweaked,checked and double-checked ready for submission.

The author has chosen a home for the article – the targetjournal – and checked the Guide for Authors to make sure the article is in thecorrect format. For many journals, Elsevier enables authors to submit in theirchosen format through the Your Paper Your Way program, which means specific formatting isn’t needed untilthe article has been accepted. For most, though, requirements like linenumbering and file format determine what the article looks like at submission.

The author will also check to see which contentinnovations are available for the article – enrichments that give thereader better insight into the research, such as the 3Dmolecular viewer, interactivemaps and AudioSlides.

Phase 2: Submission

The article leaves the author and begins its development inthe journals submission system – home to more than a million articles a year. Thearticle will soon be picked up and assessed by an editor and then the lifecycle splits: the article may go back to the author, or move on to reviewers.

If the editor determines that the article is unsuitable forpublication, the article will go back to the author with a rejection letter,suggestions for major changes, or an offer to submit to an alternative journal.The criteria depend on the journal, but scope and quality are two keyrequirements. If the journal is part of Elsevier’s ArticleTransfer Service, the editor may suggest that the submission be transferredto another, more suitable journal. If the author chooses to transfer thesubmission, this submission phase of the life cycle will restart.

If the editor thinks the article is suitable for thejournal, and is of high enough quality, the article will move on to the nextphase of its life cycle.

Phase 3: Reviewers

The editor sends the article to peer reviewers, who read itcarefully, ask questions and suggest adjustments. With 200,000 refereeschecking submissions, there are around 1 million referee reports sent toElsevier every year.

We also have a lot of peer review experiments going on atElsevier. One of the pilots enables reviewers to discuss a paper with eachother before they submit their reports. This helps reviewers align theirfeedback, making the decision of whether to publish easier for the editor. Inanother pilot, submitted abstracts are published before peer review andacceptance on the journal homepage of participating journals, such as Atmospheric Environment, profilingthe authors and their work.

The peer review phase of the article’s life cycle is effectively the certification process, ensuringthe article is suitable for the journal it’s heading for, and that it’sscientifically sound. In their review reports, reviewers make one of fourrecommendations to the editor:

  • Accept without revisions (rare)
  • Request minor revisions (such as adjusting tables and figures, rewriting sections)
  • Request major revisions (could involve repeating experiments)
  • Reject

Once the article has been assessed, it goes back to theauthors to adjust, or submit to a different journal: the article eitherrestarts the peer review phase, or returns to the submission phase. Assuming itcontinues on its cycle, the article is updated and is now in a state ofnear-completion. It has been checked, tweaked and checked, and is ready forpublication.

Elsevier publishingin numbers

  • 350,000+ articles published every year
  • 10 million researchers listed as authors
  • 4,500+ institutions represented
  • 180+ countries represented
  • 700 million+ downloads per year
  • 3 million print pages per year

Phase 4: Productionand publication

The article has been accepted in its target journal, and itnow enters the production phase, during which its appearance will changeconsiderably. The editor’s job is complete, and the journal manager takes overthe reins to guide the article through its transformation.

The first step is for the article to be converted into thejournal’s specific layout. Typesetters transfer the text, tables, figures,links and references into the new layout, and stamp it with a CrossMark – an identificationthat shows readers whether they are looking at the most recent version of thearticle.

Next comes the proofing process: traditionally, this hasbeen a source of delays in an article’s life cycle, so Elsevier has beenworking on several projects to make the proofing process more efficient andeasier for authors. Proof Central is a system that lets authors check their articles and correctmistakes directly in the text, instead of having to mark up a PDF. Automatingthe approvals process and enabling this direct interaction shortens this phaseof the life cycle dramatically.

While the article is with the author for a final check, thejournal manager assigns it to an issue of the journal and it’s uploaded to ScienceDirect. In its current format, thearticle is an accepted manuscript andit’s available in the articles in press section of the journal’s ScienceDirectsite, complete with DOI. If the journal has an article-basedpublishing (ABP) process in place, the article is put directly into thenext available issue in progress. This will be its home for the rest of itslife. If the journal doesn’t yet use ABP, the article will wait in the articlesin press area – a sort of waiting room – until it’s time to compile the issue.

The article has been checked by the author and it’s free oftypos, full of interactive links and ready to enter the next phase. Our articleis now in its permanent home online, fully citable, with a DOI and pagenumbers.

Phase 5: Disseminationand archiving

The article is published, but its life cycle isn’t yetcomplete. In this phase, dissemination can start; sharing the Share Linksarticle helpsincrease readership and make it more visible. The article is assigned a ShareLink: a direct link that provides 50 days’ free access. The author canshare this link via email and on social media, and encourage colleagues, peersand other contacts to read the article.

An earlier version of the article – the accepted manuscript– is also available on the author’s institutional website and on Mendeley.Through green open access, authors can share accepted manuscripts on academicsites for research and educational purposes.

The article is also archived at this stage. Occasionally,articles need to be corrected if a mistake slips through the proofing netduring the production phase (we’re all human, after all). Since the article isarchived and has a permanent home, any corrections that need to be made throughcorrigenda and errata, for example, can be linked to the article easily.

It’s also vital to make sure the article is available inperpetuity: archiving is very important for the scientific record. Archivingmeans that researchers can look back at the article for information long intothe future; it’s still possible to find the original The Lancet paper describing Alzheimer’s disease from 1950.


Author biography

Following his PhD in Molecular Immunology at the Central Laboratory of the Netherlands Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service (now Sanquin), Dr. Floris de Hon did a science journalism course and worked with Excerpta Medica, a medical communication company once owned by Elsevier. Floris joined Elsevier in 2003. In his current role as Publishing Director, Applied Biosciences, he is responsible for an international team managing more than 120 peer-reviewed scientific journals, various conferences and other information solutions. Floris is the project lead for Atlas, an idea he developed with various colleagues during multiple high-impact content workshops.

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