Manuscript Central Software Review

An editor asked me for my thoughts on Blackwell-Wiley's Manuscript Central, so I decided to put my thoughts out for everyone to see. I've used three programs to edit journals: Editorial Assistant, Editorial Express and Manuscript Central. I like Editorial Express the best, by a good margin. Manuscript Central has lots of quirks, where the way you would expect the program to work isn't how it actually works. Not all of the quirks are listed below because expectations are in the eye of the expecter, just the ones I think are objectively flawed because they take a lot of clicks or repeat actions or don't default to the most common case.

Summary: I hate manuscript central. The Association initiated the switch from Editorial Express to Manuscript Central before I became the editor, so I had the horror of using both side by side. EE is much better, in my assessment, as editorial software. MC of course comes with other Blackwell services like printing the journal, which is why the association switched. MC has *lots* of problems. I identified all of the usability problems listed below and a year later *none* are fixed. The response was of the form "you can accomplish what you want to accomplish." Yes, perhaps you can, but it takes a much longer time than it ought to, the design encourages mistakes, and many of my co-editors required help to accomplish basic things. I’ve given up trying to get the program improved. Even very basic things – co-editor specific form letters – are impossible and MC is non-responsive to the journal's needs. If you don’t need other Blackwell services, I’d recommend EE in a second.

Since I am both an editor and a co-editor, I get several letters every time I assign a manuscript to myself, informing me of the fact that I assigned a manuscript to myself. This could be the basis of a delightful Catch-22 style novel.

Specific Complaints

Referee requests should provide a link to the manuscript that is reachable without accepting the invitation.

In MC, the referee will only be able to access the manuscript after he/she has agreed to do the review. One possible suggestion is including a tag in the email template that will populate the abstract text so that the potential reviewer will get a sense of what the topic of the paper is before they agree to review it.

This needs to be fixed urgently. The abstract is not enough. The convention in economics is that referees see papers before agreeing to referee; we get a lot of complaints about this. We get delays while potential referees write and ask for papers which I have to send manually. Editorial Express sends the papers.

Decision letters don't attach referee reports that are in pdf form

Attaching them manually is a time waste and risks error since there is no uniform naming system (e.g. can't always tell a report from a letter to the editor). Anything designated "for authors" should attach automatically.

No List of Manuscripts Needing Attention

Need a way of seeing a list of manuscripts which have received a report in the last x days (where x is settable, e.g. last week, last month). I often want to review manuscripts that have received a report since the last time I looked at the manuscript. What I would like to see is “what should we look at.” That is (i) overdue manuscripts, (ii) manuscripts that have new correspondence. MC covers (i) but not (ii). The reports in MC take too long, aren't on point, and then are in the wrong place – once I find the MS that needs attention on a report I have to go back to MC. This doesn’t conserve on my time.

Form letters should be editable and tied to individual co-editors.

There is a journal-level pool of form letters; form letters are not co-editor specific. It is idiotic that Yoram's form letter - for humor submissions - is the default for everyone. It takes three clicks to change it; I send the wrong request about 5% of the time, requiring me to write an apology and then send the right one. New co-editors are totally befuddled.

A "quickstart" guide for new co-editors using the software that answers frequently asked questions.

There is no reference for co-editors and the document that does exist is much too long to be useful.

A better way to assign referees.

As it stands, if I search and the person I seek isn't there, I have to then enter the same information I entered in the search again to create the person in the database. This should be unified in one search/create screen. That is, I enter say, a surname, and it shows a list of all the people with that surname. If I select one, it should show me their history with EI immediately. On the same screen I should also have the option to enter a new person, with first name and email if none of the choices is the person I seek.

I search for Joe Smith and there isn’t one. So I have to re-enter Joe Smith and joesmith@yahoo.com in the enter a new person box. I don’t want to re-enter Joe’s name; I want that automatically populated based on my search. That is, I want search/enter a new person unified. Since almost no one is in our database (why wasn’t the existing referee database imported?) search usually doesn’t work so I don’t bother to search. When the person is in the database, I have the option of using their existing record (which I do) but then I don’t get the history of that user. Do I need to explain that the point of computers is to reduce the amount of repetitive activities we do? Why should I have to retype/cut and paste the name twice? (Editorial Express, because it has the entire SSRN database, doesn’t have this problem.)

I have created dozens of false duplicates because I enter a name and email and it bounces. I then find that was an old email address and want to fix it, but can't so instead I create a new entry. As a result we are creating a useless database, full of errors. The old system, EE, is coordinated with SSRN and hence kept up to date, and has almost everyone in it. When this happens, I go to remove the dead referee, which generates an email. I've found I can just delete the name but there ought to be an entry "Remove a referee with a bad email address" that removes them from the database and doesn't generate a letter, and gives the option of creating a revised entry.

Default ordering of manuscript lists, assigning referees

When lists of manuscripts are opened, they should show "oldest to newest," rather than as they do now, newest to oldest, since generally it is the older manuscripts that need attention.

When I assign referees and go to my next pending manuscript, it doesn't open the "assign referees" tab. It should.

No "make a decision" button

It is very counter-intuitive that the way one gets to the "make a decision" screen when not all the reviews have arrived is to change the number of reviewers to the number already reported, and then press save (changing the number and hitting enter doesn't work as it should). There should be a "Make a decision" button that changes the number of reviewers to the number already present and switches to the decision screen, without sending an email that says "all reviews are in." Since we are rejecting some (10%?) with no reviews, we generate a lot of letters that say "All reviews are in" on manuscripts with no reviews. In addition, the form letter created should detect the absence of reviews and not mention reviews.

Goofy letters

Besides the editor writing himself, there are these idiotic letters generated because cases weren’t considered; instead of sending a letter that all reviews are in when the number of reviews >= number needed, the software should also check whether that number is zero. When I set the number of reviews needed to zero, I don't need a letter saying "All reviews are in." (You may detect a theme: Spamuscript Central.)

Alerting referees they are being considered

Generally when I assign referees I identify 6-8 choices and enter them, but only send letters to 3-4 right away. The system sends emails that say "you have been entered into the database" when I enter the referee into the system, even if I don't request a report. These people don't need to know I entered them into the database; wait until the request goes out. The point here is that refereeing ought to involve one email that has all the relevant information: how to see the paper, how to file a report, how to login to the referee center. And nothing should go to a new referee until a request goes out.

Slow, especially internationally

MC is very slow. It times out a lot. If you do what all of us do, and click again to see if it didn't get the request you will recieve a snotty "Please wait for the page to load!" popup. The problem with this snotty response is that it takes a long time in the US and a *really* long time in the third world. I had assumed this was because the servers are in the UK but it takes a long time in London, too. Bad service. In the third world, often the program will time out before the page loads, which often means starting over.

Co-Editor Manuscript Access

When entering names, I generally cut and paste, which often picks up trailing spaces; MC should eliminate trailing spaces but doesn't. Often my letters say "Dear Professor Smith ;"

Co-Editors lose access to manuscripts when decisions made

Co-Editors should continue to have access to files after a decision is made for a year. Co-editors occasionally get questions from authors.

Editor Specific issues

The "batch assign co-editors" screen should show the topics of each manuscript.

The system generates a lot of letters to editor Preston McAfee saying co-editor Preston McAfee has recommended a decision. These could be intercepted and stopped.

March 19, 2010: Today a helpful sign popped up:

Special Tip - Did you know that working on two manuscripts at the same time by using more than one tab or more than one browser can cause information to inaccurately transfer between the two? To keep this from happening, we recommend working on only one manuscript at a time.

So basically this means they can't even make tabs work right and three years later are just recognizing it. What is simply idiotic about this is that, because MC records a revised manuscript as a new manuscript, you can't look at the previous round while you work on the current round. It was klugy before, but this is worse.

Preston McAfee, May 2009.