1 March 2018

Dr Mike Whitfield, Development Coordinator at New Phytologist, invited a group of Lancaster University plant scientists to give their views of what makes a journal work for researchers

It's 2018 and traditional academic publishers are facing the challenge of staying relevant as new ways of communicating research emerge. But what can academic journals do for researchers?

This was the question posed by representatives of New Phytologist, one of the Lancaster Environment Centre's resident journals, at a focus group held earlier this year.

Together with Sarah Lennon (Executive Editor), and Adam Wheeler (Publisher) and Cathy Greig (Marketer) from Wiley, I invited researchers from the Lancaster Environment Centre to help us find out how we could make our journal work better for them.

Over lunch we posed a couple of starter questions. What are the key challenges to research in plant science over the next 5–10 years? What are the most important factors that researchers take into account when engaging with journals? Quiet descended as our participants pondered their answers, writing them on post-it notes.

When time was up, one of the walls of the room was covered in a leafy riot of suggestions on coloured paper. After taking a few minutes to cluster the suggestions into groups, we invited the participants to vote for those that they thought were most important.

What are the key challenges for plant science research?

The group agreed that the public's perception of researchers was really important: that we need to make it easier for the public to relate to scientists, and to communicate plant science research to a range of audiences in engaging ways. We also agreed that we need to make research easier to digest for policy makers.

Career prospects and progression was also raised as an important issue, especially for early career researchers. We all agreed that we needed to continue to push for equality of access and representation for all groups: at New Phytologist we are focussing on doing more to support early career researchers, women and researchers from developing countries.

What's important for researchers when engaging with journals?

Some key themes emerged from the discussion about how researchers engage with journals and how to improve the experience. Top of the wish list was removing barriers to publication, such as particular rules on formatting and style. Also important to our participants was access to research – through open access programmes and pre-prints – and empowering further research by making research data easier to discover and re-use.  They thought the process takes too long, and wanted speedier publication. They were also concerned about bias in publishing – both towards 'positive' results, and towards particular genders or groups.

What can journals do to help?

This was my first time running a focus group using the post-it* note technique (thanks, Adam Wheeler, for the method!). I found the process both interesting and helpful. Once all of our ideas were clustered and voted on, the conversations we had with the researchers were incredibly valuable and will prove to be very useful for the team at New Phytologist and at Wiley.

New Phytologist is owned by a not-for-profit organisation, The New Phytologist Trust. Our mission is to further and promote plant science, so the ideas that germinated in the focus group will grow directly into our strategy.

What will we be doing at New Phytologist? As Development Coordinator, I'm always looking for new ideas and it's usually my job to turn these into reality. We are very pleased to exist in symbiosis with the Lancaster Environment Centre, and I'm looking forward to doing more to help promote plant science research and its communication, both within the University and to wider audiences.

Let’s get better and better

We're also continually looking at ways to improve the experience of publishing for researchers. We'll be working on many of the suggestions from this focus group over the coming months, including promoting our long-standing co-reviewing programme by early career researchers, and making research data more accessible. We also want to make research itself more accessible and are working on several exciting projects, including video abstracts, visual summaries, and more (that I can't reveal just yet!).

Most importantly, we're continuing to push to ensure that all groups are represented in all aspects of our publications, in the meetings that we hold, and in the prizes that we award to support plant science.

It's a challenging time for publishers, but it's also an exciting time. We're embracing innovation at New Phytologist and are pleased that we can do more to promote plant science and plant scientists as part of our relationship with the Lancaster Environment Centre. Thank you to everyone who attended our focus group!


*   Other self-adhesive note-taking tools are available


The opinions expressed by our bloggers and those providing comments are personal, and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lancaster University. Responsibility for the accuracy of any of the information contained within blog posts belongs to the blogger.