Inside the journal press office

3rd February 2019

By Alice Kay

Journal communications can sometimes seem like a bit of a different beast to other aspects of press work. At a recent event at the SMC, four experienced and brilliant journal press officers de-mystified their workplaces and walked Stempra members through the ins and outs of working with journals. We heard insights from Bex Walton (Springer Nature), Emma Dickinson (The BMJ), Beth Baker (PLOS), and Jodie Bell (Taylor & Francis), while Emily Head from The Lancet chaired.

A mammoth task

The four speakers first gave a quick run-through of the size, structure, and remit of their press teams. The main take-home point was: journal press officers have a lot on their plate! The Springer Nature team look after 3,000 journals across Nature Research, BMC, and Springer, Taylor & Francis publish 2,600 journals, The BMJ publishes 70 journals, and PLOS disseminate around 21,00 articles a year across their 7 journals. And of course, the topics within these different stables of journals can vary hugely. Not only that, but many of the press teams managing all of this content are not enormous — The BMJ have 2.5 people and Taylor & Francis have three press officers as part of a wider team.

All of the speakers emphasised that this means they have a mammoth task to sift through all the many papers, comment pieces, and editorials to find stories to promote. They report that their respective editors to help them spot newsworthy content, although the press team has the final say in whether something will be press released. Jodie even showcased some handy material that her team use to help explain the criteria for newsworthy stories to editors and authors. Editors can be a great support and source of advice for journal press teams, although some are more engaged than others.

Emma highlighted that The BMJ also works on bigger campaigns within the field, such as ‘big data’ or ‘too much medicine’. They also work with the BBC to conduct investigations, which can also end up being press released.

Better together

When it comes to working with institutional press officers, all of the panel were keen to work together wherever possible. Bex said that institutional press officers (and funders) are notified about Nature Research papers a week before publication, but if someone wants to find out about a paper earlier than that then it’s useful for them to include as much information in their enquiry as possible (such as DOI, title, and authors). The others all echoed that request. The other journals don’t all notify press officers automatically, but they do encourage authors to flag papers up to their institutions. Even if the journal decides not to press release a paper, they’re very happy for an institution to promote it instead (and not precious about who leads on the story!)

The panel did report that they have less direct involvement with authors extensively, and as they work with scientists from across the globe they rarely get to meet them. Nonetheless, they do like to provide the best service to their authors that they can.

Reputational risk

The panel also touched on the sorts of reputational issues they have to deal with, which mostly relate to the content they publish. At times they have to deal with paper retractions, issues of research integrity, or conflicts of interest. All reported that they have established processes and workflows in place, and get advice from editors and research integrity teams, and follow established ethics.

A question from the audience was whether the panel felt bombarded by enquiries from institutional press officers. All of the speakers urged people to get in touch if they wanted to find out about a paper. As Beth put it- there’s no such thing as over-communication! With the rate of publishing speeding up (PLOS is particularly speedy), it’s better to get in touch than not. Emily did advise the audience to check with their scientists what stage of publication a paper is at to prevent confusion.

Another question was about publishing dates and how much the press office knows about timing. Emma said that BMJ papers tend to get published between 2-3 weeks after acceptance, but that can be 6 weeks at times. Bex added that Nature Research papers tend to get a confirmed publication date 4-6 days in advance, but the press team may know a rough publication date earlier than that. Beth reported that PLOS has a rolling publication schedule but press released papers can be scheduled around a week in advance. The panel discussed having to balance the pressure to publish quickly (perhaps due to competition) while also providing a good service to authors including high-quality media coverage. Sometimes it’s best to be fast, but other times it’s worth being slower and having the time to plan a good media campaign.

Perks of the job

A final question asked what the panel found the most surprising thing about being a journal press officer. Emily chipped in and said she was always surprised by how much respect authors have for them, and how much they value the publication process. Bex added that, despite having to do certain things every week, no two weeks are ever the same. Beth said she loved how open and friendly other press officers are- despite technically being in competition with each other. She mentioned the recently established publishers’ press officers mailing group (affectionately called POP) that then panel and others are involved in. It’s also great to see the impact of the papers they publish, especially when they get global pick-up.

A huge thank you to the four speakers who shared so many insights into being a journal press officer.

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