How a surgeon modernized a 150-year-old veterinary journal

A conversation between JAVMA's latest editor and a veteran researcher

January 4, 2024 (published)
By Mark Rishniw

Cornell University photo
When asked by a scientific journal publisher to update her LinkedIn profile to include her editorial work, Dr. Lisa Fortier, a professor of surgery at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, complied, also posting what she calls "one of those classic surgeon shots with your bicep rolled up and your big watch showing."

The nitty-gritty of publishing scientific research is fairly obscure and certainly arcane — known well by only a small subset of people.

The public's contact with research usually is through headlines in the popular media. Those who read journals regularly, such as clinicians and others in the medical community, might have a deeper understanding of the process. Researchers who submit papers and serve as peer reviewers probably know it best, aside from the people who work on the publications themselves.

As a researcher who's co-authored hundreds of papers over the years and reviewed an equal number, I have distinct opinions about what makes a journal good to work with. For example, rapid time from acceptance to first appearance online; stewardship of both reviewers and authors, with careful attention paid by the editors to helping authors get their manuscripts published; and, ideally, rapid but comprehensive and constructive reviews.

In the past couple of years, the flagship journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, JAVMA, and its sister publication, the American Journal of Veterinary Research (AJVR), have undergone what I consider a pretty phenomenal change in their look and process. It all happened when Dr. Lisa Fortier took over as editor-in-chief.

Fortier is a professor of surgery at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Full disclosure: I'm an adjunct associate professor at Cornell and have known Fortier as a colleague for 25 years.

Fascinated by what she's accomplished at the journals, I asked her to meet me for coffee over the holidays to talk about how she made improvements in short order.

Here's our conversation, edited for style, clarity and length. Listen to the full interview here.

What inspired you to apply for this position, given that you were comfortably ensconced at Cornell?

Our veterinary profession is amazing and allows for all these cool alternate careers. Like you, Mark, I've authored a fair number of papers, and the scientific process of writing is really fun.

When I was president of the International Cartilage Repair Society, we started our first journal. Later, we at that group, like many groups, wanted to launch an open access journal. The society — I was long out of the presidential line at this time — asked me if I would be the editor. I got to design it from the bottom up: Do I want a scientific review board, editor board, social media editor? I got to write the instructions for authors. It was just super, super fun.

Elsevier [the publisher] said to me, "You have to update your LinkedIn profile" — which was still all Cornell —"because there's so many open access journals, it's hard for people to know if they're real."


I said, "OK," and I took one of those classic surgeon shots with your bicep rolled up and your big watch showing, and updated my profile.

Within a week, the AVMA headhunter asked me to apply for the AVMA position. This is in 2020 in the middle of Covid. I had kids at home. I was like, "I'm not moving to Chicago or D.C." And they're like, "No, no, no, it could be remote. Please apply."

I went to our dean, Lorin Warnick, and I said, "What do you think about this?" And he says what an honor it would be and how the journals could really use a refreshening. So I applied, got the job, and the AVMA gave me free rein to be a change agent.

Since you've been on board, we've seen multiple changes, such as a very updated website and the immediate appearance of journal articles in PubMed and ePub ahead of print. How did you implement them? Did you change staff?

I looked at it from an author and a readership lens. The AVMA previously was looking at it from a consistency basis. They wanted JAVMA to be super consistent across the board. You and I knew how important it was to get your stuff out there on ePub ahead of print and the website. They had already gotten approval for that when I was hired, and they just had started design on the website. So when I stuck my foot in there, I was like, "Wait, we have ePub ahead of print, right?" And they kept saying "It's capable of it."

I finally picked up the phone and called the person who was in charge of the redesign of the website — non-AVMA, an external group — and I was like, "Are we doing this or not?" And they said, "It's not in the remit." I was like, "Can I get a remit? I don't care what it costs — this has to happen."

But the first thing [that needed to be considered] is, what's our mission? We want to be the voice of veterinary medicine, right? So I pulled the whole team in, and I was like, "Do we agree on the mission? If you can't get on board to reach the mission, then you need to find someplace else to go."

There was huge over-editing. The editors thought they were doing the right thing by rewriting much of someone's manuscript. When I said, "We're not going to do that anymore," several people quit. They loved editing manuscripts; it was their passion.

To replace people thoughtfully, we sat back for a little while and thought, what do we really need here? We needed social media. So now we have Sarah Wright, who is also an associate editor, [and] does all of our social media or podcast edits or podcasts. And she's super refreshing. So that's the kind of thing we've been doing.

One thing I've noticed, especially with the last paper that we submitted from a group here, is that reviews come back within three weeks, which is unprecedented in the veterinary world, at least in my experience. How do you accomplish that?

Doesn't matter if you're Nature or Science or JAVMA, I think it is the hardest thing to get a reviewer, one, to commit; two, to get a review back; and three, to give a quality review. So we did a few things. Within Manuscript Central, which is our submission portal, we made everything automated: "Dear Dr. Rishniw, we invite you to review this manuscript." You don't reply, I send you, automated, another one in two days. You don't reply, I uninvite you. Then I go in and invite more people.

At any time, there are at least 70 to 80 manuscripts out somewhere. Reviewers get automated reminders: "Your review's due in 14 days. Your review's due in seven days. Now your review's overdue."

Another thing is, we are training five student reviewers and three student associate editors. We're training and engaging the next group of reviewers.

We have a scientific review board — that you serve on now, after I coerced you into it — and those folks are expected to review up to six manuscripts a year. In exchange, we waive open access fees for those authors. We offer AVMA continuing education credits, which is important to a lot of people. [The review] has to be on time and relevant. We do score all the reviews.

How did you change the time from acceptance to first appearance? That was a two-year wait in some cases with JAVMA previously.

I brought the whole division in, and we had a two-day meeting. We used a wraparound whiteboard. I was like, "OK, from submission to online ahead-of-print is ..." Our goal was 180 days. But we're at under 100 consistently now. I'd be happy if we're at 150 to 180 days. We're like, "OK, how many days realistically for the reviewer? How many days for first revision?"

Then we found little things. After we do layout, [the pages] go to a typesetter somewhere, in-the-cloud sort of thing. We were batching them to go to the typesetter once a week. I said, "Why don't we send them every day?"

Even things like "How do you collect the open access fee? Copyright forms? How do you get those out?" You can't publish it until I have your signed copyright form. How do we get that to the person faster? Now we use DocuSign [rather than] email it and then run around and get everybody [to sign].

Photo by Maya Gasuk
Dr. Mark Rishniw, hanging out with his dog Yarra, has hundreds of published scientific papers to his name and is a regular peer reviewer. Over the years, he has formed distinct opinions about what makes a research journal good to work with.

The whole team was really engaged. That really helped change the culture. Everybody had something to add to make the process [better], and we still refine it all the time.

It seems that the journal is not in the business, at least that I can see, of chasing the impact factor, which is a standard metric for journal quality, whether you agree with it or not. Is that true? And if so, what metrics do you prefer?

Impact factor is tough. Like, we have corn snake chemotherapy manuscripts, which are important for corn snakes but probably not going to be highly referenced, which is how you get a higher impact factor. It's how many times your articles are referenced. So, rather than impact factor, we've started looking at Altmetric scores. Altmetric measures engagement: How many people come to your website? What are the news hits? What are the social media hits? An impact factor also lags behind by 2½ years, and so does h index — we've looked at that, as well.

Do you think that that might impact submissions from authors, especially if their merit increases and promotions are based on impact factor or h index?

Yes, those things can affect it, for sure.

Open access is the current publishing standard for scientific journals. But as you are likely acutely aware, funding for open access veterinary journals is limited. Do you see any models that minimize the cost for veterinary researchers? For example, Canadian Veterinary Journal has a six-month embargo on their articles. Or could you look at institutional or society sponsorship of the journal so that it's free to publish in and free to read?

That's tough, because the Canadian Veterinary Journal and JAVMA are member benefits. Part of your membership fee goes to us publishing these journals. What we've done, it's not six months but it's 12 months in JAVMA — the article is set free after 12 months. If you did not publish open access, you signed a copyright. The AVMA still owns the copyright, but we set it freely available. Anybody can download it. That helps not just the author, it helps our patients. And that should ultimately help our impact factor and h index, as well.

We're also trying to archive past journals. JAVMA and AJVR were online since 2000 only. JAVMA is 150 years old. I looked at the cost of digitizing everything from JAVMA. It was half a million dollars. It's not just photocopying, there's XML formatting, then you have to get it on the website and get it into PubMed and all that stuff. We had a library task force looking at digitization. These librarians — who were from Cornell, Texas Tech, University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Davis, fabulous librarians — helped us write our January 2024 editorial about digitization.

We went to the HathiTrust and first said to them, "All of our past content can be CC0," which means it's public domain, like newspapers. Anybody can get our past content through the HathiTrust. It's a little bit of a somersault to get there, but everybody has access.

Then we asked the librarians to give us the evidence of what manuscripts are requested through their libraries. And as you might imagine, it's [material from the] 1990s, '80s and '70s. We've already digitized the 1990s in JAVMA, and AJVR is halfway done. And then we're going to go into the '80s and '70s.

It's not worth the money or the human effort to do [the whole collection]. From the '60s, there were, like, two manuscripts requested in the past, like, three years. [Someone] can still write to the AVMA and ask for those [older materials].

Where do you see the AVMA journals headed in 2024?

Artificial intelligence is a real challenge. We have an artificial intelligence policy, but AI changes every day. So we need to update our artificial intelligence policy at least quarterly: What can authors do? Reviewers? Like, the National Institutes of Health came out and said, "You cannot use artificial intelligence for reviewing." Because if you put somebody else's manuscript into the AI, now AI can claim that copyright. It's really a crazy, moving field.

We're also trying to get into more digital manuscripts. We're calling them technical tutorial videos. For example, we have one on double catheter technique for small cats. I can envision simple things like phlebotomy in a rabbit. Things that you might not have seen as a student, or might have seen when your classmate did it but you didn't get to do it.

More and more journals are going to online-only. Do you see JAVMA going that way?

When we converted AJVR to open access only, and when we went from two issues a month to one, only five people reached out to me and said, "I don't want a paper journal." There's something about scanning through the whole thing. If it's online only, you're going to cherry-pick just those manuscripts that you want to read. People still like to peruse the issue. And then we can talk [in the issue] about other things that the AVMA are doing for diversity, equity and inclusion, continuing education, advocacy on Capitol Hill and those sorts of things. So it's really a great way to let everybody know what the association is doing.

Mark Rishniw, BVSc, MS, PhD, is board-certified in veterinary cardiology and internal medicine. In addition to his position at Cornell, he is director of research and a cardiology consultant at the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. Mark lives with his wife, Maya, and their Labrador retriever, Yarra, in Ithaca, New York.

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