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Utilising WeChat to improve peer review communication in China

By understanding how Chinese authors want to be communicated with, an integrated and automated publisher platform was developed to improve communication delivery and increase inclusivity.
Published onNov 15, 2022
Utilising WeChat to improve peer review communication in China


Western editorial management systems and processes are built around the English language and Western technology experience. China comprised 17% of the global published output in 2021,1 yet there is a mismatch between STM workflows and processes that have not been designed with Chinese users in mind. Journal submission systems use email as the primary form of communication, which is culturally at odds with the Chinese digitally mobile community. China has a unique social media ecosystem with influential home-grown channels of communication. Communication via Chinese super apps, like WeChat, is more than simply building a social media strategy in China — it’s about publisher inclusivity and publishers communicating more effectively with their author communities.

In this article, Charlesworth shares their experience in creating a software solution for publishers and their Chinese authors. Gateway is a plug-in tool that allows publishers to integrate their submission systems with their WeChat channel, either via a mini-program or direct within their WeChat channel. Gateway has been developed to improve the Chinese author communication and publishing experience by sending automated unique short notifications in Chinese to the author throughout the submission process via this dominant social media app. This article will explore how early adopters of the solution have seen positive benefits to their workflows and author communication strategies. Through a process of engaging with authors and clients to refine the product over time, Charleworth has created a configurable service that supports a publisher to create a more personal, branded experience for authors in China.

The Peer Review Process Problem: Listening to Chinese Authors

China comprised 17% of the global published output in 20211 and now publishes the largest number of articles in the world in multiple fields. Most of China’s article output is published in English in international journals.

Charleworth operates a Chinese manuscript submission e-commerce website, and has a China-based customer service team dedicated to authors in this region. We provide academic language editing solutions to researchers worldwide, with the largest market for this product being China. We developed a bespoke Author Submission Tool (AST), which is a manuscript submission system specifically designed to work in and outside of China.

To improve understanding of customer satisfaction and pain points within our own AST submission system, we leverage the direct relationships we have with Chinese authors that are using Charleworth’s editing services. By establishing a formal framework for user feedback, we have been able to inform the marketing and consultancy services that we offer to international STM publisher clients in China. We regularly conduct semi-structured interviews with a dedicated panel of authors, taken from a cross section of our author base, to explore the different pain points in the STM publishing workflow.

Our Chinese author panel have highlighted the following key issues when submitting to Western systems:

  • The Chinese firewall creates issues in load time when using a Western submission platform.

  • Journal submission instructions and the submission journey can be difficult to follow, as each journal can have different requirements.

  • Logging in to a Western system can be challenging owing to language difficulties.

  • Communication is via email or requires the author to log in to the submission system.

  • Automated emails are easily missed.

  • An editorial office does not necessarily provide a rapid response when asked for an update on the status of a paper.

Within our own manuscript submission system, we have specifically addressed some of these issues. For example, we use China-based technology that helps to avoid issues of speed created by the Chinese firewall, and we engage authors via WeChat — in addition to email — to avoid communication problems. When advising our publisher clients, we also look to unpack the communication point with them, so that authors have local language support resources available to them before they submit. We have been able to offer a powerful communication solution for STM publishers through development of the Gateway.

Improving Author Communication via the WeChat App

One of the predominant pain points identified by authors in China is the lack of adequate communication from journals. On the reverse side of this, we see email open rates from different publishers, and these demonstrate that emails do not get the same level of engagement in China as they would in other regions of the world.

The Deloitte 2018 China Mobile Consumer Survey2 illustrated that the evidence we see is a more general trend within China. Email is not the dominant form of communication in China that it is globally. The Chinese check their emails 22% less often compared with global users. Part of this is historical; in the West, the internet started as a desktop form before smartphones became the tool they are today, while the smartphone and mass internet connection arrived together in China. Chinese users interact daily with fast data on their personal mobile devices and email is not the principal means of communication.

WeChat is a super app that offers the functionality of all the major Western apps in one environment. It is the dominant app in China, with 1.288 billion monthly active users spending an average of 82 minutes per day on the app. The aim is to keep the user in the app for as long as possible and includes:

  • WeChat pay

  • E-commerce

  • Messages

  • Mini-programs, e.g., gaming apps

  • Video calls, photo sharing

Western social media channels are not blocked in China; however, the channels do have to submit to state censorship to operate in the territory. Consequently, Western publishers need to engage with China’s home-grown social media ecosystem. WeChat presents a tremendous opportunity for publishers to grow their brand by communicating with Chinese academics through their personal mobile devices. Additionally, in China there are over one million mini-programs with 200 million daily users that STM publishers can tap into through development of their own official publisher mini-programs.3

Gateway can seamlessly integrate a manuscript and peer review submission system with a publisher’s WeChat account. It was developed through a collaborative approach with authors in China, aiming to improve the efficiency of the peer review process, increase the communication satisfaction levels of authors in China, and provide publishers with a powerful channel through which to engage their authors and reviewers during and after the peer review process. Gateway improves the author experience by facilitating speedy communication between editors and authors/reviewers direct to the author’s personal mobile device, creating a 24/7 two-way conversation. This integration negates the need for email and introduces efficiencies and cost savings into publisher workflows by reducing customer service time in dealing with author queries. 

Illustration 1: Depiction of the data flow from the publisher/third-party submission system, through the Chinese firewall and direct to the end-user WeChat account. Gateway delivers notifications to the author either via a WeChat mini-program or direct into the publisher’s WeChat channel.

Early STM Publisher Adopters

Dove Medical Press Ltd

Dove Medical Press Ltd was the first Gateway adopter in 2018 with the integration of their proprietary manuscript submission system.4 Over 52% of all Dove submissions are from Chinese academics. By using WeChat to communicate with their authors, Dove observed increases in author satisfaction levels and returnees, and current authors became advocates for Dove.

Additional direct benefits include workflow and customer service efficiencies. Authors can ‘opt-in’ to receive notifications about their submitted article in WeChat or can self-check; thus, authors know their article’s status at every step of the submission journey. Customer service efficiencies. By handling enquiries directly through a chatbot in the WeChat environment, authors can self-check their paper status 24/7 within WeChat. The bot now handles 2,500+ monthly enquiries from authors regarding their paper status, reducing the workload for Dove editors and customer services staff. In general, these bot-based messages are automated out of the publisher’s manuscript submission system and sent to the author to share tailored messages about their submission and peer review process.

IOP Publishing

IOP implemented their proprietary manuscript submission system, Track My Article, in 2020. IOP’s implementation goal was to ensure uninterrupted effective communication throughout the entire publishing process for all IOP’s Chinese authors. IOP recognised that these authors need swift, efficient, and suitable communication for article publishing status updates. Since implementation, IOP have seen a 25% increase in followers to their WeChat account and received 20,500+ self-service author paper checks in the first five months.5 A post-launch author survey provided overwhelmingly positive feedback. IOP have also experienced other benefits including an increase in the number of followers to their official WeChat account, growth in submissions from China, and growth in user community of publisher content (authors, reviewers, editors).

Taylor & Francis Ltd

As part of a significant investment by Taylor & Francis into publishing systems and processes, the publisher completed integration of their proprietary manuscript submission system with Gateway via a mini-program solution in 2022. To enhance the communication needs of all their Chinese researchers, over 1,000 Taylor & Francis journals were activated for the Gateway service on launch. This is in line with the approach taken by Dove Press, who also opted to include all their journals. Delivering status notifications via a mini-program solution now allows Taylor & Francis to develop additional functions within the mini-program in the future to further enhance the author experience.6

In Summary

The fact that China now produces 17% of the global published output should act as a flag to Western publishers that they need to reach a deeper understanding of the pain points for Chinese authors when using Western submission systems. For Charlesworth Gateway, and publisher adopters of the Gateway, the identified starting point was provision of a seamless author-centric workflow that delivered an enriched author experience throughout the process. By understanding how our Chinese authors want to be communicated with, Gateway was developed to improve communication delivery and increase inclusivity and author satisfaction levels. In 2020, Aries Editorial Manager was the first major third-party submission system to be integrated with Gateway, enabling authors to access Editorial Manager paper status updates via WeChat accounts of participating publishers.7

By improving the delivery of communication to their author and reviewer communities through the Gateway software solution, publishers have seen additional gains in the form of workflow efficiencies, with reduced demand on the journal team and customer service support. Paper status notifications delivered through rich content mini-programs have allowed publishers to tailor the author experience of their product. All publisher adopters of Gateway have experienced WeChat community growth—a vital activity for brand build in the region—through referrals, increased followers, and content sharing. The resulting follower usage and interaction data from this communication channel is also helping to inform publishers’ China market strategies.

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